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Brandemic marketing 101: What to do when a game about viruses goes, ahem, viral

September 21, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Most startups would kill for their first product to achieve a tidal wave of free word-of-mouth marketing, the kind that’s immediately recognizable to every person the world over. But what if the source of that word of mouth was the world’s deadliest health tragedy since the Spanish flu?

That’s the question that Madrid-based tabletop games startup Tranjis Games faced in early 2020 as the first reports of COVID-19 deaths filtered out of China, and social media began to spread memes that featured its signature product—the card game Virus.

“When everyone was sending memes laughing at this thing that seemed like it was never going to arrive here,” said Santi Santisteban, cofounder and CEO of Tranjis, “I said, ‘This is going to get here, and this is going to affect us as well.’”

For Santisteban and the two codesigners of Virus, Carlos López and Domingo Cabrero, the COVID-19 pandemic was the latest in a series of improbable twists of fate that has turned the game into the most sold tabletop game in Spain for two years running, according to consumer data firm NPD Group, with more than 500,000 copies sold worldwide, and licenses in almost 20 countries.

“A Spanish game is a success if it sells 3,000 copies. It’s a hit if it sells 10,000 copies. We have sold more than 500,000. That’s insane!” Santisteban noted.

Let’s ‘invent our own’

Santisteban, 38, and his coauthors were tabletop game aficionados who liked to design new rules for existing games when, one day in early 2013, Santisteban says they asked themselves, “Why don’t we stop inventing rules for other games and invent our own?”

Their original idea was for a board game set in space but, because of budget limitations, they soon shifted to a more modest card game format. Then Cabrero had the idea of changing the concept of the game from ships flying through space to viruses traveling through the body.

What emerged from months of development was an elegantly simple game where players try to accumulate four healthy organs while their competitors place viruses on the opponents’ organ cards, and they in turn apply medicines to cure them. The 68 cards are illustrated in a colorful, broad cartoon style by David GJ—one features an instantly identifiable purple coronavirus wearing a malevolent smile—and divided into organs, viruses, medicines, and treatments.

The three creators took 90 copies of the game printed by a neighborhood shop to the International Games Festival in the Andalusian city of Córdoba, Spain’s largest games fair. “We said, ‘Fine, if we sell 10 copies we’ll have paid for the gasoline,’” said Santisteban.

It just so happened that the October 2014 fair coincided with a media frenzy over an Ebola outbreak in Madrid in which a local nurse was infected while caring for a Spanish health volunteer who’d caught the disease while working in Sierra Leone; protests broke out over the Madrid government’s decision to euthanize the nurse’s dog, named Excalibur.

The three gamemakers sold all 90 copies at the fair, then another 400 over the Christmas holidays. And then, after forming a business, sold rounds of 1,500, then 3,000, then 5,000, and then many more. According to Santisteban, the game’s success was distinctly, well, viral.

“The success of Virus, or the success of the marketing of Virus, is not ours,” said Santisteban. “It mostly belongs to the kids. We made a game for bearded thirties like us, and it turns out the kids loved the game. Then the children took it to school, took it to the pool, took it to the beach, and other children wanted to buy it.”

By the time the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in China at the end of 2019, Virus had become Spain’s bestselling tabletop game, beating out products from much larger rivals such as French gaming powerhouse Asmodee and Hasbro, maker of Monopoly and Clue.

And then COVID-19 arrived in Europe. Shelter-in-place orders and school closures forced families into a desperate search for tools that would help them interact with one another for hours on end.

“Suddenly we are locked up with a child we do not know, with a wife we never see because we are always working, and we have to be together in an apartment of 900 square feet,” Santisteban said. “So people looked for alternative domestic pastimes.”

Thanks (but no thanks) for the tweet love

A tragedy for many, lockdown was great for tabletop games. In 2019, market research firm Arizton estimated there would be $3.1 billion in global tabletop game sales in 2020. However, the actual figure came in at $3.5 billion, says Parvez Momin, lead games analyst at Arizton.

“The higher sales than the estimate was due to lockdowns in many countries where the family spent quality time non-digitally. Geographically, the popularity of tabletop board games is high in Europe and APAC [Asia-Pacific], and these regions will continue to dominate the market during the next four to five years,” said Momin.

It was a second blockbuster year in a row for Virus, with some 300,000 copies sold, Santisteban noted. But the pandemic also brought a major marketing dilemma to Tranjis. With a name and subject that almost made it seem purposely designed for the pandemic, marketing Virus in the time of COVID would be both superficially easy and profoundly dangerous.

A meme appeared on social media showing a photograph of a bottle of Corona beer sitting next to a copy of Virus, and a fan preparing a costume to attend Carnival contacted Tranjis to ask for permission to dress as the card game.

It was tempting to re-tweet, say yes, and enjoy the kind of word of mouth every startup dreams of—or indulge in some COVID-based ads of their own—but Santisteban and Cabrero decided to forgo the free marketing. “In fact, we precisely avoided all kinds of publicity related to the pandemic. It was a decision we knew could hurt us because it would have been very simple,” Santisteban said. They realized early on, he added, that “at the moment when even one Spaniard dies, or the moment when this touches us in any way, anyone who has tried to take advantage of this situation will pay for it.”

The decision to let the success of Virus run its course allowed Santisteban and Cabrero to focus on the obsession of any entrepreneur or artist with a first hit: the second act. In the wake of Virus, Santisteban and Cabrero launched Tranjis, a games publisher, to put out games designed by other creators, mostly Spaniards, and to license games from abroad.

Santisteban said 80% of company revenues still come from Virus, and the two next-bestselling of the company’s 40 or so games—¡Mía! (Mine!) and Monster Kit—have sold more than 10,000 each. With the end of lockdown, he said, overall sales have slipped and should reach about 70% of 2020 levels: “We work to find another Virus. Every day we work with the intention of finding another game that sells, if not the same, at least pretty well.”

Throughout its short life, Virus has proved repeatedly prescient. After releasing the original game, in 2018, Tranjis put out Virus 2, an extension pack that features vaccine-resistant variants, as well as universal vaccines. Then, in October 2020, Tranjis released Virus Halloween, which included vampire, werewolf, and zombie monster cards.

Santisteban, laughing, added: “But let’s hope that prediction goes unfulfilled.”

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This story is part of Fortune’s Brandemic marketing: Going viral in the age of COVID series.