Vintage Board Games Are Getting a Modern Revival

October 20, 2021

There is a feeling, among millennials, that the tabletop scene was in the stone age until 1996. That’s the year that Settlers of Catan made landfall in the United States, as lunch halls, dorm lounges, and kitchen tables around the country fell head over heels for Klaus Teuber’s miraculous contraption.

Catan remains the most successful boutique board game in human history; its tight milieu of roads, resources, and thoughtful decisions has firmly overwritten the Monopolies and Candylands that used to reign unrivaled within the public consciousness. But Restoration Games believes that modernity has its limits. No matter how big the tabletop industry gets—no matter how much money we shell out for distant Kickstarters promising vibrant new frontiers in cardboard—the distant past still holds some buried treasures.

Of course, in this case, “distant past” refers to that darkened, enigmatic era before 1996.

Restoration Games is the brainchild of attorney and avid board gamer Justin Jacobson and legendary designer Rob Daviau. Jacobson had made a hobby of doing pro bono legal work for indie tabletop companies, which dovetailed into a conversation with Daviau about one of his lost classics: Star Wars: Queen’s Gambit. Queen’s Gambit is a textbook white whale in the board game community: a wooly, colorful, well-hewn war game based on The Phantom Menace that has unfortunately been out of print for eons. (If you want to play it, your best bet is to drop $500 on Ebay.) Jacobson floated the idea of re-releasing Queen’s Gambit without the Star Wars theme, eschewing some of the Disney-poisoned legal waters in order to reintroduce the design to the general public. Daviau demurred. He wasn’t interested in cracking open Queen’s Gambit again, but he did spend a few moments thinking about the many, many great games that weren’t lucky enough to be released in our ongoing tabletop renaissance.

“We started talking about the games that we played as kids, and some of the ones we’d like to see brought back,” says Jacobson. “I was getting pretty miserable practicing law. My firm had changed pretty drastically since I started. So I went to lunch with some friends from high school, and they told me to give up my legal career and go into board games. I made Rob [Daviau] an offer he couldn’t refuse, and we immediately started thinking about what games we’d want to revive.”Restoration Games officially launched in 2017, and its catalog speaks for itself.

Jacobson and Daviau reached back to 1979 and resuscitated Stop Thief, a long-abandoned Parker Brothers heirloom that was famously packaged with an electronic device players would use to track down burglars on the streets. (Restoration retrofitted that gimmick with a smartphone app.) There’s Downforce, a wonderful game of bluffing and bidding on a sun-drenched racetrack, which has bounced through various different publishers for the past 40 years.

Unmatched is the sole 21st-century relic in the inventory—it’s a two-player tactics module based on a Daviau game called Star Wars: Epic Duels from 2002. Restoration Games strips out all of the prequel characters in favor of public-access heroes; you might not be able to play as Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Robin Hood and King Arthur fit the bill perfectly.But Jacobson and Daviau’s most popular product might be their rekindling of the 1986 tour de force Fireball Island. That is the game that put the company on the map, and it is where I was first introduced to a very specific sort of bygone euphoria that only Restoration could manifest. My third-grade classroom was equipped with a copy of the original Fireball Island, which became the focal point of all of my after-school revelry.

It’s a very silly game—intrepid adventures scale a rugged plastic mountain, only to be knocked back down the summit by rolling orange marbles—and I had completely forgotten about it as the years passed by. But as soon as I saw Restoration’s Fireball Island packaging, a remote tripwire ruptured in my brain. Suddenly I was inundated by all of these buried childhood memories, crystal clear once again, as if this board game served as the password to my own limbic system. According to Jacobson, the company gets those reactions all the time.”People have these little visceral memories of playing certain games when they were kids. You don’t think about them until something triggers it,” he says. “We know we’re on the right track in development when we get those kinds of responses.”

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