How Kevin Burkhardsmeier Turned a Chance Road Trip into a Life-Changing Career
From a 5,000 square foot facility on the eastern edge of Fergus Falls, Kevin Burkhardsmeier operates a board game accessories business with international reach and strong ties to major board game publishers, influencers, and renowned industry artists across several genres. The funny thing is, he's just as surprised as anyone.
"Who'd have thunk it?" he says. "If you would have told me five years ago we'd be doing this, I'd have said you're crazy"
It began in Indianapolis. Burkhardsmeier grew up playing board games like Sorry, Monopoly, or any of a number of complex strategy games, but it was only a recreation. Decades later, when his son graduated high school—a board gamer since a young age—a family friend proposed a celebratory vacation – a trip to something called Gen Con, in Indiana.
"The four of us loaded up into a Buick LeSabre," Burkhardsmeier remembers. "I didn't know about this hobby," and here he points around the gaming room of his rural Fergus Falls home toward boxes for hundreds of board games surrounding the custom-made wooden gaming table his father built. "I knew about board games, but I didn't know about all this."
Indianapolis had been taken over. Traveling from across the country, 70,000 gamers descended on the city, filling hotels beyond capacity. Burkhardsmeier says he was dumbfounded but giddy like a child. In a convention center covered from wall to wall with hundreds of games and some of the industry's largest publishers, he took it all in. By the time they left for home, suitcases had to be unloaded of clothing—which was shoved unceremoniously under seats and in any space in the car that could hold a t-shirt—to make room for piles of new board games.
"That's where it all began," he recalls with a smile.
Things moved fast from there. There were decades of missed games to enjoy, and Burkhardsmeier and his family came to know dozens of them over the next year, developing a YouTube channel which featured the group dressed in theme-correct costumes designed by his daughters' historic costume company. He became acquainted with the industry, the online influencers, and the publishers.
Known as "Burky" within the hobby, Burkhardsmeier became a recognizable personality nationally, and he was working on an idea. The thrill of board gaming, he says, is the way it brings people together. Yet the handcrafted gaming table he enjoyed at home was impossible to port around, and he wanted a more substantial gaming experience when visiting friends and family. He wanted to make something anyone could afford.
In his home shop, he designed a prototype wooden "game topper"—effectively a tailor-made gaming surface that mounts on top of any existing table—and felt he was onto something. He made the first, and then he made five more. He toyed around with different means of connecting the table's two halves (more portable than a single slab), but many of the experiments failed. This included a foray into high-powered, rare-earth magnets so effective they ran the risk of crushing fingers and so expensive they were worth more than the table toppers.
After several iterations, Burkhardsmeier pooled his entire savings and partnered with Excel Plastics to produce a consumer-ready version of his Game Toppers. In 2017, he launched the business, which he dubbed Game Toppers LLC, with an online crowdfunding campaign – raising half a million dollars and then doubling that amount by the end of the same year. There were challenges in fulfillment, manufacturing, and materials, but he committed to see the business through to whichever end.
"If I told you all the challenges we had in starting up, you'd go, 'How did you make it?' And I really don't know other than I just don't quit," Burkhardsmeier says.
More's the Merrier
And the business has thrived under that spirit. The 2017 Kickstarter campaign was the first of four, with more still to come. Since the original launch, Game Toppers has brought out custom gaming mats, with themed designs by renowned board game artists; they've introduced topper covers, dice and component accessories, and a slew of new sizes and styles of products. They're now selling in 18 countries in Europe, and Game Toppers products are featured at conventions across the country by roughly 30 publisher partners.
At 58 years old, Kevin "Burky" Burkhardsmeier says he still has some fuel left in the tank, but he's looking forward at how to grow and pass on his company. He sees almost unlimited potential, tempered only by a willingness to work harder than anyone else and maintain a commitment to quality and customer service above all else.
The next stage? An expansion. Burkhardsmeier is planning to double the size of his facility and is working with Greater Fergus Falls to review the best financing programs to support that growth. He says the expertise of Greater Fergus Falls and their network of professionals has helped take pressure off his shoulders.
More than anything, Burkhardsmeier says he's grateful for the people, family, and partners that have made his business a success. He says the company's objective will always be to elevate the board gaming experience while offering the best product possible. He can't believe the progress of the last five years and believes his story serves as proof positive that it's still possible to do impossible things if you have a dream worth fighting for.
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls
Do you have the idea for Fergus Falls's next big business adventure? Click here to learn more about Greater Fergus Falls and our commitment to furthering economic development and growth in the Fergus Falls area.