Shail Mehta was a regular on the circuit of board game conventions, where hundreds and sometimes thousands of people gather to play everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Monopoly. A few years ago, she had an idea to reinvent the centuries-old past-time. The epiphany came when she began to wonder why she couldn’t use a game piece to play Monopoly on an iPad. That triggered her quest to find out how digital automation could bring the traditional gameboard to life.
Today, she has raised $5 million in venture capital. Buzz is building around her company, called Gameboard, with mentions in the Robb Report and Tech Crunch, and a quick feature on the Today show, reporting from this year’s Computer Electronics Show. The company’s product is now in beta and has hundreds of users.
Recruitment via Beer
But Mehta, a financial consultant, knew from the beginning that she couldn’t build her vision alone. Her first step, also audacious: Sign on one of the creators of Xbox, Rob Wyatt, to help work on R&D and develop a prototype. She was in Denver. He was an independent tech consultant in Boulder who worked on many gaming projects over the years for Microsoft, Sony, Atari and Magic Leap.
In September 2018, she picked up a six-pack of his favorite beer and traveled to his office unannounced, hoping he would listen to her pitch. Her plan worked. After listening to her Gameboard idea Wyatt thought it had real merit and agreed to help work on R&D to develop the early prototype. Mehta and her husband, Tim Schukar, a former hardware engineer at NASA and Disney mortgaged their home to raise the working capital.
Cracking the code on the proprietary hardware, AI software, touch screen and 3-D technology to make Gameboard work is a feat no other company has accomplished.
“It’s all about using a little automation to bring the cardboard game to life and build a shared activity,” says Mehta, co-founder and CEO. “We consider it a social gaming device where you can access any game with anyone. This is a social advance to other games you play remotely, she notes, since it combines the best of both worlds – video games and in-person table-top board games.
Here’s how it works: Gameboard, a 17-inch square social gaming console that uses an AI-powered method of tracking game pieces and hand movements in 3-D. It enables players to have tactile play with digital animation, and all forms of game elements can be used on the device — including cards, dice and game pieces. Retailing for $799, it is equipped with WiFi, Bluetooth and speakers to give users an immersive, connected experience.
$14 Billion Industry
Players from around the world can play board games together on Gameboard, using the device’s Internet-enabled networking capability, or through a companion app. To start, players select a game on the device. The game gives options to play immediately if you have people sitting around you, or the option to create an online room that lets others join in on your game session. A player can also invite someone to join them on a game (on Gameboard) through the app on iOS and Android.
The company’s timing is good. There has been a global boom in the tabletop gaming spurred on by multiple factors including the Covid pandemic, and the popularity of gaming of all types. The $14 billion industry is growing at a rate of 13.8% annually and is expected to reach $31 billion by 2028, according to Skyquest market research.
The trend helped The Last Gameboard raise $5 million in venture capital over the last three years from such investors as TheVentureCity, SOSV and Riot Games.
From Crowdfunding to Venture Capital
Investors’ initial interest was triggered by a successful Kickstarter campaign launched at the end of 2019, after the company filed its first patent. In just 22 hours The Last Gameboard raised $185,000 on the platform from thousands of gamers, many who had watched a video Mehta posted that demonstrated how the Gameboard prototype worked.
As Mehta explains, “these were gamers I developed a connection to at gaming tabletop conventions I attended over the years.” Prior to the launch of her business, she’d drive around at these events and talk to gamers and game developers about her product idea. This helped her develop a network of followers, and an email list of potential customers.
“VCs were impressed with the outpouring of support we received from gamers on Kickstarter,” she recalls. “It validated our claims that there was demand for our product.
CES Played A Pivotal Role
A few months later, the founders then decided to present their prototype to investors at the startup showcase, Consumer Electronics Show in January 2020. That helped them raise $500,000 in pre-seed venture capital from SOSV, a global VC firm; Riot Games; HAX, a venture firm in San Francisco, and Conscience VC for further product development.
Having Wyatt to help mastermind early product development was key to success. He served as a company co-founder and CTO until the summer of 2020, when he handed the CTO reigns to Schukar.
Subsequently, Schukar hired a tech team that included 13 software and hardware engineers and game developers to develop a beta product for the commercial marketplace. Together they built the console’s proprietary hardware with SenseScreen technology; custom-designed machine learning software that enables object identification and tracking of touch and gestures on and above the board as well as the operating system. After refining the technology, they launched the product’s beta in September of last year.
The Last Gameboard now has a library of 30 games, which is growing weekly from such companies it partners with including Asmodee Digital, Dire Wolf Digital, Steve Jackson Games and Riot Games. They include some popular games such as “Wings of Glory” and “Ogre.” It also has an open platform where developers can build original games using Gameboard’s software development kit.
The goal is to have a library of over 100 games users can buy or download for a monthly subscription fee of $15 — much like the Netflix model for TV.
According to Mehta, Gameboard is now available for pre-order on the company’s website, lastgameboard.com and at Gamestop.com for a retail price of $799. The company signed a partnership agreement with the retailer last May to sell Gameboard online. Gamestop kicked off that partnership with a 10-city “Game Night Experience” tour that month to showcase the Gameboard to its customers at some of it’s select stores in such cities as Tulsa, Oklahoma, Indianapolis, Indiana and Denver.
The company has faced many challenges over the last two years. The pandemic triggered supply chain disruptions, and the costs for components it was sourcing in Asia, packaging and freight rose dramatically due to inflation. As a result, The Last Gameboard decided to do final assembly of their beta program units in Denver. This gives them the ability to rapidly iterate on technological development issues and reduce turnaround time on producing devices for beta program players.
Mehta is excited about the prospects for the company in the months ahead. “We have great partners and interest in the product is growing among game publishers and creators,” she says. “Our beta test ends Feb. 28 and the Gameboard will be available for consumer release in March.
“I believe board games are a great social equalizer. I learned this when I emigrated to Manhattan, Kansas, from Gujurat, India, when I was six-years-old. At the time, I thought I landed on an alien planet. Playing these games with neighborhood children helped me learn English and make social connections. It’s something I never forgot.”
Favorite Quote: “It takes a village.”
Mentor: Matt Frary, former CEO of SmarterChaos, who helped me shape my entire marketing strategy.
No 1 lesson learned: Fail fast – it’s the bedrock to success. If you keep testing and reiterating your product quickly based on customer feedback; you can really thrive.
Advice: It’s important to have passion behind what you are building. If you have passion, you can build a vision. Believe in the why and share it with the world.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.