When Jason Heath contemplated inventing his first board game, he took inspiration from his time working on the presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney. As an advance man for the candidates, he often utilized something nicknamed “production in a box.”
“Production in a box” was a panel truck packed with lights, a stage, a podium — everything a candidate would need to make an appearance.
“It would literally follow the campaign around to help with cost,” Jason said.
Why not, Jason thought, create “gameboard in a box”? It would include a generic board, dice and some pieces to move around. People could make their own game!
Why not? Because it’s a terrible idea. When Jason invited friends over to his Foggy Bottom house they told him they didn’t want to make a game. They wanted to play one.
So Jason went back to the drawing board — or, more accurately, to the dry erase board. Since then, Jason has invented two games. One, called Unstable, earned an award last year at Gameacon, a gamer gathering in Atlantic City The other is called Mr. Fossil’s Dino Farm. It’s for ages 4 and up and Jason has raised nearly $7,000 on Kickstarter to produce 500 copies.
We are in a gaming renaissance, as millennials gather to play such recent games as Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity, and older favorites such as Risk and Dungeons and Dragons.
Said Jason: “I know people jump on an X-Box or their phone, but getting around a table and actually interacting with people, there’s something about it.”
“D.C. has a huge gamer scene,” said Jimmy Cooney, one of Dice City’s owners. Dice City is in the midst of its own crowdfunding campaign before a hoped-for May opening.
Just as there is indie rock — with garage bands eschewing the major labels — so there are indie games. Jason, 36, estimates he spent $3,500 of his own money to produce the Mr. Fossil’s Dino Farm prototype. The game can be played a few ways, mostly involving matching dinosaur-themed cards. (Growing up, Jason was a fan of the ABC sitcom “Dinosaurs.”)
Jason went through two artists before hitting on Arizona designer Robert St. Clair.
“I’ve never met him in person,” Jason said. “We’ve spoken on the phone and we shoot a lot of emails back and forth.”
Crowdfunding has allowed basement tinkerers like Jason to actually produce their creations. Backers get a copy of the game, which may never show up in a store like Jimmy’s.
“As the owner of a D.C. game store, I would be eager to carry those games if they’re locally made,” Jimmy said. “If they’re any good.”
Game creators like Jason dream of becoming the next Alfred Mosher Butts (inventor of Scrabble) or Klaus Teuber (inventor of Settlers of Catan). But even if Jason doesn’t, he’s having fun.
He enjoys testing the games with friends, bribing them with brisket so they’ll play endless iterations. He likes collaborating with the artist and dealing with the manufacturer in China.
“I think if you do all the work, the game means a lot more,” he said. “It’s been a nice little hobby. I hope that someday it turns into something more than a hobby.”
Jason’s day job is as the director of operations at a conservative political action committee. With his background in politics, is he ever tempted to invent a political game? Maybe something called PAC Man? Cards Against Hypocrisy? A “House of Cards” card game?
Given the fractured body politic, not really, he said.
“It’s very hard to do that because probably 50 percent of the people are going to like the game and 50 percent are going to hate the game,” Jason said.
Besides, he added, “I think sometimes people just want to disconnect from politics a little, especially in this city. We talk about it 24/7. I think that’s why people do like board games. It gives them a chance to sit around and do something else.”
Yeah, it’s probably better for Washingtonians to scratch their world domination itch with a game of Risk rather than with a hail of actual missiles.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.