“A man walked into a game store. . . .”
Thus begins the story of how Tsuro: The Game of the Path came to be in print. The store was Games and Gizmos of Redmond, Washington; the owners were Dawne and Jordan Weisman; the man was Tom McMurchie. Tom was playing Squiggles, a game he had created, with a group of regulars. Jordan watched them play, saw how elegant the game was, and asked Tom if he would be interested in having it published.
Jordan, who also happened to have founded the game company WizKids, worked with Tom and the WizKids development team over the next year to reshape Squiggles into what we now know as Tsuro. While the game’s rules went virtually unchanged, Dawne and her design team transformed the underlying 1950s-era theme into a Japanese-inspired foundation.
When the factory shipped the prototype production copy of Tsuro to WizKids, the company revisited the game with an eye toward reducing costs. Two major changes helped to achieve that goal. First was replacing the rice paper insert with regular white paper. Second was eliminating the rough-cloth storage bag for the pawns. Both changes were instrumental in keeping the game’s introductory price at $24.95.
The decision to drop these elements from the presentation disappointed the design team, but they understood the need. At the time, WizKids was a successful company with profitable tabletop miniatures game lines such as Mage Knight, HeroClix, and MechWarrior. Tsuro, a more traditional board game, was a departure from the many innovative products WizKids had become known for—and the company didn’t want price to be the reason it didn’t succeed.
Tsuro’s game play was strong enough to entice German publisher KOSMOS to license the game for its market—with a few modifications. KOSMOS put the game in a larger box, changed the marker stones to wooden tree-shaped pawns, and included a two-sided board. Unlike the 6x6 grid of the original board, this second side had a 7x7 grid. To fill the additional spaces on the board, KOSMOS printed duplicates of certain tiles, increasing the tile count from 36 to 64. When playing the 6x6 board, players of the KOSMOS variant would randomly choose 35 tiles. This fundamentally changed the play experience from a skill-based game to a luck-based game, as players would not know what mix of tiles was being used.
The German release did well despite a significantly higher price point due to the additional components, perhaps in part because of the shelf presentation, which was brighter than the original. Tsuro’s European success wasn’t limited to Germany, however; Greek publisher Kaissa licensed the KOSMOS variant, and the U.S. version was translated into seven languages and offered throughout the continent.
WizKids continued to sell Tsuro, but the game was not a priority for the company. Eventually, Topps bought WizKids and moved the game further onto the back burner. This lack of support was magnified when Michael Eisner purchased Topps. Less than a year later, WizKids was sold to NECA, whereupon the rights to Tsuro reverted to Tom McMurchie, the original designer.
Enter Ray Wehrs, who served as WizKids’ director of sales when Tsuro was first published. A huge fan of the game, Wehrs saw Tsuro as the perfect “gateway” game: easy to teach, quick to play (15–20 minutes), and able to accommodate a generous number of players (up to eight). When Wehrs learned that Tsuro’s rights had become available, he realized the title could be the cornerstone product for a company dedicated to family-style gateway games. That’s right: Tsuro literally inspired the founding of Calliope Games. Wehrs pitched the idea to Tom and secured the rights to the game. Calliope Games not only began publishing Tsuro, but it also supported the title more actively than ever before. In the first two years alone that Calliope Games offered Tsuro, it sold more units than WizKids had in its entire tenure as the game’s publisher. This success was bolstered by Wil Wheaton’s review of the game on his TableTop video Web series.
Tsuro continues to sell well and entertain hundreds of thousands of fans and is now available as an app for both the iOS and Android from Thunderbox Entertainment. As Calliope Games moves toward its 10th anniversary, plans are in the works to create a deluxe version of the game. Tsuro has spawned sequels (which will be discussed in a future article) and several promotional items, including a set of eight collectable Rainbow Dragon stones in the November 2017 issue of Game Trade Magazine. In addition to entertaining many players over the years, Tsuro has been used by established hobbyists to introduce friends and family to the board game world. Indeed, Tsuro: The Game of the Path has charted an amazing course through gaming history and may very well be one of the finest gateway games ever published.