Three years ago, Omari Akil and his brother Hamu Dennis were sitting down for a night of board games. A few hours later, they were making their own. They’re the team behind Rap Godz, a tabletop game about becoming an industry-changing hip hop artist. And just like the characters in their game, the founders of Board Game Brothas are changing their industry too.
Rap Godz was released earlier this year following a successful Kickstarter campaign (it’s currently sold out, and there are no plans for a reprint yet). The two-to-four player game has players take on the role of different emcees, who grow their skills and build street cred by taking over cities, achieving career goals, and earning album plaques. It mixes storytelling and strategy with a bit of trivia, educating players on the history of hip hop as they work to take over the world with their music. It stands out as the only strategy game about the genre.
Instead of taking their game to a publisher, Akil and Dennis decided to form their own company, Board Game Brothas, making them one of just a few Black-owned publishers in the business. The tabletop industry, like so many others, has faced ongoing criticism over its lack of diversity: A 2018 survey showed that nine out of 10 games are designed by white men. Recent anti-racist protests ignited a long-overdue conversation on the shortage of Black voices in the field, with controversies over games like Magic: The Gathering and Cards Against Humanity showing what too many have ignored and what needs to change.
In a phone interview, Gizmodo spoke with Akil about how he first got into board games, what made him and Dennis decide to produce Rap Godz independently, and why it’s good that Black Lives Matter has come to the tabletop. Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.
Beth Elderkin, Gizmodo: You grew up playing video games more than board games. What games were you playing growing up?
Omari Akil: Starting out, it was around when the first Nintendo came out. So I think a lot of what I started to enjoy about gaming started there. Some of my favourite games were, obviously the Super Mario series. But I also liked the weirder things, like Dr. Mario. It was a super popular game back then. My gaming evolution is a long path, but I ended up playing — what I really enjoyed were games that are a little bit puzzled-based. My favourite game is Portal.
Gizmodo: Were games — video games or board games — a thing in your family, or was that something you kind of got into on your own?
Akil: Oddly enough, it was not a thing in my family. I was not even allowed to play video games until I could pay for them myself. That was kind of the offer-slash-restriction placed on my house. But my brother, who is like 15 years older than me — by the time I wanted to play games, he could afford to buy them on his own. So I kind of sneaked in the backdoor to be able to play games. So, my brother kind of introduced me to games, video games.
Gizmodo: You said in a previous interview that watching [Geek & Sundry’s] TableTop first introduced you to board games. Was it kind of like a lightbulb going off? Like, “Oh, people get together and play these games!” What changed for you?
Akil: It was kind of a moment in my life where I was just really trying to make more friends and be more social. Kind of being an introvert and not doing that for a big part of my life, it was like that’s just what I want in my life at the time. And that show, with my love for games, kind of combined was like, “Oh, this is the way I can be more social with people, and it actually looks like a lot of fun.” I was like, yeah, I’ve gotta do this.
Gizmodo: How many games do you have right now?
Akil: Right now? I mean, I don’t keep count. [laughs]
Gizmodo: That probably means a lot, right?
Akil: I think out of all the gamers out there, especially my friends, my collection is very small in comparison. I probably have around 50 at this point.
Gizmodo: Can you take me through the journey of you and your brother creating Rap Godz? How did the idea come about and what made you decide to pursue it?
Akil: It was kind of dumb luck. I was into games at this point for a few years, I already had a small collection that I was proud of. [Dennis] came to visit me in North Carolina [in 2017], and I was just telling him, “I’m into this new thing, it’s a lot of fun. We can play some games if you want.” And we just started playing games.
He was like, “Man, this is really cool. I was designing a game once.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, tell me about that!” He was like, “Well, it was this hip hop game that is kind of like The Game of Life, mixed in with some trivia.” I was like, “Hmm, all right. That sounds interesting. I probably wouldn’t play that kind of game now, but that’s cool.” Then we started talking about other stuff and games, and he was like, “Well, are there any hip hop games now?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think so.” And kind of being shocked by that realisation, and kind of kept talking about it a little bit, like what would that look like? And I was like, “Are we gonna make this game?” It was just a conversation for a while. It was like, “Oh, I guess we could actually try to make it.”
And I think we just agreed we would try, and kept talking the rest of the weekend. And we played a ton more games, we probably played 10 games that weekend. I was like, “This is a crash course, all the different games and mechanics. Let’s do it.” It wasn’t until a few days later that my brother called me and said, “Hey, I made our game, or a very simple prototype of what we talked about.” And I was like, “Whoa, this is actually happening.”
Gizmodo: What made you decide to produce it independently? Did you go to any of the larger companies first, or were you going to do it on your own from the get-go?
Akil: We actually flip-flopped on that decision a couple of times. Because I think just understanding history a little bit, just listening to people who are both publishers and designers, and have made that transition. We initially thought, you know, we just want to be game designers. We don’t want to be responsible for all those business parts of it and the logistics. I mean, it was like, let’s just make games. That was kind of our choice. We were thinking of bringing it to a publisher. We kept working with the game and kind of had that conversation again, and it seemed like we both had a little change of heart.
What we did know is that once you hand over your game to a company, it’s likely you won’t have that much input after that. Just depending on the situation, if you’re not a super-established designer. So I think the more we put into the game, the less that felt good to us — knowing that they would be changing a lot, and it might end up not being the vision that we had initially. And that started to, I think, change our minds a little bit.
It also made us consider that there probably aren’t any Black-owned publishers that are kind of growing and flourishing right now. And we wanted that. It’s like, well, that’s another reason for us to actually start this and learn this business. Because even if it’s not us who are growing, we can at least pass this knowledge onto somebody else. This is an opportunity to learn an industry in-depth, and we may not get that opportunity anytime soon if we keep going different directions, so let’s just go for it.
Once we decided we were publishing, it changed everything. Because our focus became — we were building something that we could use to give back to the industry, and that changed our ideas about what we were doing a lot.
Gizmodo: You funded through Kickstarter. What kind of reaction have you seen from people who supported your campaign who finally have a copy?
Akil: I think it’s been good. There’s been very few times where I actually heard dissatisfaction or disappointment. Most of it is they played it, they had so much fun, the art is so good. There’s a lot of humour in it, so we get people who call out some of the jokes. I think it’s been pretty good, we’re having fun with it.
Gizmodo: When you look at the tabletop industry and community right now, what do you feel is working?
Akil: There’s something about people bringing up their — I don’t know exactly how to describe it — just this sort of indie support. There’s a lot of indie support. It seems like people are very willing to spend money on products by brand new designers. I think that is a really nice thing across the board. People are willing to take those chances. There’s always going to be huge games that we go crazy for. But I think people are still willing to support people who are new and small, just like boutique game shops. And I don’t know exactly why that is, but I think it’s really powerful that there’s no hesitation to invest in people who are new and just coming in.
Gizmodo: Do you think part of that is because of the rise in Kickstarter and crowdfunding, or do you think it’s a separate issue?
Akil: I think it’s two things. I think Kickstarter makes it very convenient for those investments to happen, and sort of the growth of board gaming through Kickstarter is a part of it. But I think the other part is the community part. Because you sit down at a table with folks and play these games — where people are doing conventions, and travelling across the country playing games with people face-to-face. I think just that level of interaction with your community, just makes you care that much more about the people creating them.
Gizmodo: What do you feel isn’t working? What is missing from the tabletop industry and gaming community as a whole?
Akil: I think there isn’t a very strong sort of, like, I want to say blog community but I don’t want to say that. Like a publication dedicated to going a little more in-depth in terms of the writing happens about boardgames. We have websites like this for movies and pretty much every other genre of entertainment right now, but board games doesn’t really have that.
And I think it has been a place where it’s been pretty difficult to add more diversity to it. I think there are leaps and bounds that have been made, just in the last 10 years. I think the number of women has increased so significantly, to the point where at conventions it almost feels like 50/50. So I think that actually has done something. But I don’t see as many people of colour, and it’s a little bit sad because it is a space that I feel so good in. Just in terms of gaming itself. And so, yeah, I think that’s one thing that definitely needs improving. I know it can be done, because it sort of happened with women. It’s totally possible.
Gizmodo: We have seen a report that a huge, overwhelming majority of board games are designed by white men. I’m not going to ask you why that is, because obviously we already know that. But I wanted to ask: What kind of impact do you feel that lack of diversity is having on the board gaming community as a whole?
Akil: On the designer end, I think this is already rapidly changing. But up until probably about two or three years ago, it felt like the possibilities — in terms of games, what was being explored in terms of mechanics — it felt a little narrower than maybe I would expect as the industry was starting to grow. I don’t know that that’s exactly why, but I think it could have been a contribution to that, just not having as many perspectives. And also being somewhat of a tight-knit community of predominantly white men would kind of make that happen too. Just because you’re all playing the same games.
That’s actually one of the most interesting things I think about me and my brother working together is that he had almost zero knowledge about the modern game industry when we started designing Rap Godz. The ideas he was bringing to the table were so different because he wasn’t really a gamer at all in the way that I was. He wasn’t tapped into the industry. I think moreso something like that, where those ideas are just feeding themselves and they don’t get enough influence from outside of that.
Gizmodo: Right now, we’re having a big conversation in the country thanks to Black Lives Matter and it has come into the tabletop industry. Magic: The Gathering has removed a few cards that had overt connections to white supremacy. Cards Against Humanity has been called out for casual racism in gaming, along with some behind-the-scenes issues. How are you feeling seeing this movement — not only does it impact you on a personal level, in so many ways, it’s also impacting your profession. How do you feel about that?
Akil: I think it’s a good thing that so much of society, all across the board, we’re all feeling the same thing. And the pressure is being applied the same way. So I think just that solidarity across almost every industry and profession — that it’s happening, I think that’s super positive. And I think one thing that I’m just happy about is it’s just going to make more people who are developing games and putting out games be more intentional. Hopefully, we’ll have a lot less of these things in games because of what’s happening now, and people will be more proactive about not including it. I think for Cards Against Humanity and Magic: The Gathering — at the time, those weren’t the things they were most concerned about. It’s a casual racism, and often unintentional. It’s good that they’re sort of being forced to do it.
Gizmodo: Earlier, you said that you were shocked that there were no games that went into hip hop as a genre. We’ve seen many other music genres being explored in board games, but for some reason hip hop wasn’t. What shocked you about that, and how does it feel?
Akil: I think it pointed to this idea of a self-feeding loop because hip hop culture is one of the most expansive types of culture in the world. And for it to have had no impact, or no real presence, in this growing industry? Just felt very strange. It just reinforces this idea that there weren’t enough ideas from enough perspectives coming in.
Gizmodo: That said, in a previous interview you had the complicated conversation about whether white people should play Rap Godz [because it features “African-American-vernacular English,” aka AAVE, leading to concerns about cultural appropriation or stereotyping]. What are your thoughts on the subject now?
Akil: I mean, I think it’s always been in the back of my mind that I kind of intentionally leave it there. I think it’s important that, really, anybody can absorb someone else’s culture and do that in a responsible way. And, you know, we’re human. We’re not always going to get that right. But ideally, that’s what I want, and I want that to happen across the board for anybody who’s making games. You’re going to have people from other backgrounds playing them. If we can share that, ultimately, that’s the ideal. But I still have my hesitation in the back of my mind just kind of there, because I do know that there are a lot of people out there who would intentionally abuse what we’re putting forward. I’m hoping that’s a very, very small number of people.
Gizmodo: You guys were set to be promoting your game right now, but everything has shut down from the pandemic. How have you been coping during this time?
Akil: I mean, it’s been absolutely challenging. And I think, you know, with me being here, my brother being in New Orleans, just working together on things, it’s just a little bit harder. We’re feeling a little more stressed, a little more anxious about everything. Honestly, it’s just led to us not communicating as much. And it’s tough, that’s going to prevent us from doing a lot of what we need to do — in terms of promotion, in terms of development, some bigger projects we’re working on. So everything’s slowed down, basically. And I think neither of us feels super guilty about that. Because it’s a lot, it’s a lot.
Gizmodo: Once the pandemic has passed, what’s next for you guys?
Akil: Well, we’ve been talking about that — we’ve sort of been forced to more than ever. Our plans changed for what business is going to be doing for the next six months. And so I think that what we feel like is the best step forward… a lot of people are asking me to be reprinting Rap Godz. That’s something we would love to do, but I don’t think it’s our immediate purpose right now. We are going to continue work on a couple of projects we have been working on. My guess right now, if I have to say, is a two-player street basketball game that we have in development right now, and it’s going to be called Hoop Godz. We are probably going to start putting out information on that game in the near future.
And then, we are still working on a game called Graffiti Knights, but it is almost completely redesigned. We sort of took the original concept that we had and took it out completely, and we’re redoing that game completely. But the core of idea of the game is going to be the same, where you control a crew of graffiti artists who are out at night trying to tag as many spots as possible.
Gizmodo: Finally, what do you love about gaming?
Akil: Oh, I love the people. I hate to always go back there, but that’s the thing that gets me to the table 90% of the time. It’s just being able to sit around and play games with folks — which I can’t now, which is depressing. But we’re trying to figure out ways to do that. I think that it’s my favourite thing. What the industry sort of adds to that is we have a kind of Golden Age right now, where so many games are coming out.
In addition to the people, you also can sort of rally around what’s new. I used to be that way with video games. When things were first coming out, I’d stand outside Best Buy waiting for something to come out at midnight. We’re starting to have a little more of that with people who are getting into new games. Yeah, just that excitement for some of the big ones out there. I do appreciate that. It’s something I can feel again.
More information about Rap Godz and future Board Game Brothas releases, like Graffiti Knights, can be found on Akil and Dennis’ website. Akil contributes to Tabletop Backer Party, an independent site covering tabletop games seeking crowdfunding. He also wrote a short roleplaying game for James Amato’s The Ultimate Micro-RPG Book, all about superheroes playing a basketball game currently in overtime. That’s set to come out on November 3.