3.13.2013

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cheapass Games

Sure, gamers love games -- but what about their cost?  In the mid-1990s, James Ernest launched his own company: Cheapass Games, a company based on the idea that games should be both fun and inexpensive.

The company philosophy was stated clearly on the back of the boxes: "We here at Cheapass Games are aware of two basic facts about board games: they cost too much, and they are at some level all the same."  The company said "generic bits and pieces" like dice, tokens, and fake money "can account for as much as 75% of a game's production cost" and they offered a solution: "Cheapass Games come packaged with the bare essentials: boards, cards, and rulebooks."  Players provided everything else -- or bought them from Cheapass Games -- and as a result, the games cost less than $10.

And Cheapass Provided a large number of unusual, fun games.  Players could take on the role of dinosaurs in Bitin' Off Hedz, fake explorers in Captain Park's Imaginary Polar Expedition, bad actors in Deadwood, sous chefs scaling a building in Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, or grave-robbing economists in Parts Unknown.  Cheapass Games even released series of related games: Players could try to kill J. Robert Lucky in an English mansion in Kill Doctor Lucky, try to rescue him from the Titanic in the prequel Save Doctor Lucky, and then save him in the distant future in Save Doctor Lucky on Moon Base Copernicus.  And long before zombies had their current coolness, players could try to end their fast-food shifts in Give Me the Brain! , put together fast food meals in Lord of the Fries, and in the prequel The Great Brain Robbery the players were zombie cowboys raiding a train filled with human brains and government cheese.  These games offered lots of variety, tremendous replayability, and a lot of fun.  After all, where else but Unexploded Cow could you use mad cows to take care of unexploded mines?

Alas, some Cheapass games didn't catch on as much as they would have hoped (like Button Men and Diceland), and eventually the company went on hiatus.  The company returned with iPhone apps, and eventually they did a 180-degree change on their philosophy: Games like Kill Docotr Lucky and Give Me the Brain! appeared again -- but with new publishers, all the "generic bits and pieces" they once decried, and with a much larger price tag.  The company is now working with Kickstarter to redo some classic games (as shown on the video below).  I have mixed feelings on their new direction: While their deluxe versions go against the explicitly-stated company policy, I'm also glad to see some great Cheapass Games back in print.

Written by James Lynch


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