My husband has marooned me, penniless, on an island in the middle of the Caribbean. I use the only tools I have—cannons and pure cunning—to maneuver my way onto a boat and, eventually, to wrestle back my treasure.
And this is just the beginning of our evening.
No, we’re not actually on an island, or on an experimental couples retreat; we’re playing Tortuga 1667, a board game produced by Columbus-based company Facade Games. I have to say, it feels good to be a wheeling-and-dealing lady pirate on the high seas—especially when you win.
Travis and Holly Hancock, a husband-and-wife team, founded Facade in 2015 while still in college at Brigham Young University. The idea for their first game came from an assignment in one of Travis’s classes. “We launched our first game, which was Salem, as kind of just a fun little side project, just hoping to make a few thousand dollars to make a couple hundred copies for our friends and family,” he said. The project took off on Kickstarter and raised over $100,000. With that, the Hancocks began thinking about making games full-time.
Travis grew up in Beavercreek, Ohio, playing games with his eight siblings. He described himself as a lifelong game “tweaker,” willing to change the rules of household standbys like Mafia, Werewolf, and Bang to make them more interesting. “Anything where you can bring your personality into the game so it’s less of a pure strategy and more of like who’s playing and what are they saying … like reading people,” he said. These lessons informed his work as a game developer.
Facade followed Salem (which was re-released in a second edition as Salem 1692) with Tortuga 1667 in 2017, drawing on their Kickstarter network to raise over $400,000. Holly joined Travis in quitting her day job, and the two started working full-time on Deadwood 1876, which will come out in October. This time, they raised over $600,000 on Kickstarter, exceeding their goal by over 2000 percent. Collectively, these games make up the first three volumes of “The Dark Cities” series—games that are named for a city and year, and are “focused on a dark element of history,” Travis said.
So how does Facade stand out in this competitive industry? Travis explained that it starts with the packaging.
“Growing up, my mom would always say, ‘as soon as a game’s box is broken, then you won’t ever play the game again.’ It’s kinda true because boxes get squished inside game cupboards, the pieces get lost, you just don’t want to play it anymore. The packaging has always been important to me… We wanted it to stand out.” They decided to make their packaging look like classic hardcover books, which, in addition to being sturdy, look great on your shelf.
The addadge to “never judge a book by its cover” applies here as well, and as attractive as the games look, it’s what’s inside that counts. “All of our [games] have the social deduction aspect to them, some form of lying or tricking people or backstabbing or teamwork. I just think those are the most fun games to play,” Travis said. They also have high player count, with every Dark Cities game able to accommodate up to nine players at once.
You can even learn something new while playing. “All the characters are real people. We have actually put biographies and a brief history of the city in each rulebook,” Travis said. Researching the city and characters is an important part of Facade’s game development process. They typically go through about a hundred versions of a game before it’s released, with an eye to building a game for the “casual” player who enjoys games, but doesn’t want to spend all night mastering arcane rules.
Once they’re confident in the content, Holly takes over for the design. “I grab inspiration from researching the time period and then we work with our illustrator… who somehow always captures the feel we’re going for… My job is to highlight her illustrations and Travis’s game idea, and build a game that’s functional.” Holly said.
Deadwood 1876 brings all of the elements Facade is known for together and ups the ante a bit. “It’s maybe my favorite,” Travis said. In it, players move between teams, working together to capture safes containing gold. They are also individually collecting guns that can be used to eliminate their teammates in the final showdown. “You’re sort of working with each other but you’re also preparing to beat each other, so it creates a really interesting dynamic.”
Until Deadwood launches, I have a feeling Tortuga will keep my family occupied. While I may have come back last time, my husband is preparing to revisit the island. And this time, he assures me, he’s bringing a crew.
Dark Cities Series games are available for purchase and pre-order at
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