Jay Wheatley, general manager of Funko Games has a simple vision of the future of tabletop gaming as it continues to push boundaries and draw in new audiences, and that’s that things are going to ‘get weird.’
It’s an idea that strikes a particularly sweet chord with the man now heading up Funko’s recently acquired games division. It was, after all, in a former life that Wheatley once took particular pleasure in imposing ‘weird and uncomfortable’ scenarios upon diners back in the days of his experiential restaurant business Entros.
He recounts to ToyNews a time he instigated a game between two players who were given the roles of a car salesman and a car buyer, each with their own backstory and specified amount they had to sell and buy a car for. The pair would then spend the evening negotiating, in a back and forth game play. This all took place in the middle of his packed out Seattle restaurant; subverting social constructs like awkwardness to turn it into entertainment.
This is the kind of ‘weird future’ Wheatley envisions for the tabletop gaming hobby. And this is the kind of man now presiding over Funko’s boldest move for the board gaming space today.
It should come as no surprise, of course. Wheatley – and the team of creative thinkers, game designers, and all-round play creators around him – has made quite the career out of tinkering with gaming mechanics to develop and innovate the tabletop gaming genre for some 20 odd years now. In doing so, he has also led a team that has produced and licensed games to some of the biggest names in the space today, the likes of Spin Master, Mattel, Asmodee, Hasbro, and Goliath included.
“In fact,” he recalls, “we have probably made around 400 to 500 games.” And that even extends to some of the most recent New York Toy Fair launches in Disney’s Villainous, Jaws, and Universal Monster’s Horrified, all of which were licensed to Ravensburger back before his team was acquired by Funko at the end of 2018. If there’s one man who knows the business of board gaming – and how to continue to push the boundaries within it – it’s going to be Wheatley.
The move came just a couple of months into a commissioned project to develop a strategy game that used the Funko Pop! figures by bringing them into a common universe, or Funkoverse, for tabletop gameplay. Having taken a shine to the output, ethics, and methodology of this team of game creators, and with an eye on making a concerted move into the board gaming arena, Funko’s Andrew Perlmutter and Brian Mariotti tabled a deal to acquire this unit of creatives.
“To us, it sounded like heaven,” Wheatley tells ToyNews. “Funko was the embodiment of what we love. We were making non-licensed games, but we were also making a lot of licensed games, and we love all of that kind of stuff . This was a deal that was about like-mindedness and culture, and we immediately saw that synergy with Funko.
“This is a company that is extraordinarily passionate about pop culture and properties, brands, stories, and characters, and bringing those to life and celebrating all of the touchstones that we have grown up with.”
By 2019, the team had been acquired and Funko Games had been established, and Wheatley had been given a new remit to explore a world of pop culture IP – a library literally in its thousands – and what it could mean for the tabletop gaming space.
“It’s wonderful to be with Funko,” Wheatley continues. “As great as our relationships have always been with Ravensburger, Asmodee etc, the companies we highly respect, deeply, there is a certain distance that creates between us and the consumer.
“If they are doing the marketing, or making the decision around customer service or they’re between the creation of the items and the retailers that they are presenting it to, all those elements of distance are things that we can close now, as we are able to have that direct relationship with the consumers – we are able to present the games directly as we intended them in the creation of them, and we are able to develop a brand that is recognised by everyone.”
For Wheatley, it means making decisions on what licenses the unit develops games for, from what he calls Funko’s “playground of licensed properties that it is working with.” It also means being able to have a real conversation with the end user, the gaming audience itself, as well as licensors – an asset that, he realises, is integral in pushing the envelope in gaming today.
“Funko does a lot of business with licensors, and it allows a certain amount of partnership that we haven’t experienced in the past that the licensors see what Funko has done in terms of licensing and product categories,” says Wheatley. “I can’t think of any company other than Funko who could come up with a game system of multiple different licenses that you can place within one kind of universe, I think that would have been a hard sell for most publishers.”
Of course, Funko Games’ board gaming output may start with Funkoverse, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Wheatley tells ToyNews of the excitement around New York Toy Fair earlier this year, when it finally got to reveal a raft of signature games, including Back to the Future, Godzilla, Yacht Rock, and a Pan Am licensed title, all of which go a very long well to not only establish Funko’s credentials in the tabletop gaming arena, but reflect the fascinating relationship that tabletop gaming now has with society today.
“And that really is a fascinating subject,” says Wheatley. “There was a time in the mid 2000s when we thought we were going to go out of business because of the rise of app games. It was an existential time for board games. People began playing games everywhere and all of the time, whether in mass transit or before they went to bed.
“But actually, we think it whetted the appetite and made game playing more of a constant part of people’s worlds and lifestyle, and so today, board gaming has never been stronger.
“In the last year or two, we have seen the adoption of more complex or interesting games (what we used to call Eurostyle games, but now days are coming from all corners of the world), we are seeing game nights become a standard part of people’s social behaviour, and there is a robust world of gaming happening.
“It reminds me of the quote from [Canadian philosopher] Marshall McLuhan that ‘the medium is the message.’ For me, I think of ‘what does the medium say here?’ What does game playing say about society and our culture, irrespective of the content? What does this medium say about us in this time and place of human existence?”
What it says, Wheatley answers, is that people want to spend time together.
“They want to sit across a table and share experiences, laugh, have fun in a big shared space together, and how great is that?” he says. “Tabletop gaming is one of the healthiest things people can be doing – spending social time together, engaging their intellect, their imagination, and sharing all of these wonderful things.”
Then there is what this newest ilk of board game developers are bringing to the space by exploring an IP’s narrative to its fullest and bringing it to life on the board and in game play.
Wheatley continues: “We love diving deep into the content and the licenses. It is one thing to have a game that is filled with imagery and words, and ideas and characters that people recognise, but that is not enough. It’s very important that the actual structural experience of the game, the mechanics of the game, support the message or theme, or principals of the property itself.”
Wheatley takes the work he and his team put into Jaws prior to the Funko acquisition as an example. Jaws is a hidden movement game which builds up a lot of tension through its cat and mouse gameplay.
“And that’s great, because that is what the movie is about. You could take a game and put a shark on it, and a few touchstones from the movie, but it is not good enough unless you’re putting players into something evocative of the emotional and psychological experience that the property offers,” the game designer explains.
Wheatley breaks it down into three elements; diegetic, extra-diegetic, and nondiegetic, these being elements from the property itself – many of which you will find in Funko Games’ Back to the Future board game; elements not from the property but built into the game’s narrative in order to enhance the gaming experience and still rooted in that world; and elements such as randomisers (like dice) and point scoring systems, respectively.
According to Wheatley, a successful game knows how to strike the right balance or cook up the right recipe with the correct quantities of each of these elements.
“It can be challenging, editorially, to make all of these components work together in order to keep players immersed in the IP’s narrative and not distracted by those elements that are necessary, yet have the ability to take them out of the narrative if the balance isn’t right.”
The technicalities in this regard can run deep, and it is obvious that this is a favoured topic of talk for Wheatley, a man who self-professes ‘feels like he has studied a Phd in board games’ simply through the number of hours he has dedicated to the craft.
We, however, stop short, to tackle the topic of where tabletop gaming is heading from here.
“The bar is constantly being raised, and everyone in this industry is super energised about delivering for gamers these incredible experiences that are authentic and feel immersive,” he explains. “It is a great time to be a gamer because everyone is trying to deliver that deeper and better experience.
“I think we are going to see more innovative and interesting ideas, and I don’t just mean what’s happening with the variables and equipment at the table, but things that produce unique behaviours; things where the gameplay is taking place not just in the same room, not just in the same time space, but taking place over longer periods of time, or connecting people in different ways.
“I think we are going to see more experimentation and they’re not all going to work, but that is the way it is when you try new things. We are going to see more exotic, meta experiences happening. We have a couple of things in the works – things we started before we became Funko Games that will come out through other channels, but that is an area to keep your eye out for because there is going to be some weird games, in the very best of ways.”