The Tail of Rats to Riches
Our story begins in June 2017. Back then, Eugene (our founder, who is also the one penning this down, and shall be referred to as ‘I’ for the rest of this story) was in his first year of university (The University of Manchester) and was volunteering with a society called Enactus. Enactus is a global social enterprise organization that grows and supports student-led projects. I volunteered with one such project, where we taught finance to secondary school kids in the local community.
Come June, the project was not doing very well; in a bid to expand, we took on 9 classes of kids, spread across 2 schools. Previously, we only taught in 2 classes, so this was quite the step up. Taking on more than we could handle, the project started to crumble. On our end, we struggled to find volunteers to come in week after week to teach, especially considering June is exam time for us. With the schools, they saw a marked decline in our performance. It got so bad that they were considering cutting us off totally.
Trying to find a sustainable solution that could work for both parties, I thought, ‘why don’t we make something that can teach finance without us being there?’ And, since we were teaching kids, I thought, ‘why not a game?’ That’s how Rats to Riches started. Roll credits.
The thing is, when we designed lessons for the kids, many times we would come up with short games to make the sessions more fun and to show practically how the things we taught worked in reality. So, if we could make a proper, all-encompassing game, we could sell these to schools, and we could function as a proper social enterprise.
I was elected as Vice-President of Enactus Manchester around this time, and had to take care of other projects too, so I brought in 2 others to specifically lead this project.
Over the summer of 2017, back home in Singapore, I developed the first few prototypes of the game to see if the idea was feasible. The project was due to start again in September, when the school term began, so I wanted to have something basic that I could hand over to the new leaders that they could take off the ground quickly. When I came back to Manchester in September, I had what I thought was a pretty decent game already and was ready to hand that over.
Tragically, both of the new leaders quit, wanting to work on ‘more interesting stuff’ (go figure). That was tough. See, all along I was working on Rats to Riches under the impression that one day, Enactus would welcome the product with open arms and that under its brand, it could become something really special. I have nothing against Enactus, by the way, I think they are an awesome society and I loved my time being Vice-President. But, faced with the sad reality that the project would die, and the idea extinguished, I decided to continue working on Rats to Riches on my own. Looking back, this was a key turning point. Being effectively forced into doing this myself was probably one of the best things that has happened in this journey. With the door of Enactus closed off, taking sole ownership of this game opened so many more doors than I could have ever imagined.
How is a prototype of Rats to Riches made? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I go to the university library (we call it Ali G), print out a few sheets of paper, cut them out, and then voila! We’ve got a game. All for the price of £1.25. I’m really proud of this, because, compared to other startup products, like a new machine or a new app, my product cost is peanuts.
When I first started, I would cut up poker cards in half, and glue the printed papers onto them. Boy was that tedious. Subsequently, I changed this to small plastic sleeves, which are much better in many ways. They are reusable (Right now in January 2019, I still am using the same sleeves that I bought in September 2017), easier to shuffle (the stuck-on cards would curl up which was very irritating), and they made the cards waterproof! Very important because a lot of the play-test sessions would be in pubs and house parties, where lots of liquids and people less-than-careful with them were abound.
Anyway, Ali G, £1.25, game prototype. The next step was to find people to try it out. I called up some friends (yes all 4 of them), and arranged a play-test session. That first time, when I had just printed the sheets of paper at the university library, I was so proud of what I had in front of me. So excited to show the world what an awesome creation I had made. The whole time, I was thinking of how much I was going to blow the minds of these 4 privileged friends of mine as they poured out their love for the game. ‘These guys are going to have the time of their lives!’ Man was I so wrong.
During that first ever game of Rats to Riches (back then, it was still called ‘The Game’ for lack of creative inspiration), 2 of the players went bankrupt within their first 3 turns. They had to throw away their cards, with no hope of ever recovering. Ravy, one of the players who went bankrupt, rage-quit on me and stormed off halfway through the game. The other, I guess feeling bad for me, decided to stay on till the end. Bless his soul. Mind you, that game took 2 and a half hours to finish, so just imagine the pain he had to go through. Meanwhile, another player, Kenji, got so rich that we didn’t have enough real-life coins to physically represent how much he had. Kenji would later become my boss, so I guess it wasn't all bad?
Needless to say, that was a humbling experience. A massive subversion of expectations. The game was horrible! And I nearly lost a friend because of it. At that point, I genuinely thought, ‘Maybe I should drop this. Maybe I am not cut out to design a game.’
It was tough picking up the pieces, but I decided to give it one more shot. Making many very significant changes to the game, I again took it to the same 3 people (Ravy sat out for this one, understandably) and play-tested it. An improvement, but still needed work. Again, back to Ali G, another prototype, another play-test. Eat. Sleep Repeat.
Something that people ask me a lot is ‘what made you keep going? How did you know it was going to work?’ And I think about that a fair bit myself, too. Why would anyone even think of making yet another finance game? We already have Monopoly, The Business Game, The Game of Life, Cashflow, among so many others. Who in their right mind would consider such a project worthwhile?
I think there are 2 parts to this. One, that I honestly thought that this was going to work. I saw Rats to Riches (and still do) as the next Monopoly, a staple household game loved the world over. That was, and still is, the goal. The next part to it is that it doesn’t matter how successful this gets. I’m not going to stop working on this just because it has a low chance of making money. I would do this even if I was not getting paid. And I would do it even if I had a million dollars. It’s a funny paradox, yes, to set myself a goal and strive to achieve it, yet not making my happiness contingent on the attainment of the goal. To enjoy the process for what it is. That’s what’s kept me going.
From Zero to One
For the first dozen or so prototypes, I mostly play-tested the game with friends and family, back home and in Manchester. But I knew it was paramount that I get other people, not just friends, but strangers too, to provide feedback and help push this forward.
From October 2017, I joined several Meetup groups for board games. One of these was a game developers’ meetup, where other aspiring developers would try each other’s games. Sounds fantastic, so I went, thinking that this 20-year old student would wow the crowd with his slick game.
Guess what? They hated it! Like, absolutely tore it to shreds. Slaughtered it. These guys straight up told me that half of the game was spoiling the other half, and I was wasting my players’ times. It was brutal. I remember standing at the side of the street in the Northern Quarter, watching the rain fall, thinking about my life choices. Classic TV drama scene.
I really thought that I had something good going for me. I thought I had already put in a lot of effort to make this work. But, I guess that’s the value of having strangers play-test my game, because unlike with friends and family, these guys have no qualms saying what they think. I don’t think its necessarily that my friends and family were ‘just being nice’, they probably did enjoy the game, but did not have the professional experience to critique a game from a game development lens.
Northern Quarter. Raining. Just ate humble pie. Again. Cycled back home. Had a late dinner. Then began brainstorming.
That night, I broke down the game’s components, really questioned every single part, every card, changed a number of fundamental aspects to the game, then pieced all of it back together. Previously, most of the changes made from one version to the next were small re-balancing tweaks, to enhance rather than transform. This time, it was quite the overhaul. And it was very refreshing.
Over the course of these 1.5 years, the game has evolved so much. It’s so funny to look back on all the weird things the game once had. The first ever prototype was played on a board, similar to Cashflow and Monopoly, with 2 ‘rings’ that players would move on. With MK4, I got rid of the central board and replaced it with individual boards for each player. These ‘Career Boards’ had specific goals for that player to meet, which would give them advantages in certain aspects of the game. We had gems, fruits and nuts. We had Corn cards and Tunnel cards. We had Earthquakes and Gym Rats. You could even get Babies! (for quite a long time, actually) All kinds of crazy nonsense. If you want to find out more about the game’s updates and previous versions, do check out the Updates or Previous Versions sections of the website.
By the time I had that fateful slaughter session in Northern Quarter, Rats to Riches was already a 100% card game. It was actually at this meeting that one of the play-testers told me to change from cutting poker cards to using plastic sleeves! Anyways, as tough as it was, I took their feedback, made significant changes to the gameplay, and made MK10.
Went back to the Northern Quarter, one month later, and… They liked it! Woohoo! Again, I was out on that street, thinking about my life choices. But in a good way this time. Still raining though. UK weather, am I right?
One Feedback to Rule them All
November 2017. Word on Rats to Riches had started spreading around campus and an Economics Professor, Dr. Reza, was interested to find out more. Dr. Reza taught me in my first year, and will be teaching me again this coming semester, my final semester at The University of Manchester. I met Dr. Reza at his office, explained the game, the economic concepts and whatnot, and we played for about 10 minutes before he gave his verdict.
It wasn’t good. He said the game was too complex. Too difficult to understand. Too many rules. Too much going on. He said to make the game more like Chess; have a few key pillars, key algorithms, and let the complexity come from their interactions and combinations.
At that point, I was surprised, and upset. But, acting professionally, I thanked him for his time and feedback, and headed home. This was the same version of the game that was well received by the Northern Quarter guys. And now a university professor is telling me otherwise? The thought running through my mind was: ‘what does this old guy know about games? My peers like it, strangers like it, other game developers like it, and I think it’s great exactly how it is.’
I really didn’t want to listen to what he was saying. But I knew he was speaking the truth. I was just reluctant to admit it. I had already poured 5 months of my time and energy into this. He was just one guy giving me feedback. To do what he was telling me to do would mean a serious overhaul to the game. Was that really what we needed?
Turns out, it was exactly what the game needed. It’s funny because, I walked out of that office in denial, and it was only the next day in the shower that it hit me: a chess-like structure to the game. Showers seem to be the best places for epiphanies. Even the name Rats to Riches was born out of a shower inspiration session. Maybe it’s because the water is hitting your head so that stimulates thinking. Whatever the reason is, since then, I’ve made it a point to shower twice a day, for increased creativity.
So what is the chess-like structure? Well, players simply do 2 things on their turn; buy cards, then buy cheese. We have a central River of cards and cheese that all players buy stuff from. This eventually gets renamed as The Sewer. The complexity of the game would come from deciding how to play certain cards, how to spend one’s cheese, and which type of cheese to acquire. With this, we effectively cut the rules down from 7 pages to 2. Insane.
When Dr. Reza gave me that feedback, I knew it was the truth because I felt it myself. For all the play-test sessions I had up to that point, I would set up the game, explain the rules and play along. In doing so, I understood what it would be like for anybody else to try and do the same. Slowly taking the game out from my bag, sorting out the cards into different piles, pouring out the coins, all while everyone else is just awkwardly staring at me. Then I start explaining the rules. All 7 pages of them. People start to get lost, drift away, bored. Then you start playing, finally, after 20 minutes. As the game goes, players encounter situations that need further explaining. So I do. This happens multiple times, until finally, after 2 hours, we finish one game.
I imagined how it would be like if I was not there. Would other players be able to religiously set up the game and explain it? With all the odd situations too? I didn’t like the thought of it. So, it was essential that the game be simple to set up, and as easy to teach as possible. And with Dr. Reza’s input, Rats to Riches finally became that.
In December 2017, a good friend of mine, Kiran, who chaired the entrepreneurship society at our university, talked to me about a start-up accelerator that I should apply for. “Hey man, you got this cool game, you should totally apply for Accelerate ME”. The program, if my application was successful, would give me funding, office space and mentoring.
Back then, my reply to him was “Nah man, I’m good. I don’t really need the money (£1.25 prototypes from Ali G). Don’t need an office. Plus, I probably wouldn’t get in anyway. This is not some tech start-up. It’s just a game.”
I applied anyway, and in February 2018, everything changed when the fire nat… when I pitched Rats to Riches to a panel of judges, and miraculously got in!
So, what changed?
Well, by getting on to the program, I got £1500. Woohoo! Each set of the game costs £1.25. So, if you do some *quick maths*, I could make… over 1000 sets!
Which I did!
This meant 2 things: firstly, the game could now look far more professional, more credible than before. The prototypes we had before were functional, and actually pretty decent, but to have a properly manufactured set of the game (imagine: actual playing-card-sized cards, special Rats to Riches coins, a rulebook, and a nice 2-piece branded box to put everything in) was going to bring this to the next level. It would open many more doors for me. Going for conventions, pushing social media content, starting further collaborations, etc. Super good.
Secondly, it meant that I no longer needed to be physically present for a game of Rats to Riches to be played. Previously, the only set of the game was with me, and it didn’t make sense to hand-make multiple sets for others; it was too costly and the quality wasn’t even ideal. Having these sets manufactured and packaged nicely meant that my friends, wherever they were in the world, could hold sets of the game, play it with their friends, and carry the brand forward.
From February to April 2018, operations with Rats to Riches were ramping up; nearly every day, I would schedule a play-test session in the evening, and spend the daytime reading through feedback, brainstorming and making new prototypes in preparation for the next play-test. In March, I started working on the design files for the BETA sets, and sourcing manufacturers that could do the job. We had lots of plans in the works, and these would culminate in perhaps the most important month in Rats to Riches history: May 2018.
So many things happened in May last year that when I was reflecting on the past year, I was proper surprised with how much I wrote just on one month. In early May, the BETA sets finally arrived in Manchester. I brought onboard Robert, a fellow Management student at The University of Manchester, to help me with marketing. We did an unboxing video (absolutely hilarious, check it out here if you want to watch me fail at opening my own game box). We ran 3 Rats to Riches Tournaments. Bought a golden cheese grater and some purple hoodies just for it too. We cycled all over Manchester to give out copies of the game to play-testers who had played the previous versions. We travelled to Leeds, Preston and Shotton for collaborations with other board game communities outside Manchester. We even had a rat photoshoot (with real rats!). But, most importantly, we ran an influencer marketing campaign.
There are start-ups that successfully grew their brands through influencer marketing (i.e getting people who have large amounts of followers on social media to endorse your product and post/share about it). For example, HiSmile (the product that looks like a pacifier, but it whitens your teeth) sent out units of their product to thousands of influencers for free, and when these influencers started using the free stuff, they liked it and shared about it. Soon, it became a massive hit because it looked as though everybody was using it. At least, every important person on social media was using it, which is the key part of this strategy.
I thought what they did was amazing. Unlike typical, traditional marketing on billboards or television or newspapers, influencer marketing was about getting as close to the end consumer as possible, and in as authentic a way as possible. That, to me, was very important. The best part was, influencer marketing was basically non-existent in the board game industry. It’s not that we didn’t have influencers; we absolutely do, lots of them. But nobody was executing the influencer marketing strategy in the same way that say the fashion industry does. I guess for the board game industry, we would classify them more as ‘micro-influencers’, meaning those with 1000-10000 followers, compared to the much higher follower counts in other industries. Anyways, we decided to try it out. Together, Robert and I compiled a list of over 300 board game influencers all over the world: Canada, U.S, South Africa, Germany, Sweden, Philippines, etc. Private-messaged all of them, told them we were about to launch our BETA and that we wanted to hear what they thought about it. Got about 200 who said yes, and we mailed these sets to them, they had a go, liked the game, naturally posted about it on their social media platforms, and created quite the buzz.
The best part about this is, because of the buzz we created through the influencer campaign, I got a UK-based games publisher, Accentuate, approaching me, saying ‘we’ve been seeing Rats to Riches all over Instagram, and we want you to license the game to us.’ The licensing deal basically meant that I would handle game development and design, while these guys handle manufacturing, distribution and retail. I would be licensing the Rats to Riches intellectual property to them and getting a royalty out of each copy of the game they sell.
We had this conversation during our first meeting in late June 2018. Funny thing is, when we arranged the meeting, I had no idea that this had anything to do with licensing. I genuinely thought it was going to be a nice networking session between game developers, and I thought these guys could help promote Rats to Riches just like the other people in the industry I’d met over the past year.
So, when Graeme (CEO of Accentuate) and his wife, Daphne, met me, and mentioned licensing, I was not prepared for it at all. Okay, first of all, we met in a super fancy restaurant in Chester. Like, proper fancy. When I reached the restaurant, literally everyone else was in a suit or dress. I was in a turtleneck and jeans, feeling massively underdressed. I was not prepared for that either. Finally, to seal the deal, these guys booked out the ENTIRE FUNCTION ROOM of the restaurant just for the 3 of us to sit around one table and chat. Talk about a power play. Pretty intimidated, I went with it, thinking it was pretty cool nonetheless.
Back to licensing. They brought up the idea. They want me to license Rats to Riches to them. My response? ‘No thanks, I’m good.’ Let me provide some context. As game developers, there are 2 main paths we can take. One is to pitch to a publisher, the other is to do it yourself, likely through a Kickstarter campaign. All this time, since the start of the Rats to Riches journey, I was locked in to the mindset that I would take the latter path. I had heard from other game developers how they lost all creative control of their games once handing them over to a publisher, and how publishers don’t respect their product. I also much preferred to take the second path so that I could learn more about being a businessman. So I told these things to Graeme and Daphne, explaining why I said no. They were very surprised themselves. They were like, ‘woah woah woah wait wait, hear us out’ and they explained that with them it would be different. That Rats to Riches would be their third game, and therefore constitute 33% of their portfolio. That they still want me to have creative control over marketing and social media. That I would have the last say in design. I felt they made a compelling case. I tell them I will think about it. The meeting ends with us having some ideas on how we could make it work, but nothing concrete yet.
I head back to Singapore for the summer, and we continue talking over email about moving this forward. Eventually, we have a contract. My first ever business law document. In real life! I literally took a Business Law module in university about torts and contracts that last semester and thought that it was the most useless module ever. Life certainly has an odd sense of humor! The stuff I learnt through that module became the most important thing over the summer, as we discussed clauses in the contact, going back and forth to find a middle ground that we could agree on. In August 2018, I said yes! The partnership between Rats to Riches and Accentuate was now official.
So, what does this mean? Well, it basically means that this year, 2019, in March, you can walk into John Lewis, and Rats to Riches will be there, staring at you on the shelves. *drops mic*
By December 2018, we have BETA copies of Rats to Riches in the hands of nearly 600 players all over the world. This is concentrated largely in Singapore and Manchester, where I am based. Trying to push the product out in Singapore was much harder than in Manchester. The Singapore board game industry just is not as well developed. For now, at least. Still, back in Singapore, I ran 2 more tournaments, plus have a stall at the annual Maker’s Faire and at the Family day in Bishan, the part of the country where I am from. I collaborated and engaged with the community. Special shout-out to the Mind Café, who made a really nice video teaching others how to play the game. Check it out here.
I also published my first ever blog entry (read it here). It bears some similarity to this story, largely because my personal story and the Rats to Riches’ story is very much intertwined. The blog touches a lot more on my own personal reflections, rather than simply telling the story of the game, as this does.
With the game, the feedback we get from the thousands of games played was invaluable. Each new point of feedback highlighted yet another part of the game that needed improvement. It got to the point that I was uncomfortable handing a copy of the BETA to someone else, because in my mind all I could think of were the kinks that needed to be ironed out. We had feedback on the rulebook, the aesthetics, the colors (my god the blue-purple distinction was so bad), the balance issues with the cards themselves, etc. The list goes on.
I spent a large part of the summer working on new post-BETA versions of the game. The MK12 had 3 parts to The Sewer rather than 2, while the MK13 combined all parts of The Sewer into one deck. There was even a version where we restricted the number of things a player could do, such that it became a choice whether to buy cheese or buy a card. Crazy stuff. More information in the Updates section.
Eventually, after discussion with the guys from Accentuate, we decided that the BETA wasn’t that bad. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the BETA. The structure was simple (remember, chess-like), it was just the balancing issues with the cards, and the streamlining of the rules that needed to be addressed in order to make the game cleaner, simpler, yet more strategic. Yet, even though we sort of took a step back to the BETA, after coming up with the ‘newer’ versions, a lot of the changes made to the final retail-version of the game actually stemmed from ideas that I implemented in these spin-off versions. So, it wasn’t all bad.
2019 brings with it the promise of a bright future for Rats to Riches. It’s very, very exciting. We have a new, epic box design, new cheese designs, new… everything is new basically. We even have figurines!!! Super cool. We’ve made very important and very good changes to the game (you can be the judge of that), not just to the mechanics but also to the aesthetics, and the overall experience of playing. For example, we’ve cut all the words in the game by nearly 70%. The rulebook alone used to have 1532 words, now it only has 797. The amount of text on the cards have been severely reduced as well. At first, I was worried that this would make the rules vaguer: that fewer words would not be able to explain all the things going on in the game. But, looking at the finished product, it actually does the reverse. Simplicity creates clarity. We get right to the point, and there is no confusion about it. Awesome.
Rats to Riches was showcased at the London Toy Fair earlier this year, and we are now gearing up for our retail launch at the UK Games Expo later this month (big woop!). It’s been a long and very crazy ride to get to this point, but the journey from rats to riches has only just begun. We’ve got the rats bit down, now all that’s left is riches. So watch this space, and hold on tight.