Top of the Pops! An Inside Look at FunkoVerse at Gen Con

(Editor’s note: this is the first of our Post-Gen Con posts. We’ll have more posts on our top plays as well as comprehensive coverage of the games we played and brought home. Our thanks to Funko for providing review copies of these games).

Two hours before the halls officially opened, we opened huge metal doors in the main hallway to spy a ten foot wooden wall emblazoned with a Funko crown logo glowing back at us. The sign practically dared us to walk past it and see the wonders that lay behind.

We stepped to the right, adjusting our eyes to the lamp lit light of the Funko main gaming area. It was almost like stepping through a portal into a whole different world. Forget drab carpet and signs for $3.50 soft drinks, or thousands of people milling around. Instead, we were greeted by wall-to-wall soft dark wood, beautiful tables, and a decor that mashed together a little bit of Hogwarts Castle and The Librarians home base.

We were looking forward to meeting Stephanie Straw, our social media contact at Funko who is a long time friend of Carlos, but she was away at a meeting. Instead, the staff introduced us to Chris Rowlands, one of the lead designers at Prospero Hall, the game studio that is part of Forrest-Pruzan Creative, a company that Funko swallowed recently. Chris didn’t know this, but I follow him on Twitter and love his positive, here’s-an-inside-look candor about his designs, the industry, and especially his move to Prospero Hall. I could already tell this was going to be one of the highlights of the Con — although it would not top Gladiators In An Arena #onemoreyear.

Carlos and I got right down to business. We were invited by Funko to discuss their big, bold new project called FunkoVerse. Coincidentally, I had won a copy of the DC version of the system at the previous night’s Strike tourney — did I mention that I was named King of Strike at Gen Con by Rolling Dice & Taking Names? — but I honestly did not know much about either the system or the game products. Here was our chance to grill Chris, a pretty noted designer in his own right before coming to his present job. (In fact, Carlos was a backer of Chris’ Kickstarter funded project, Under My Bed.)

Chris started out with a little background. Prospero Hall is the design group name for Forrest-Pruzan Creative, a company that has been around a lot longer than I realized. Back around 2000, my family and friends got hooked on a game called Cranium, which most of you have likely played or at least seen in mass market stores. Turns out, Forrest-Pruzan Creative designed Cranium, and the company took off from there. Prospero Hall’s focus, as you might have guessed from their recent offerings, is making quality games out of big time intellectual properties.

As Chris put it, Prospero Hall’s goal is to design games that both gamers at BGG and casual gamers walking the aisles of Target will enjoy. In our mind, there have been some misses, but they have also had some huge hits. Villainous has connected with a lot of the regular Wednesday Gumbo Game night crowds, and Jaws is one of the games of 2019 already — I’m not kidding, Jaws is that good.

So, the success of Jaws and Villainous had me intrigued. What was Chris looking for when he and his team met with Funko after the acquisition? He told me that Funko gave them pretty wide latitude on what would be the first products to offer to the gaming public. They batted around a couple of different ideas, but Chris kept coming back to a dream of his: to design a minis game that he would play, but that would be accessible enough for new gamers and families alike.

Chris told us that he realized right away that the huge library of IPs to which Funko had access matched up with the insane design talent at the studio could really produce a great minis skirmish game. I had no idea that Funko produces over hundreds of new each year! But Carlos asked some probing questions about the set up of the company. How could a design studio bite off a big project like this and turn it around in such short order before Gen Con?

The answer is the vertical integration at the studio (and the fact that they’ve been working on the project longer than we realized). Prospero Hall is small enough that everybody knows each other and there is a highly collaborative nature to the work. Yet, at the same time, the talent pool is deep enough that multiple parts of a project can move on at the same time. The graphics team can mock up the boards designed by the designers, while the designers work on cards and mechanics. The artists can work on the sculpts for the minis, even while playtests are going on.

As Chris put it, if he gets stuck on a particular problem, he doesn’t have to just put it aside and wait for inspiration, he can walk down the hall and ask a half dozen designers to take a shot at clearing out the log jam.

Once they had the basic ideas laid down, the team focused on where they wanted the game to geaux. Chris said the goal was to make a game that could be learned in five minutes — that’s where the intro tutorial came in — be flexible and expandable, and generate thematic excitement. He wanted each character to have powers that seemed to fit the persona, but be balanced for good play. And, they wanted a system that could be compatible with all of the Pops! (They abandoned that part pretty quickly early on, when they realized they had to shrink down the regular Pops! figures to mini size for game purposes.)

From what I gathered, the key element in the design process was the decision to geaux with a playable box for both four packs of characters and the expansion two packs (each box being playable on their own) with “scenarios” that are common to each and every different box. In other words, the four initial scenarios will be standard to each box, but the characters themselves as well as the unique items can be mixed and matched to allow for greater replayability.

Right now, there are six sets that we could see:

  • Harry Potter four pack;
  • Harry Potter two pack;
  • DC four pack;
  • DC two pack;
  • Golden Girls two pack; and
  • Rik & Morty two pack.

All six of the packs are standalones, meaning that you could buy even the smaller two packs and still have enough characters to play. (I liked Chris’ term: he called them “expandalones”). All of the sets come with “minions” or “companions”, just card board tokens that you can use to supplement one extra character. Of course, all sets come with a unique map, super chunky dice, and enough tokens to play a two-on-two match.

How is the presentation?  Chris had the Harry Potter set laid out for us to check out. The game looks gorgeous on the table! It comes with four characters from the Potterverse, plus some extra characters that you play using markers. The characters are customizable in that there are items you can add to the game that the characters can pick up and attach to their little Funko-ized hands. And yes, we did not know that the items are indeed interchangeable — imagine Hermione using the Batarang!

Players split up into two teams, pick the scenario to play (everything from capture the flag to king of the hill type games), and then have a Pop! battle. In all honesty, we were underwhelmed with our first play of the tutorial. It’s clearly not meant for gamers, but more for newcomers to the hobby.

Last night, we jumped into a couple of full plays at our weekly Gumbo Game Night. Holy skirmish, Batman, what a difference! We mixed and matched characters and items, and played two games. Two thumbs up from me for the game play – Bryan had me up and running in seconds. The games played out pretty much as Chris described — quick, easy to learn, and lots of strategic decisions and combos.

What IPs are available now? We saw a few: the two DC sets featured Batman, Batgirl, the Joker, and Harley Quinn; our Harry Potter set had Harry, Hermione, Voldemort, and Bellatrix. Plus, there were two bonus two pack sets released: The Golden Girls and Rik & Morty. According to Chris, the characters are asymmetric but balanced, each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

Speaking of asymmetry, the discussion of balancing led to some great questions from Carlos to Chris about the plans for the future. Chris said one of the ideas is very common to minis games, namely, organized in store play set up with support from Funko a la WOTC or Fantasy Flight.

We asked him how would one get into the tournament play, and how will it be balanced? For the first question, Chris noted that the four pack sets are playable right out of the box, so there is a very small barrier to entry. As to the second, they are still in the early stages, but they do not envision a points type set up. Instead, scenarios will be used which will self-balance the teams. For instance, a player may not want a certain Pop! mini in a game if that character’s attributes do not match up to the inherent requirements in the scenario.

Summoning circle?

Chris told us he was very pleased with the reception that the BGG type gamers like us have given the sets, once they get a chance to play. Could Chris actually design a minis battle type game accessible to families using Funko minis, yet still cater to regular gamers? He said that it is always tough getting BGG players to consider IP games, but that their work with other IPs will hopefully have built up enough trust that people check out the game. From my perspective, if the scenarios are fun, and the characters are balanced, BGG users will be satisfied, and it could really drive a lot of sales.

We shared one of the criticisms we have had about the Prospero Hall games, which is especially notable with FunkoVerse. For some reason, the games do not come shrink-wrapped, which is very unusual in our hobby. Chris patiently listened to our complaints, and talked about the decision.  Games like FunkoVerse have unusual boxes for the mass market, including window panes to show off the Pops! contained inside. (Yes, he admitted that there will be some people who buy the games just to get the unusually sized Pops! minis).  Shrink wrapping a game with a window pane causes all kinds of unusual glare when put on game shelves, making the game less attractive. He also said that there has been a push, especially from companies like Ravensburger, to cut down on consumer waste, and getting rid of an extra layer of shrink wrap that goes right into the trash upon purchase is one result.

We wrapped up the discussion with a talk about the future of FunkoVerse. As expected, Chris said that the future is dependent upon the reception that the game gets in the market, but that Funko was very excited about the buzz that had been generated pre- and during Gen Con. Funko is a big enough player that licenses will not be the problem — witness DC and Harry Potter being introduced right out of the gate almost as a “hey look at us” announcement. But, the designers plan to have fun with crazy combinations of characters, which is the reason that two pack boxes of The Golden Girls was announced. What better way to signal that ANYTHING is possible in the FunkoVerse than releasing an expandalone set with The Golden Girls?

I put Chris on the spot for a Gumbo Scoop, and he could neither confirm nor deny that the next two pack will be Cheers versus Gary’s Old Towne Tavern. (Well, to be fair, he actually did deny ever hearing of Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern, but a Cheers fan can dream, can’t he?)  I’m pretty sure he was very impressed with my win at the Strike tourney, but did not say much, probably due to some contract he signed with Funko not to discuss other games during Gen Con. Right?

The interview ended right as hundreds of gamers lined up outside the Funko room, ready to get their own sneak peek of the new sets and a quick demo of the Harry Potter and DC FunkoVerse maps and characters. Carlos and I headed back to the hall, still talking about the possible match ups that could happen. My backpack shook ever so slightly with each bouncy step towards Hall D, and each movement suggested the promise of a Blanche versus Batman fight.

We’ll have to give Mr. Wayne a big slice of cheesecake soon.

Thanks again to Stephanie Straw and Chris Rowlands for setting this up. Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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