Steve Jackson Games

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A wildly popular card game coupled with devoted fans is the perfect equation for a gaming company’s success, but the relationship it has with licensing partners is equally important.

Such is the case for Steve Jackson Games (SJ Games), the developer of a wide variety of card, board and dice games as well as books and magazines devoted to game enthusiasts. The company has 40 employees and had sales of $8.5 million in 2014.

SJ Games was founded in 1980 in Austin, Texas, and has realized considerable success with myriad releases. But none has enjoyed more popularity than Munchkin, which the company describes as ”dungeon crawling without all that annoying roleplaying junk in the form of a card game. It’s fun, it’s funny and it’s our top seller ever.” 

“For the last decade or so, Munchkin has been our top title,” CEO Phil Reed says. Indeed, the game is so popular that SJ Games developed a pair of board games, several books and a variety of stuffed toys based on the original release. Additionally, the company regularly releases expansions, sequels and accessories to sustain fan interest.

SJ Games’ relationship with Surge Licensing, an entertainment development firm based in Jericho, N.Y., elevated Munchkin’s popularity to new heights because the company “closed deals we did not have the time or resources to accomplish,” Reed says. SJ Games reached an agreement with Surge Licensing in 2013 to develop the Munchkin series in merchandising and entertainment. “They have the experience and connections to knock on some doors. We let Surge Licensing handle the things we don’t know how to do.”

“Keeping the constantly expanding Munchkin series in print is a full-time challenge. The game keeps flying off store shelves,” Reed adds. Indeed, SJ Games, along with its partners in more than a dozen countries, has sold almost five million Munchkin games and accessories globally.

Surge Licensing handles the majority of the non-game licensees and oversees key licensed partnerships, including toys, collectibles, apparel, accessories and Halloween costumes. An in-house team manages the game licensees, Reed explains. 

Other partnerships include translators in China, Israel, Germany and Russia, as well as licensees in the United States that create Munchkin games, t-shirts, comic books and toys. A collection of essays about the game is scheduled for release later this year.

Fans of the game are the primary reason Munchkin has experienced long-term success, Reed says. “We wouldn’t be where we are without our loyal fans,” he says. He adds that few other gaming companies have enjoyed 35 years of longevity and success. 

Another key to SJ Games’ achievements is the company’s keen ability to understand the market. “We’re careful with the games we publish,” Reed says. “We don’t overreach. We listen clearly to the fans to come up with new releases and expansions.”

Further, the company looks to the success of Munchkin when designing new games. The formula is simple – combine easy-to-understand rules with well-designed cards and game pieces, Reed says. A new release serves as advertising for previous editions of the game. “Every new Munchkin release acts as a promotion for our back catalog,” Reed says.

SJ Games also taps into pop culture trends when developing games, such as Illuminati, which focuses on secret conspiracies; and Zombie Dice, which taps into the zombie craze. Further, the company deepens the experience for enthusiasts by offering special bonuses. “T-shirts with rules, a cookie that had a special game rule, bottled water, pins, patches, sweatshirts. We’ve had some fun creating unusual items that fans then take to the game and use as they play,” Reed says.

Proof of fans’ devotion to Munchkin was on display in February, when SJ Games opened Munchkin World NYC, a pop-up retail store located near Times Square. The store was open for three days and featured advance releases of Munchkin games and expansions, a Munchkin invitational and signings by creator and founder Steve Jackson, line editor Andrew Hackard and artist John Kovalic. 

“We had fans from all over,” Reed says. “It worked perfectly for us.”

SJ Games core audience is comprised of high school- and college-aged men, but Munchkin also is popular with families who play the game during family game night, Reed says.

Additionally, the first-generation of Munchkin followers are passing the game onto their children. In 2014, the company developed Munchkin Treasure Hunt, a board game designed for young children.

Munchkin represents about 75 percent of the company’s business, but Jackson is known for creating several other games, including Zombie Dice, Ogre, Car Wars, Illuminati and Chez Geek, as well as the GURPS roleplaying system.

Car Wars, a game originally released in the 1980s, was so popular when republished in 2014 that it sold out in four days. “We sold a print run that we thought was going to last one year in four days,” Reed says. “I guess people missed Car Wars.”

Reed recalls when purchasing Munchkin and other SJ Games products required a trip to a hobby or game store. Today, however, the games can be purchased at most major retailers, including Target, Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us and Barnes & Noble, as well as Amazon.com. “We’ve had some good success in the mass market in the last few years,” Reed says. “Not only do they carry the product, but they push it in a big way.”

The future for Steve Jackson is well defined. “We will reinforce our success and work on new games,” Reed says. “We’ve got some intriguing plans in the works for the 15th anniversary of Munchkin.” 

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