In 1997 Seattle’s tabletop gaming community celebrated the news that Washington’s Wizards of the Coast had purchased TSR, the publishers of perhaps the greatest role playing game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons. The news of the TSR transaction nearly inspired me to dig out my old character sheets and call up a few of my high school buddies for one last D&D adventure.
However, it only “nearly” inspired me. Ultimately my one-time favorite D&D dwarf character “John the Dropper” remained retired.
Why? Because just one year earlier I had discovered another style of game-play from a small Seattle company called Cheapass Games; the creation of Seattle designer James Ernest.
When Cheapass launched in 1996, they offered a very different type of game. For a mere pittance, customers could order games in black-and-white envelopes, which included only rules and board sections. Other components could be common household items, such as pennies, or scavenged from board games customers already owned. For those of us who found Cheapass games in those early days, we were treated to roughly 100 tabletop adventures over the course of a decade.
Their very first game, Kill Doctor Lucky, is a “pre-mystery” game about trying to murder a very lucky old man. (Don’t worry, Doctor Lucky probably deserves it). Other fan favorites included Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, Button Men, and Unexploded Cow.
My favorite Button Men garnered a fervent fan base and multiple licenses including Sailor Moon and Girl Genius.
For ten years Cheapass Games released about a dozen games per year, which is an incredible amount of product when you consider what goes into creating a game. The basic plot of the game, character design, writing, editing, and illustrating, distribution, and more is an astounding task. To crank out that many games, complete with award winning titles is amazing. Unfortunately, in 2007 James Ernst decided to close the doors and take a break from production, with Ernst disappearing from the market for a half-decade.
During this time Cheapass hibernated. Some of their games found new publishers within the industry, while others went out of print. During their absence the industry changed. Printing costs rocketed and the supply of paper remnants Cheapass Games previously relied on dried up. The costs of other components fell as more and more board games were produced. Gamers’ preferences shifted to more deluxe-style games with fancy things like color printing and custom components.
And then, they returned!
In 2012 Cheapass Games emerged from their slumber, turning to Kickstarter for help in meeting the market’s new demands, starting with a reprint of Unexploded Cow. Soon Deluxe editions of several other classic Cheapass titles followed including Kill Doctor Lucky in 2015 with a 19.5th Anniversary Edition, featuring streamlined rules and fancy components. In addition to deluxe reprints, Ernest has begun developing original titles such as Pairs, Tak, and The Island of Doctor Lucky. Pairs is a single deck of cards that can be used to play over thirty games. Created in collaboration with bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss, Tak is an elegant two-player abstract reminiscent of classics like Go and chess. The Island of Doctor Lucky is a sequel to Kill Doctor Lucky; players are still trying to kill the old man, but this time, they must contend with the dangers of his private tropical island. Ernest’s next project is to delve through ancient computers and file formats to dig out the old envelope games, which will be collected into a book titled Cheapass Games in Black and White, which will be launched on Kickstarter in Spring 2019, allowing fans to play their old favorites once again.
Learn more about Cheapass Games and download some of their old titles for free at cheapass.com, and follow them on Facebook (facebook.com/ActualCheapassGames) and Twitter (@cheapassgames).