Spotlight on Kate Jones, by Patrick Matthews
Spotlight on Kate Jones
Continuing the trend of focusing the spotlight on people rather than games, this spotlight will focus on Kate Jones. She's the founder of Kadon Enterprises (www.gamepuzzles.com), publishers of an entire line of abstract strategy games and puzzles. They have more games and puzzles there than I could possibly list in this article. You've seen some of them on the Games 100, and, if you've been up to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, you've no doubt played a few. I highly recommend the Maryland Renfair, by the way. I made it there two years ago and had a major blast.
Back to the games, though. If you enjoy puzzles or abstract games (or both), you should stop reading and go check out their website. If you're too lazy to do that, then just go buy Quintillions. It's a great (dare I say necessary?) addition to any game collection.
In a fantastic twist of coincidence, Kadon will soon be in Florida. They have a booth at the Jensen Beach Arts and Crafts Festival, this weekend (January 22-23, 2005). If you get a chance, go check them out!
Here are my 6 questions with Kate Jones.
1) I always start with the same question. How'd you get started with designing games?
As usual, Patrick, life is what happens while you're making other plans. I came into games and puzzles by an unlikely route: reading a sci-fi book by Arthur C. Clarke in which he described pentominoes. Imperial Earth, it's a great read. Hooked on the 12 little shapes made of 5 squares each, I kept exploring them and finding all kinds of neat stuff, and then I invented a game with them because it seemed so unfair to have them all to myself. That was the beginning. I had just sold my graphic arts business and stood facing the next challenge in life. Making this game as a new venture did not look to me to become the defining leitmotif of my existence, but it has, for deep and profound reasons, not just as a business. Having once discovered "recreational mathematics", I just got swept along. Ideas just kept coming, and after a few years friends and even strangers started coming to me with their ideas. What we do is quite unique, and now it's our 25th anniversary of doing it.
2) With a line of games as substantial as yours, I have to ask the tough question: which one is currently your personal favorite?
Aha, you're not going to trap me with that one. I love all my children. Usually the one I'm currently developing and exploring is the addiction du jour. If, after a few months of that, I'm still engrossed, the idea has staying power and gets published. So, since all the games came through the crucible to get born, all are favorites. Now if you push me and ask which ONE, if I could take only one, I'd want to have on a desert island for, say, the next 50 years, it would probably still be Quintillions and the Super Quintillions companion. They are, after all, the first-born. But I'd want to bargain to take along Triangoes as well, and Kaliko, and Dezign-8, and there I go with the whole catalog...
3) Where do you find your inspiration for game designs? Life experiences, collaboration with friends, historical games...? Any interesting inspiration stories?
My games are almost exclusively abstract. I search for and zero in on an essential premise, a phenomenon of the Universe that manifests itself in the logic of a group of related pieces. I like things to work, to fit together in a multitude of ways, not just one. I like freedom in life, don't fence me in, don't limit me, that kind of thing. Life tends to be chaotic. In a game or puzzle you get a chance to make things work your way, to bring order out of chaos. And not only that, but then the finished composition looks beautiful, too. It's kind of Math as Art. Very satisfying to look at and know that you've done it. Even collaborations with others are guided by that underlying principle of completeness and diversity, open-endedness and the surprise of new revelations. Yes, we do some historical games, particularly to be in the theme of the Renaissance Festival, and even they get our unique touch in design. My website even has a special category, "Historical Games".
Yes, I have a couple of inspiration stories. Back in 1983, still a little new to this business, I was reflecting on the themes we find in games, and how mostly they are of 3 types: War, Race, and Positional strategy. I wanted to come up with something different, and as I sat in the car driving to Chicago, the idea popped into my head: What if the game is open, so the players define even the rules? I'd heard of Nomic, but it has no gameboard.
I had just produced Proteus, which has changing rules but with a fixed set of pieces. I wanted something with an open dynamic on a fixed but flexible board. Eventually that became our game, Lemma.
Another inspiration was at the other end of the spectrum. People kept asking me for things for 3-year-olds. Well, little kids are still in the developing stages of their cognitive skills. They are observing, noticing similarities and differences and sorting them out to try to figure out what life is all about. Suddenly I had the insight that teddybears are fun for kids, and by adding all the mathematical permutations of arm and leg positions, I'd have a great play set for kids. And yet it has tricky challenges that grown-ups can get their teeth into. You can look up Bear Hugs to see this set.
Now, the Bear Hugs have trays with the shape of the bears cut out on top, and just circles on the back, for mixing and matching other ways. Well, I ended up with a lot of spare circles cut from the tray. What to do with them? Ah, another game idea hits. "Six Disks", with numbers 1 through 6, with lots of puzzles and a 3-D game of TicTacToe. Find a need and fill it works every time.
Another puzzle resulted from my doodlings to find combinations with 90 degrees of arc. That became Roundominoes, our No. 2 bestseller behind Quintillions.
Often ideas come from trying to reuse by-products creatively.
4) The renaissance fair connection is fascinating. We have an occasional ren. faire down here (with an annual one in Tampa), but nothing along the scale of what's in Maryland. How did you get involved with renaissance fairs?
In the very early days of the company we tried to find places where we could sell the games. Mostly these were arts and crafts fairs. The Maryland Renaissance Festival had advertised for crafts vendors. Once in, I never wanted to get out. We've grown wonderfully. You should see our new pavilion with its 24-foot turret and its 24 feet of winding play counters. It's pure theatre. I love the lingo, the costumes, the free-wheeling improvisation.
5) What's been the biggest surprise of the game business? Any good player stories?
The biggest surprise is probably that we lasted this long. This is the year we celebrate 25 yearsa quarter of a centuryof creating, developing, producing and marketing a unique brand of entertainment. Good player story? Here's one. Throughout our website I've hidden many secret puzzles whose solving wins a small prize. We started getting all these answers, even the toughest ones. Turns out the player was a home-schooled 12-year-old! How's that for doing your homework?
Another surprise is how people in 46 countries have managed to find us, even though we don't sell through stores. Hurray for the Internet.
6) What's next?
More good stuff to develop and make for the second 25 years! The ideas keep on coming, and our message continues to go out to the world: Be friends, play nicely together. Take the war element out of games and out of people's minds and souls. Saving the planet starts in childhoodwhat are we taught about human relationships? We need a new paradigm: non-predatory games and non-hostile competition. There are enough obstacles and threats to overcome without making our fellow humans the enemy. Replace the concept, enemy or opponent, with the concept, co-player. Games can teach us, in microcosm, the dynamics of survival. They should also be teaching us the value of the individual and rational social ethics. What are rules? Who makes them? When should they be broken? On our website we publish a journal, The Life of Games, which deals with some of these more serious and thoughtful sides of competitive fun. Using our brains, whether in a game or in making the world better, is the heritage of humanity.
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