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.