Welcome to the enchanting and frightening world of Tunnels and Trolls, a "role-playing" game created by Ken St. Andre, a 41-year-old Phoenix librarian.
Since the game was published in 1975 by a local company named Flying Buffalo, about 50,000 copies have been sold worldwide. Despite the success of Tunnels and Trolls, St. Andre says, he continues to live in "abject poverty." Royalties to the game have only netted him $2,000 each year--just enough to cover his cable TV bill and half his auto insurance.
St. Andre is one of nine Valley game inventors New Times profiled for this story. Most of them have learned the hard way that creating games isn't likely to make them rich. While a few manage to scratch out a living with their gamesmanship, others barely make it past Go and recapture their original investments. The problem, all agree, is that no one has any idea just what it takes to succeed in the wacky world of gaming.
"No one can predict whether a game will be a hit," laments Mark Morris, the public relations manager for Milton Bradley, one of the largest game producers in the country. "There's no one pat answer. If there were, we'd never make a game that fails, and we make a lot of games that fail. . . . The game industry is very fashion-oriented. . . . The problem is, we don't know ahead of time what fashion will take off."
Morris says successful game inventors are "creative" yet able to "think like an engineer" in order to properly design the game. "And," adds Morris hastily, "[they've] got to also know how to make a game inexpensive enough so that it will sell."
But above all, he says, an inventor needs "good luck and good timing. . . . You just can't pick what's going to be a phenomenon and what isn't." And he stresses a game creator must have persistence and belief in himself because "all he will face is rejection, rejection, rejection."
Despite the very real possibility that a game probably won't make it to the head of its class, Valley inventors keep on inventing them--in some cases even after an initial failure. They seem to be a driven, obsessive lot who actually enjoy putting themselves through such torture--either because they relish the challenge or the chance to indulge their fantasies.
Ken St. Andre's imagination, for instance, won't allow him to quit. His tolerant wife, Cathy, has allowed him to stow two computers in one corner of her already cramped kitchen, where her husband creates his fantasy games. "I'm a natural-born escapist, I guess, and never have gotten that involved in the real world," he says.
For the past thirteen years, the city librarian has been directing people to the bathroom, fielding queries on car repair and reciting the Seven Wonders of the World to junior-high geography students. "I started out as a Librarian One, and I'm still a Librarian One," he explains. "I guess you can call me an underachiever. . . . I always dreamed of becoming a science-fiction writer, but I never realized it would be [as a game inventor]."
When St. Andre invented Tunnels and Trolls, he had no intention of publishing it. He says he simply invented the game for his buddies to play, and they told him it was "the best thing since girls." Then he met Rick Loomis, owner of Flying Buffalo, who offered to buy the game and publish it.
In Tunnels and Trolls, players rely upon a referee, or "game-master," who invents an imaginary situation fraught with danger. Using some dice, paper, pencil and St. Andre's well-written rule book, a player must pass through this complicated imaginary situation without getting killed by monsters or his fellow players. The games can last for hours or days, depending on the zeal of the participants. "Some people," he admits, "sort of lose control and get into gaming to the exclusion of anything else."
Critics say role-playing games may cause unstable players to act out in real life the creepy roles they've assumed. But St. Andre thinks the criticism is unjustified, that in fact such games are healthy mental exercises.
"The idea behind all role-playing games," says St. Andre, "is to create another world and role-play through adventures of other people who have more interesting lives than our own. . . . Imagine trying to see what life would be like as a woman or a dog or a unicorn or an itty-bitty goblin. I stretch the imaginations of my players."
FLYING BUFFALO Rick Loomis created Flying Buffalo in 1970, while he was serving "real tough duty" during the Vietnam era as an Army teletype operator in Hawaii. Loomis' job could get downright boring, he recalls, so he whiled away the hours playing Nuclear Destruction by mail with various pen pals.
The object of his war game is to "talk other players into blowing each other up instead of you." To win, a player has to be the "sole survivor." Rick's pen pals would send him letters describing their tactical moves during an imaginary nuclear war. Loomis would record all the moves on a master list and mail it to each player. Then he'd await their letters presenting their next moves.
By the time Loomis was discharged from the Army in 1972 and had returned home to the Valley, he'd attracted about 200 pen-pal players. He computerized the game and began inventing other scenarios for play-by-mail war games. Players, especially shut-ins, loners and high school kids, he says, went absolutely bonkers over the concept.
Loomis claims he pioneered an entire play-by-mail game industry, which he estimates attracts about 20,000 players worldwide. So far, he says, about 12,000 people have played Flying Buffalo games, with about 2,000 players participating at any given time.
The company is located in an east-side farmhouse that Loomis inherited from his grandparents. The once-homey living room is now a maze of clattering computers. On the day a reporter visited the place, dot-matrix printers whizzed and whizzed, spitting out the latest moves sent in by players.
Loomis says he runs about 300 different play-by-mail games each day. Players must first purchase the rules, which cost from 50 cents to $2.50. Then they pay a $5 "setup fee" and send in from $2 to $10 for each turn.
Besides publishing and marketing Tunnels and Trolls and its many accessory games, Flying Buffalo also publishes and markets several card and board games which are assembled, boxed and stored in the garage. Perhaps the weirdest game on the shelves is Nuclear War, which Loomis calls a "comical cataclysmic card game for two to six players of all ages." The object is to be the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. It's a harmless spoof on war games, Loomis insists, and a real blast to play.
Although he claims to gross about $250,000 a year, Loomis says he pays himself just $350 per week and pours the rest of his money back into the business. Gaming is no way to get rich, he insists. "I keep telling people that they can't make a lot of money in this business, and they think I'm trying to keep them out of the business," he says with a wry smile. He ascribes what success he's had to his doggedness.
He emphasizes that the business has plenty of hassles: Customers don't pay their bills; computers break down; players phone at all hours "with the same stupid questions [about rules] over and over again."
But he stays in gaming because it's "fun" to conjure up fantasies about intergalactic battles, nuclear war scenarios, medieval feuds. He's an avid science-fiction, fantasy and history buff. He says books on the subject fuel several ideas for games each week. "The problem is how do you stop thinking of ideas," he sighs. "I can't afford to develop all these ideas because I have to pay a programmer to put them all into the computer."
One of Loomis' biggest fans is Mike Stackpole, who took a liking to Flying Buffalo mail games in 1976. At the time, Stackpole was eighteen and looking for something to do during Vermont's icy winter afternoons. He played those games all through college, and as soon as he got his history degree, he hightailed it out to Arizona.
Stackpole worked for Loomis for seven years. He quit several years ago to become a free-lance game designer. He makes about $12,000 to $15,000 annually, he says, enough "to keep body and soul together."
Stackpole has created several role- playing games, including the infamous Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, in which flinty detectives try to solve mysterious crimes. Getting his ideas from sources such as Newsweek and history books, he has also written about fifteen supplemental adventures to existing games. "Rules should be enjoyable and well-written," says Stackpole, "not like thousands of pages of Monopoly rules."
Last year Stackpole proposed an idea that paid off. He suggested to the Chicago-based game publisher FASA that he write three sci-fi novels based on Battletech, the company's combination role-playing and board game. He says FASA fronted him $5,000 for the three books, which he immediately pounded out on his computer. He expects to make from "twelve to sixteen grand" in royalties.
Like other role-playing game fans, Stackpole admits he's "hypersensitive" about criticism charging that the games can lead to bizarre behavior by players who act out their assumed characters in real life. "It's urban myth," Stackpole says. "Gamers tend to be loners, it's true, and highly intelligent. But role-playing is a way for them to socialize. . . . It's good, clean fun."
THE KITCHEN TABLE One spring night in 1984, while watching the late, late, late show, Phoenix housewife Nancy Kotwasinski decided to invent a word game modeled after Trivial Pursuit. During the weeks that followed, Kotwasinski and her best friend, Marilyn Davis, sat around the kitchen table and planned the game. Until it appeared on department-store shelves the following fall, the two women say, they thought of little else.
Both speak rapidly, energetically, as if they'd just downed several cups of coffee. They frequently interrupt each other. "I can't leave things hanging once I start," Kotwasinski explains. "Both of us pull all-nighters. I figure when I get old and they put me in the ground is when I'll sleep."
"I nursed my baby while I worked on that game," interrupts Davis. "I am so proud of this game. I don't care if it never goes anywhere. I just feel really proud that we did it. We worked hard and nearly went crazy, but we did it."
After many brainstorming sessions at the kitchen table, the women pored over fifteen dictionaries and a thesaurus to find 3,500 interesting words. Then they wrote out 3,500 definitions on cards--original definitions, because they feared they'd be plagiarizing if they copied any from reference books.
To play the game, one player reads a definition from a card and the other must guess the corresponding word. Example: "What's `the fear of having peanut butter stuck to one's mouth?'" The other player would have to guess: "arachibutyrophobia"! A correct answer entitles the player to advance his little man on the game board. The first to make it to the end of the board is the winner.
Before producing their invention, the women test-marketed a prototype on friends, using cardboard, crayons and notecards. The response was enthusiastic, so they copyrighted and trademarked What's the Word. They hoped to sell their idea to several game companies and dictionary publishers.
They failed. Undaunted, Kotwasinski and Davis decided to form their own corporation. They obtained about $40,000 from investors, mostly friends. Then they set out to produce and market the game themselves.
Hauling their babies on their hips, they traveled the Valley seeking just the right designer, printer, boxmaker. They even visited cake shops, thinking plastic cake decorations might make appropriate "men" for their game. The little decorations, they learned, were far too expensive.
A few months later, with the help of their friends, they assembled 2,500 games in Kotwasinski's living room. "We had fifty or sixty shoeboxes just with the definition cards," recalls Davis. "We worked so hard we got slaphappy."
"It could have been a nightmare," Kotwasinski interrupts, referring to the long hours and close quarters. "Fortunately, we had good friends and we had fun."
The inventors then persuaded the sales managers at Diamond's (now Dillard's) and JC Penney to try to sell just a few. Eventually fifteen stores agreed to sell the game at retail prices ranging from $30.95 to $19.95. The first 2,500 games sold within a few months, generating enough money to manufacture another 2,500.
They sold 1,500 of the second lot, but 1,000 still sit in Kotwasinski's garage. If they sell the remaining games, the women will break even on their $40,000 original investment. But their interest has, quite simply, fizzled. They just got involved in other projects, they explain, and didn't have time to market the leftover games. Kotwasinski is studying to be an interior decorator and says she has no plans to invent more games. Davis enrolled at ASU to get her degree and is now a teacher.
Davis admits she still dreams of doing different versions of What's the Word--using medieval terms or maybe a foreign language. Of course, she'd like to get rid of the remaining 1,000 games. "I do believe in this game," she notes. "But if somebody wants to buy it out, we'd go for it."
While Davis and Kotwasinski appear to have tired of the hassles of gamemaking, two other Phoenicians who conjured up a game over the kitchen table are still burning with enthusiasm.
More than two years ago, Phoenix firefighters Ollie Hoelzer and Terry Garrison decided to invent a board game that teaches fire safety to little kids. The two firemen say they aren't interested in getting rich or famous. They just want to teach children to learn not to burn.
"Do you know your emergency number? Do you know what to do if your clothes catch fire? Well, we want everybody to know. And we want it to be fun," says Hoelzer, a tall, stocky man in his fifties. "So we got together with the wives, and they were behind us 100 percent. We wanted full control of this game, but we had to go from paycheck to paycheck, so it took us two years." Hoelzer says he and his buddy invested $20,000 in the game, and then took out a loan for an additional $40,000.
They designed a "typical children's board game," which they called Fire Smart Kids and targeted for four to twelve year olds. Then they trademarked their title. The object of the game is to navigate to the end of the board some tiny, brightly colored fire hydrants--"high-impact styrene," Hoelzer asserts, designed so kids can't swallow 'em.
The board, illustrated by Hoelzer, is cluttered with messages: "Never hide under a bed during a fire!" and "Never play with matches," and "You know 911 is the emergency number." There are also cards that players pick up: "Remind Mom to turn off the iron. Go ahead four spaces" and "You never use fireworks. Go back two spaces." The hitch to this game is that little kids can't read the board or the cards. Hoelzer explains that it "requires a parent or teacher, at least initially, to show what's on the board." He adds: "There's nothing really very difficult in here, everything is self-explanatory once you learn the board."
The game is endorsed by former TV news anchor Mary Jo West, who played it with some young friends and pronounced it a success. It's also been approved by a group called the Teachers of Fire Safety Instruction.
Hoelzer and Garrison had 5,000 games manufactured. They were delivered last September, Hoelzer says, and he's learned that marketing the game, takes a lot of time. He has to travel from school to school "knocking on doors." But he reasons that if toy manufacturers could market Cabbage Patch dolls, which he calls "those ugly little things," he can certainly sell his "brilliant concept."
"The really neat thing about this game," he says, "is that even a dummy like me can sell it. We really don't sell it, you see. It sells itself. . . . I don't see this thing ever dying. Because every three or four years there will be more of those little rug rats who will [get old enough to] play the game," he says. "I envision this thing going international."
THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO Some people just never grow up. Take 39-year-old Scott Bizar, for example, and his 22-year-old sidekick, Paul Lidberg. Bizar is a boyish-looking high school history teacher, a Napoleonic Wars buff and the owner of two game enterprises: the Waterloo Games store in Gilbert and the publishing outfit of Fantasy Games Unlimited. Paul Lidberg is a college student who manages Bizar's store and writes satirical games on the side.
The genre that intrigues Bizar is war gaming--it used to be called playing soldier. He opened Waterloo Games in September, which is frequented by high school and junior high kids, mostly boys. In the middle of the store is a large table holding battlefields of scrap carpet and felt, the turf of miniature armies in imaginary battle. Kids come in after school with their books and a cold drink from a nearby Circle K and have at it until closing time. Lidberg, an enthusiastic fellow, wanders around the room helping out with difficult rules, joking with the students, bursting into loud laughter every now and then.
Bizar first became involved in war gaming in 1974 as a hobby. By 1975 he'd invented and published his own game, "The Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age; A Wargamer's Guide to the Age of Conan." The 55-page rule book is, to say the least, complicated: "Horse archers may fire only one rank deep when in line, but they may fire three ranks deep to the side when in column. Thus, the horse archer unit may sweep out and back behind its lines in road column and every figure could be able to fire." And so on.
Soon, Bizar began publishing fantasy role-playing games. And war games written by other people. And more war games of his own. Fantasy Games Unlimited publishes about 100 games or game-related products. One third of his games, which are written in English, are exported to Europe and other foreign countries. He wonders how non-English-speaking kids can figure out the rules. "Maybe they use 'em as wallpaper," he says. "I just don't know."
Fantasy Games Unlimited grosses from $150,000 to $450,000 yearly, Bizar says, but he only nets as "much money as I make being a teacher." In fact, it was economics that prompted him to move to Arizona last year. Warehouse space in his home state of New York was "skyrocketing," he explains, and he could no longer afford to stay.
Bizar says he runs into a lot of would-be game inventors who think they can make it big with their own war-game versions. "They're stupid," he says. "Four out of five fail. And, of the people in it who succeed, no one's made any money to speak of."
Fortunately, Paul Lidberg, Bizar's store manager, wasn't driven by fantasies of instant wealth when he invented and produced about half a dozen games in the past year. Lidberg says that when he has an itch to invent a game, he simply writes out the rules and takes his rule book to a cheap printing company and has, say, twenty copies printed. He's lucky if he sells a few at science-fiction conventions. "If I tallied it all up, I'd lose money," he says. "But the whole point is just to have fun and get attention at conventions."
He invents or publishes games that he hopes will offend "right-wing, left-wing and Libertarian" people. "Most gamers," he says, "profess to be Libertarians or Republicans." Among the titles of Lidberg's games are: "Hostage of the Government: Rescue Ollie North Game"; "Kill the Commie Bastards"; and "Nuke the Gay Baby Whales for Jesus."
Lidberg is even working on games that satirize games. For instance, he's designed a war game called Ribbitech. It revolves around "Battle Beasts," a miniature army of cartoon-like animals who blow each other up. They are hideous, brightly colored lizards and apes and bats with eye patches, all dressed in armor. "Just like the Saturday cartoons," notes Lidberg. "If they get shot, they get giant holes. But they can reach through the holes and shake hands if they want to," he says enthusiastically.
Lidberg works two jobs to earn enough money to support himself and go to college. He still lives at home and says he thinks his mother would rather he'd chosen a more lucrative career: "Mom wishes I'd get serious."
HIGH HOPES Back in 1949, Phoenix print-shop owner Jim Palmer tried to sell a game called Tippy Turtle to cereal companies. Palmer thought the game, which involved cutting out a design of a turtle and tying it to a chair, would be perfect for cereal boxes. But the companies he approached didn't agree.
"Oh, well," says Palmer. "I didn't count that as a failure. You never fail, you know, as long as you try."
In 1976 Palmer had another brainstorm. By now he had seven kids. One night, he and his children played Ninety-Nine, an "old, old card game that goes a long way back." Palmer recalls, "I got excited. I said, `Let's invent a deck just for this game!'|" He had a few thousand dollars in savings, he says, so he asked his wife, "Would you rather have a Cadillac or would you go for broke?"
Palmer's wife wanted to go for the jackpot, so he spent $20,000 on his idea. First he copyrighted it, then he printed 30,000 decks of the game, which he called Jimbo's 99. Next he advertised feverishly: in TV Guide, in the newspapers, on local television. He also placed an ad in a farmers' magazine. "They're the greatest card players in the world, you know, because of the cold winters," he explains.
But it was very tough selling Jimbo's 99. Palmer even formed an international corporation, hoping to peddle the card game in places like Hong Kong. He still couldn't sell it.
Then one day International Games, a small company that published the wildly successful card game UNO, offered to buy Palmer's game. They redesigned it and changed it to ONO 99. The idea was to sell a second game with UNO, says Palmer. "They'd sell UNO and give away ONO. That was their only way of advertising. Without UNO I don't know what ONO would have done."
The company paid Palmer his original investment and negotiated a royalty amount that he refuses to disclose. "I got pennies from each game," he says modestly. ONO sold about four million copies. Then it petered out. "It was just luck and timing. They just happened to be looking for one card game. Sales were great the first three or four years, but now it's died down to nothing. . . . My friends thought it made me a millionaire, but that's not true. I did get a new Buick, though."
Palmer says he can't even remember how to play ONO 99 anymore. He's tried approaching International Games with other ideas but has received only a curt form letter in reply.
Palmer has switched from games to gismos, anyway. He's decided to become an inventor. In his seventies, he's started his own High Hopes Development Company. His first invention, a Rolodex-like gismo for snapshots, cost him "two and a half times what ONO cost," he admits, rolling his eyes and smiling.
Even though Palmer is out of the gaming business, he has some advice for those who want to invent games. "What it takes to invent a game," he says, "is a person who gets excited and enthused about things. You have to believe in yourself, but don't take it [game inventing] too seriously. . . . Don't give up your job, if you have one.
"And when they turn you down," he warns, "don't let your heartache last more than 24 hours."
He invented the game for his buddies to play, and they told him it was "the best thing since girls."
The object is to be the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. It's a real blast to play.
"I don't see this thing ever dying. I envision this thing going international."
"My friends thought it made me a millionaire, but that's not true. I did get a new Buick, though."