Our Story: The Tail of Rats to Riches
June 2017. I was a first-year undergrad at the University of Manchester and was volunteering with a student society called Enactus, teaching finance to secondary school kids in the local community.
Enactus faced a 'happy problem' - we had expanded from teaching 2 classes of students, to a whopping 9 classes! Taking on more than we could handle, the project started to crumble. We struggled to find volunteers to come in week after week to teach, especially during exam and deadlines season. The schools saw a marked decline in our performance. It got so bad that they were considering cutting us off totally.
Trying to find a sustainable solution that could work for both parties, I thought, ‘why don’t we make something that can teach finance without us being there?’ And, since we were teaching kids, I thought, ‘why not a game?’ That’s how Rats to Riches started. Roll credits.
The thing is, we had already been subconsciously designing 'mini-games' to make our sessions more fun and less of a lecture. So, if we could make a proper, all-encompassing game, we could sell these to schools, and we could function as a proper social enterprise.
Back home in Sunny Singapore for the summer, I developed the first prototypes of the game to test the feasibility of the idea. When I came back to Manchester in September, I had what I thought was a pretty decent game already and pitched the concept to the other society members.
Tragically, the idea was shot down. Enactus was meant to be a volunteering society, so by creating this game, and eliminating the volunteers, the society would not make sense anymore. Feelsbadman.
It really sucked because I put in all that work over the summer thinking that Enactus, with its resources and connections, could help it grow to something big. Instead, facing rejection, I felt that the odds of success dropped to near zero.
I would end up continuing my work with the game on my own, just to see how far it could go. Looking back, this was a key turning point. Being effectively forced into doing this myself was probably one of the best things that has happened in this journey. With the door of Enactus closed off, taking sole ownership of this game opened so many more doors than I could have ever imagined.
During the first ever game of Rats to Riches (back then, it was still called ‘The Game’ for lack of creative inspiration), 2 of the players went bankrupt within their first 3 turns. They had to throw away their cards, with no hope of ever recovering. Ravy, one of the players who went bankrupt, rage-quit on me and stormed off halfway through the game. The other, I guess feeling bad for me, decided to stay on till the end. Bless his soul. Mind you, that game took 2 and a half hours to finish, so just imagine the pain he had to go through. Meanwhile, another player, Kenji, got so rich that we didn’t have enough real-life coins to physically represent how much he had. Kenji would later become my boss, so I guess it wasn't all bad?
Needless to say, that was a humbling experience. A massive subversion of expectations. The game was horrible! And I nearly lost a friend because of it. At that point, I genuinely thought, ‘Maybe I should drop this. Maybe I am not cut out to design a game.’
It was tough picking up the pieces, but I decided to give it one more shot. Making many very significant changes to the game, I again took it to the same 3 people (Ravy sat out for this one, understandably) and play-tested it. An improvement, but still needed work. Again, back to Ali G, another prototype, another play-test. Eat. Sleep Repeat.
Something that people ask me a lot is ‘what made you keep going? How did you know it was going to work?’ And I think about that a fair bit myself, too. Why would anyone even think of making yet another finance game? We already have Monopoly, The Business Game, The Game of Life, Cashflow, among so many others. Who in their right mind would consider such a project worthwhile?
I think there are 2 parts to this. One, that I honestly thought that this was going to work. I saw Rats to Riches (and still do) as the next Monopoly, a staple household game loved the world over. That was, and still is, the goal. The next part to it is that it doesn’t matter how successful this gets. I’m not going to stop working on this just because it has a low chance of making money. I would do this even if I was not getting paid. And I would do it even if I had a million dollars. It’s a funny paradox, yes, to set myself a goal and strive to achieve it, yet not making my happiness contingent on the attainment of the goal. To enjoy the process for what it is. That’s what’s kept me going.
All this while, I play-tested the game with friends and family. But I knew it was paramount that I get other people, not just friends, but strangers too, to provide feedback and help push this forward.
October 2017. I joined a Meetup group for aspiring game developers to try each other’s games. Sounds fantastic, so I went, thinking that this 20-year old student would wow the crowd with his slick game.
Guess what? They hated it! Like, absolutely tore it to shreds. These guys straight up told me that half of the game was spoiling the other half, and I was wasting my players’ times. It was brutal. I remember standing at the side of the street in the Northern Quarter, watching the rain fall, thinking about my life choices. Cue slow-mo Korean drama scene.
I genuinely thought that I had something good going for me. I thought I had already put in a lot of effort to make this work. But, I guess that’s the value of having strangers play-test my game, because unlike with friends and family, these guys have no qualms speaking their mind. It's not that my friends and family were ‘ being nice’ - they probably did enjoy the game, but did not have the professional experience to properly critique it.
Back to brainstorming.
That night, I broke down the game’s components, really questioned every single component, every assumption, reworked a bunch of them, then pieced all of it back together. Previously, most of the changes made from one version to the next were small re-balancing tweaks, to enhance rather than transform. This time, it was quite the overhaul. And it was very refreshing.
Over these 5 years, the game has evolved so much. It’s so funny to look back on all the weird things the game once had. The first ever prototype had ‘rings’ or 'tracks' in the rat race that players would move on. Then we had individual boards for each player, with unique goals to meet. We had gems, fruits and nuts. We had Corn cards and Tunnel cards. We had Earthquakes and Gym Rats. You could even get Babies and Birth Control! (for quite a long time, actually) All kinds of crazy nonsense.
Went back to that Meetup group one month later, and… they liked it! Woohoo! Again, I was out on that street, thinking about my life choices. But in a good way this time. Still raining though. UK weather, am I right?
November 2017. Word on Rats to Riches had started spreading around campus and an Economics Professor, Dr. Reza, was interested to find out more. An eccentric Israeli professor who explained economics through stories involving his grandmother, I met Dr. Reza at his office, talked about the game, then played for about 10 minutes before he gave his verdict.
It wasn’t good. He said the game was too complex. Too difficult to understand. Too many rules. Too much going on. He said to make the game more like Chess; have a few key pillars, key algorithms, while letting the complexity come from their interactions and combinations.
At that point, I was surprised, and upset. But, trying to seem cool and stoic, I thanked him for his time and headed home. This was the same version of the game that was well received by the Northern Quarter guys. And now a university professor is telling me otherwise? The thought running through my mind was: ‘what does this old guy know about games? My peers like it, strangers like it, other game developers like it, and I think it’s great exactly how it is.’
I really didn’t want to listen to what he was saying. But I knew he was speaking the truth. I was just reluctant to admit it. I had already poured 5 months of my time and energy into this. He was just one guy giving me feedback. To do what he was telling me to do would mean ANOTHER serious overhaul to the game. Was that really what we needed?
Turns out, it was exactly what the game needed - a chess-like structure. That epiphany hit in the best possible place: the shower. Even the name Rats to Riches was born out of a shower serendipity session. Maybe it’s because the water is hitting your head so that stimulates thinking? Whatever the reason is, since then, I’ve made it a point to shower twice a day, for increased creativity.
So what is the chess-like structure? Well, players simply do 2 things on their turn; buy cards, then buy cheese. We have a central Sewer marketplace of cards and cheese where all activity happens. The complexity of the game would come from how one plays their cards, which cheese they acquire, and how they spend it. With this, we effectively cut the rules down from 7 pages to 2. Insane.
For all the play-test sessions I had up to that point, I would set up the game, explain the rules and play along. Slowly taking the game out from my bag, sorting out the cards into different piles, pouring out the coins, all while everyone else is just awkwardly staring at me. Then I start explaining the rules. All 7 pages of them. People start to get lost, drift away, bored. Then you start playing, finally, after 20 minutes. As the game goes, players encounter situations that need further explaining. So I do. This happens multiple times, until finally, after 2 hours, we finish one game.
But what if I wasn't there? Would other players be able to religiously set up the game and explain it? With all the odd situations too? I didn’t like the thought of it. So, it was essential that the game be simple to set up, and as easy to teach as possible. And with Dr. Reza’s input, Rats to Riches took one big leap for rat-kind.
My daily schedule looked something like this: university in the morning, brainstorming + prototyping in the afternoon, then play-test session in the evening. Eat, Sleep, Repeat.
In December 2017, a good friend of mine, Kiran, who chaired the entrepreneurship society at our university, talked to me about a start-up accelerator that I should apply for. “Hey man, you got this cool game, you should totally apply for Accelerate ME”. The program, if my application was successful, would give me funding, office space and mentoring.
Back then, my reply to him was “Nah man, I’m good. I don’t really need the money (prototypes were literally just pieces of paper). Don’t need an office. Plus, I probably wouldn’t get in anyway. This is not some tech start-up. It’s just a game.”
I applied anyway, and in February 2018, everything changed when the fire nat… when I pitched Rats to Riches to a panel of judges, and miraculously got in!
This meant 2 things.
First, the game could now look far more professional, more credible than before. From a scrappy, hand-made prototype to a properly manufactured set of the game. It would open many more doors for me. Going for conventions, pushing social media content, starting further collaborations, etc. Super good.
Secondly, it meant that I no longer needed to be physically present for a game of Rats to Riches to be played. Previously, the only set of the game was with me, and it didn’t make sense to hand-make multiple sets for others; new versions of the game were being developed at breakneck speed. Having these sets manufactured and packaged nicely meant that my friends, wherever they were in the world, could play the game, and carry the brand forward.
In early May, the BETA sets finally arrived. I brought onboard Robert, a course-mate, to help me with marketing. We did an unboxing video (absolutely hilarious, check it out here if you want to watch me fail at opening my own game box). We ran 3 Rats to Riches Tournaments. Bought a golden cheese grater and some purple hoodies just for it too. We cycled all over Manchester to give out copies of the game to people who supported us thus far. We travelled to Leeds, Preston and Shotton for collaborations with other board game communities outside Manchester. We even had a rat photoshoot (with real rats!). But, most importantly, we ran an influencer marketing campaign.
Unlike typical, traditional marketing on billboards or television or newspapers, influencer marketing was about getting as close to the end consumer as possible, and in as authentic a way as possible. That, to me, was very important. The best part was, influencer marketing was basically non-existent in the board game industry. It’s not that we didn’t have influencers; we absolutely do, lots of them. But nobody was executing the influencer marketing strategy in the same way that say the fashion industry does. I guess for the board game industry, we would classify them more as ‘micro-influencers’, meaning those with 1000-10000 followers, compared to the much higher follower counts in other industries.
Anyways, we decided to try it out. Together, Robert and I compiled a list of over 300 board game influencers all over the world: Canada, U.S, South Africa, Germany, Sweden, Philippines, etc. DM-ed all of them, told them we were about to launch our BETA and that we wanted to hear what they thought about it. Got about 200 who said yes, and we mailed these sets to them, they had a go, liked the game, naturally posted about it on their social media platforms, and created quite the buzz.
The best part about this is, because of the buzz we created through the influencer campaign, I got a UK-based games publisher, Accentuate, approaching me, saying ‘we’ve been seeing Rats to Riches all over Instagram, and we want you to license the game to us.’ I would handle game development and design, while these guys handle manufacturing, distribution and retail.
We had this conversation during our first meeting in June 2018. Funny thing is, when we arranged the meeting, I had no idea that this had anything to do with licensing. I genuinely thought it was going to be a normal networking session between game developers, and I thought these guys could help promote Rats to Riches just like the other people in the industry I’d met over the past year.
So, when Graeme (CEO of Accentuate) and his wife, Daphne, and mentioned licensing, I was not prepared for it at all. Okay, first of all, we met in a super fancy restaurant in Chester. Like, proper fancy. When I reached the restaurant, literally everyone else was in a suit or dress. I was in a turtleneck and jeans, feeling massively underdressed. Finally, these guys booked out the ENTIRE FUNCTION ROOM of the restaurant just for the 3 of us to sit around one table and chat. Talk about a power play.
So they wanted me to license Rats to Riches to them.
My response? ‘No thanks, I’m good.’
Let me provide some context. As game developers, there are 2 main paths we can take. One is to pitch to a publisher, the other is to do it yourself, likely through a Kickstarter campaign. All this time, since the start of the Rats to Riches journey, I was locked in to the mindset that I would take the latter path. I had heard from other game developers how they lost all creative control of their games once handing them over to a publisher, and how publishers don’t respect their product. I also much preferred to take the second path so that I could learn more about being a businessman.
So I told these things to Graeme and Daphne, explaining why I said no. They were very surprised themselves. They were like, ‘woah woah woah wait wait, hear us out’ and they explained that with them it would be different. That Rats to Riches would be their third game, and therefore constitute 33% of their portfolio. That they still want me to have creative control over marketing and social media. That I would have the last say before they manufactured anything. I felt they made a compelling case. I tell them I will think about it. The meeting ends with us having some ideas on how we could make it work, but nothing concrete yet.
I head back to Singapore for the summer, and we continue talking over email about moving this forward. Eventually, we have a contract. My first ever business law document. In real life! I had just taken a Business Law module in university about torts and contracts that last semester, thinking the whole time that it was the most useless module ever. Life certainly has an odd sense of humor! The stuff I learnt through that module became the most important thing over that summer. In August 2018, I said yes! The partnership between Rats to Riches and Accentuate was now official.
London Toy Fair
UK Games Expo
Rats to Riches x Student's Union
Rats 2 Riches