Chris Handy creates games for a living.
And his wife will tell you that life itself is a game for the 40-year-old.
She means it in the very best way.
“We’ve been married for 15 years, and even on our first long trip together, he bought a lottery ticket and the game was to scratch one number off every five minutes,” Jenn Handy said Wednesday afternoon. “He makes life a joy, he makes puzzles and games of everything we do.”
After getting a start by recording and performing kids music in the mid-90s, Chris Handy “shifted gears” and has been a professional game designer for 15 years. The bulk of that time, he was creating games and selling them to publishers. Among them are Cinque Terre, from Rio Grande Games, and Long Shot, from Z-Man Games.
But with his latest effort, the Pack O Game line of eight mini card games, he’s gone beyond creation to also publishing and distributing his products through his company Perplext.
“It’s a bit more work but a lot more satisfying,” he said Wednesday, sitting in his second-story, all-white, West Main Street office, dubbed The Dreamery. “I have more control over the image of the product and people’s perception of it.”
To make the Pack O Game dream a reality, Handy took to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, which has “quite a vibrant community of game players and collectors,” he said. There, he raised $50,104 through 1,461 backers.
As the Pack O Game name suggests, each card game comes in a box about the size of a pack of stick gum. All have three-letter names, including Fly, Shh, Bus and Hue, among others. Each has a level of difficulty – casual, intermediate, challenging – and is recommended for ages 8, 10, or 12 and up.
Among the eight games, there is great “variety of gameplay, theme and challenge,” Handy said. At least one of them, Fly, requires some dexterity, as players have to drop a flyswatter card over an array of cards dotted with flies. To claim a card from the table, you must fully cover a fly with the swatter. It’s harder than it may sound.
The games all are original, he said. “The closest to one that exists is Lie, which is essentially a card version of liar’s dice, but with twists.”
And perhaps most important, none of the games are for just one player. Playing games is about having more face time with friends and family, Handy said. “With video games and mobile devices, we lose the face-to-face interaction.” But Handy said he’s excited by what he sees as a cultural shift in which responsible parents are trying to replace some of their children’s “device time” with games that help build character traits such as sportsmanship and help develop skills such as storytelling and public speaking.
Generations grew up with board and card games being a regular pastime. But a lot of those games took too long to play, left too much to a spinner or the roll of dice and didn’t include enough player interaction. He and other game creators are trying to avoid those flaws.
Of his Pack O Game series, Handy said, “Even the most complex game takes probably half an hour at most and can be learned in three minutes.” For the games rated as challenging, “you have tough choices, but ones that are fun, I think. … You have two or three things you can do on a turn, and you want to do them all, but you can only do one.”
As anyone might guess, the first rule of game creation, Handy said, is that it be fun. “You have to want to play it again immediately.” A game can look great and be easy to learn and play, but if it’s no fun, those things don’t matter.
All those factors were evaluated by friends, relatives, test families and gamers, said Handy, who said one of the challenges of a game creator is to create an environment in which testers feel comfortable offering criticism. “There’s not a lot of value if everyone says, ‘It’s great,’” he said. “A lot of times, I go first and talk about the things I want to fix. I break the ice.”
Another challenge is making sure a game has “balance,” Handy said. You don’t want the cards they’re dealt to give one player a great advantage. “Most of these (Pack O Game) games, you don’t know who’s going to win until the last play – you always feel you have a chance.”
The next stop for the games – which now can be preordered at $6 apiece for delivery in August – is the Gen Con gaming convention in Indianapolis at the end of the month. There, Handy, joined by his wife and a friend, will present his creation to the gaming public and talk with distributors in hopes of getting Pack O Game to some mass-market retailers.
More Pack O Game games already exist as prototypes being tested, and Handy has other board games in the works.
Game creator’s block never has been a problem. “I’m so backed up with ideas that the challenge is getting them to the table,” Handy said.
“He’s always searching. Life is his brainstorm,” Jenn Handy said, noting that her husband’s first game, Long Shot, was inspired by watching her and a friend ride personal watercraft.
“His mind is always going and his work is very abstract; he’s always thinking in the abstract,” added the principal of Bellevue School in Atwater. “I think we enable each other in our workaholicness. We have to prepare to relax, so when it’s time to shut it off, we can.”
Still, preparation can get you only so far. “There are moments where he’ll get an idea in the middle of the night,” she said. “He’ll talk to me about it the next day, saying he got up at 3, worked on it a couple of hours, then went back to sleep.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327