Evan Kline is the CEO at Tokyn, a brand new app that looks to ‘reconnect the world through play around the table’.
Acting almost as a Tinder for board games, Tokyn is a meet-up app that allows board game fans to find other people in their area to play games with, log titles in their collections and even help rulebook-averse players connect with those who can happily teach them the rules.
We caught up with Evan to learn more about the origins of the app, and find out why he believes Tokyn could be something of a game-changer for inventors and design directors.
First up, pre-Tokyn, what was your history in the board game space?
I grew up playing board games like a lot of folks. My family (four kids) was perhaps a little more intense that most; we had a copy of Monopoly that, whenever you won a game, you signed and dated it with a sharpie! We all took it very seriously and were quite competitive – it got a little toxic at times! By the time I left home that board was black with sharpied signatures and the back was almost covered up.
I discovered Catan and a great game called Citadels in college which introduced me to the hobby tabletop world. Fast-forward to my late twenties; I decided to venture into designing games. I connected with an indie publisher – Twin City Games – who was creating their first game. I worked with them to bring to life Dino-Dunk, a dexterity game geared toward the hobby market. I was the lead playtester and designed a few of the dinosaur powers.
In my day job, I ran the trade-show section of a marketing department and used those skills to help Twin City tour the largest tabletop shows in the US. Dino Dunk received great reviews from critics and audiences and I spent the next three years connecting with folks in the industry; rubbing shoulders with the designers and publishers of all my favourite games.
So moving onto Tokyn; talk us through the app and what it does?
Tokyn is an app that makes it easy to discover and play board games. Music has Spotify, movies and TV shows have Netflix, PC games have Steam; Tokyn makes it easy to enjoy tabletop game content in the same way.
We’re doing recommendations just like Spotify or Netflix, but the interesting thing about board games, unlike these other entertainment industries, is that board games are inherently communal; you can’t play most board games by yourself in the same way you can listen to music or watch a movie. So core to Tokyn is connecting players with each other, so you’re never stuck with a game you can’t play.
There are a lot of micro things we automate to make finding other people as easy as pressing a button. As an example, if you have a game you want to play, you can indicate that with one touch, and Tokyn tells you whenever other people in your city play that game and have an open spot that you can join.
And then, obviously, the reverse is true: if you host a game on Tokyn, every other person around you who is interested in playing gets notified. There are hundreds of examples like that of interactions we automate behind the scenes, and all that together becomes pretty powerful and exciting if you like playing tabletop games.
Where did the idea come from?
The concept came from my years spent in the industry. I intentionally became a fly on the wall and realised that – in many ways – the tabletop industry is a decade behind other industries. I thought there was room to build a company that was different than what most people try and do, which is become a designer or create a publishing company.
Before Tokyn, myself and my co-founders actually founded a totally different company in the tabletop world. We asked our customers “what’s your biggest pain point?” We received over 1,000 responses in under 24 hours – board game hobbyists are a passionate bunch! – and 85% said “I have trouble connecting with other people to play games as often as I want to.”
So we listened to the market, shut down our old company, changed the name to Tokyn and directed 100% of our efforts toward solving that number one problem and building the best tabletop meet-up experience ever.
Outside of players looking for people to connect and play games with, are there ways that design directors within games companies can engage with the platform?
Absolutely. One of the problems in the analogue games world is this: collecting meaningful data is hard. What we offer is insight into how your customers actually use your product.
From the beginning, we’ve actively worked with design directors and publishers in our own product development. Having insight into how your customers use your product is an easy way to level up your development.
For example, does your game take up the whole game night? Is it played as a “filler” game between other heavier games? Is it played alongside a series of party games? The answers to these questions can inform your future product line. If your game is played as a “filler” game, perhaps you should develop a heavier game that your customers always play right after your current product.
If it’s played as one party game amongst other party games, perhaps you come out with a few more party games. How many party games get played on a game night on average? That can inform just how many games you should have in that product line.
Does your audience like playing the same game over and over or are they always rotating games on game night? How long do your customers keep playing your game? Do your customers play multiple games in your catalogue?
The answers to all these questions can be quite powerful. I get really excited about this part of what we do since I started on the game design and publishing side.
One other exciting piece is from a marketing perspective. We are identifying hidden influencers. Hidden influencers are people scattered in every city that might not be outspoken, they might not have a big social media following, but they have a network of people who listen to them and look to them specifically for what the next game they should buy is.
For example, one of our users is a woman who always keeps six copies of Exploding Kittens in her bag to give out to people at game nights because she loves the game so much. We can see not only how many people she plays Exploding Kittens with, but how many people start playing it on their own after playing it with her. Basically, we have the ability to see who are “ground zero” for the spread of every game across cities and countries.
What I love is that we are creating a system that generates value for both parties – the game creators can reward their biggest fans, who in turn are better supported to continue the spread of their favourite products.
I’ll say one final thing on this! We are coming out with collecting win/loss records on the platform after a game is played. Right now, it’s user inputted with some check and balances for accuracy, but we have some exciting AR technology on the horizon that will automate game scoring.
It seems simple, but video games have done a great job paving the way for multiplayer rating systems, which means we have a global rating system for every board game, ever, as long as people are playing it. Having access to a tool to foster a competitive scene for your game can go a long way in building your tribe and increase the longevity of your products.
It sounds like a very exciting tool for companies to get to grips with. Do you see there being ways for game designers and inventors to also utilise the app?
How easy is it to find playtesters to test the next iteration of your game? How long does it take to set that session up? If either of these is difficult for you, than the answer is yes.
It’s easy to add the game you’re designing or inventing to the app and we’ve already had a number of designers start using Tokyn to find players for playtest sessions. While I’m sure it’s still appreciated, we’ve found designers have to spend less money on bribing testers with pizza and beer when they connect with folks on Tokyn!
Tokyn is starting life focusing on the tabletop space, but do you see it being utilised by players and companies in the mass-market game space?
Our vision is to reconnect the world through play around the table. Mass market games definitely fit into that. As long as a company or inventor is facilitating in-person human connections through play of their product, we want to be an asset and a tool for you.
While I don’t have as much insight into larger mass-market companies like Hasbro, I suspect understanding their customer base and how their products are used is just as difficult as it is in the hobby industry. If anyone is in the mass-market space and is reading this, I’d be happy to chat on how you can utilise us.
Looking ahead, what are the next steps for Tokyn – if you can say what they are with all the uncertainty around the pandemic?
That’s the number one question right now. No matter what, the next steps are always to listen to the market and solve the biggest problem our customers have. People spending time with other people is never going away, and neither are board games.
What most people don’t realise is we have older records of board games than we have of written language. It’s not a passing craze any more than learning to read is. All that is to say, our vision for the world hasn’t changed.
In the short term, we have made the decision to suspend our service. We are paying close attention to both COVID-19 and what our customers are comfortable with. Though the world is starting to open up, I believe we are still a way away from relaunching.
Instead, we are asking people to let us know if you want Tokyn to come to your city next. We have an aggressive launch schedule for when we feel we can ethically enable people meeting up again, but we aren’t launching everywhere at once.
So if you want to easily connect with others to play tabletop games in your city and want us to come to you first, download the app or go to our website. I should add, we’re also using this season to partner with publishers and companies who see the value we bring to the industry.
And with the industry always evolving, how do you see Tokyn helping to shape what the games space looks like moving forward?
I think the tabletop industry is going to face some unique challenges in the coming years. One of my jobs is to predict the future and position Tokyn to be ready for it – an easy task, right?
A lot of the spaces we are used to gathering for gaming experiences are going away. Game stores in particular will be hit hard and many won’t make it. Look at Spiel in Essen, UK Games Expo, Gen Con, along with every other convention; they’ve all been cancelled, and it may be quite a while before gathering thousands of people from all over the world into an enclosed building will be considered okay by most people.
It’s funny, our vision statement has always been to reconnect the world through play around the table. Initially, it was because we believe in-person connection is vital to humanity flourishing. “Connecting” digitally on social media, texting and all the other ways does not fulfil our core needs as humans – which we’ve all felt acutely in quarantine!
“Reconnection” was all about this movement away from digital connection to offline connection. But now we have double the responsibility to help people reconnect as the world goes back to normal and ventures out from quarantine. And for us, that looks like doing what we are best at, which is creating safe, small gatherings all over your city at your favourite pubs, cafes or homes.
Thank you again for this Evan – we look forward to seeing what’s next for Tokyn!
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