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Looney Labs: Interview with a Gamer!

by Tonya Foust and Carol Townsend

Looney Labs is a small game company based in College Park, Maryland. It is named after its founders, Andrew and Kristin Looney.

Though probably best known for their game Fluxx, Looney Labs has a whole host of card and board type games that are entertaining and in many cases educational! Games such as Aquarius, Tree House, Chrononauts - just to name a few.

Speaking from my personal experience, I knew about Fluxx LONG before I ever recognized the Looney Labs name. It was amazing to me to discover these wonderful people and the creative genius behind their games.

Looney Labs is largely a volunteer based company. They are advertised via word of mouth and local Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) demos. They call their volunteers rabbits, because once you try these games, you want to go an tell two people and they’ll tell too people and so on and so on... The people who play, enjoy and talk about Looney Labs games are designated “Blab Rabbits". Then there are the “Demo Rabbits", the people who so enjoy the games that they want to show the world how to play them. I, myself, am a Demo Rabbit, though I don’t have too much exposure.

Then there are people like Carol. People who have the opportunity to be on the ground floor of the operation, seeing the ins and outs of working for and within the game industry.

I have the unique opportunity, well, maybe not so unique as she is quite friendly, to ask Carol about her new job.

Tonya: How long have you been a gamer?
Carol: I've been playing games most of my life, but my "being a gamer" really started in college. Before that, I'd played all sorts of board games with my friends and family - Life was a particular favorite in my family - and even organized a "Monopoly Marathon" as a fundraiser for my youth group one year. We had a lock-in at church and had 2 boards playing Monopoly constantly for like 48 hours or something and had people pledge us per hour of play. My brothers did some D&D in high school, I think, but as their bratty little sister; I was never part of that. My high school years were spent reading fantasy, not playing it out in a game.

Tonya: What got you started into gaming?
Carol: For the true gamer geekdom, as in "playing stuff in the gaming industry" (by which I mean the hobby game industry, not the "you can buy it at Wal-Mart or K-Mart"), I had a roommate who was the most interesting sort of person; Tracy was an Air Force ROTC pilot candidate and had one of the few non-engineer slots. She wanted to fly planes, read comic books and be a religion major. She and her two best friends (Bob and Nonie) were also studying 4th year mid-Welsh at the time. Not modern Welsh, not ancient Welsh. Mid-Welsh. And they were the only 3 students in the class. So they would go out to the local Dunkin' Donuts and translate the Mabinogion all night. These were decidedly different sorts of people - they were gamers!

Anyway, it was with this gaming group that I first played Champions 2nd Edition and Espionage. Bob was the GM and we had a great deal of fun playing our way through all sorts of crises that could blow up the world as we know it. I have never had such a vivid GM since Bob - he ran the BEST games and my GM style is based on a poor shadow of what he offered.

After the group broke up, I didn't do much gaming until I ran into another teacher, Judy Stucky, at school who also read Elfquest. After talking about our mutual love of science fiction and fantasy, Judy and I found out we were both gamers. She got me back into gaming (I was the GM for our Champions group then) and was the driving force to starting a gaming convention in little ol' Sioux Falls, SD Midwest Area Gaming Enthusiasts (MAGE). Because of that con, I was introduced into the world of the gaming industry.

Judy and I went to Gen Con the year of the first Mage Con North, and solicited prize support from any vendor who wanted to donate product. We figured that especially at the end of the con, if companies had extra product around, they'd be willing to donate it for ad space in our con book. We were right - we scored big! And we brought ourselves to the attention of a lot of different companies. Chaosium had a fantastic person working for them at the time - Janice Sellers. Her title was "Editrix and Con Schmooze" which fascinated me and was the perfect job title for her. Janice got me working for Chaosium the next year, doing demos and working in the booth and introduced me to all sorts of people in the industry. From that point on, I've never paid entry into a con - I always work for my badge and then play lots of other fun stuff after I'm done with my demos.

After meeting Janice and knowing that there are cool people in the gaming industry who really do that sort of thing for a living, I had the idea planted that maybe some day I would be able to do this as well. I tried my hand as a writer, and I'm actually a professional game industry author - my writing partner Judy and I have been paid for our supplement to King Arthur Roleplaying Game but the company, Green Knight, folded before they could print the book. I found that I can write, and write fairly well, especially with a writing partner, but it's very tough work to do well on a consistent basis. I'd much rather just play games!

Tonya: What games do you currently play?
Carol: Looney Labs games, of course!!! Of those, I think my favorite is Aquarius. But Chrononauts and Fluxx (and all their variants...Early American Chrononauts, EcoFluxx, etc.) are a close second, if more than one thing can be "second." And I'm really getting to like Treehouse, the newest Looney game. That's a great one.

For other stuff, I'll play just about anything people put on the table. I love to play Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ricochet Robots, Mystery of the Abbey, Apples to Apples, 10 Days in Africa/USA/etc., Risk, Iron Dragon...

As a roleplayer, I'll take Champions first and then it's a toss-up between Fudge and GURPS. In fact, it's because I play Champions that I met my husband. Now there's a gamer's story... I was popped into an AOL tarot reading chat room sort of by accident, and found that this chat room was sort of a waiting area, until a reader could get freed up. There was one guy who was doing "profile readings" - basically looking at their online profile and feeding it back to the person ("I sense something new about you... about where you live...." to the person who lives in New York). Anyway, when he got to me, he was intrigued because I listed "RPGs" as one of my interests. He figured that either I was a gamer or liked rocket propelled grenades. And that's how we got talking... and are now married 8 years as of this past June 13th.

Online games for me include City of Heroes (COH) and Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO). Both are fun, but I'm a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when I play. If I don't know you, I probably won't group with you. I've had WAY too many bad experiences with pick-up groups.

Tonya: What game(s) is/are your favorite? Why?
Carol: Wow... favorite game. As in "what one game would you pick to be stranded on a desert island?" For that, I'd have to pick Treehouse - and make sure I had at least three to five Treehouse sets, because then I could play a whole bunch of other games as well.

Favorite game as in "favorite for each 'type' of game?" OK... using the GAMA/Origins awards categories of games....

  • Board Game: RoboRally.
  • CCG: I've got to go with Magic: the Gathering here, if for no other reason than it showed me that the gaming industry is a business. This was the first game that called me into the industry as an employee, not a volunteer. I flew out to interview with their event support team and found out that I was not a good fit for that part of the company at that time. I wore other colors besides black and I had a basically positive outlook on life. In other words: I wasn't a goth. That's OK because corporate colors for Looney Labs is tie dye!
  • Traditional Card Game: Aquarius. Well, maybe Fluxx.... it goes back and forth.
  • RPG (tabletop): Champions
  • RPG (MMO): City of Heroes.
  • Miniatures: I don't know if this counts as a "miniatures" game, per se, but I'd go with X-Bugs here. It's a tabletop combat game with pieces that have different abilities based on what they are... which is sort of what a minis game is all about. But after that, the similarities stop. X-Bugs is combat tiddlywinks, really. And a heck of a lot of fun!
  • Historical: I'd have to Carcassonne here. It's not usually considered an historical game, but it really is. Sort of. This game is the reason I might get to Europe some day. My husband wants to visit Carcassonne, France because of this game. How can you beat that? If I can't have Carcassonne, then I'd have to take backgammon, which is about as historical a game as you can get.

Tonya: How did you get introduced to the Looneys?
Carol: I had started working conventions for various companies back around 1993 or '94. I would do RPG demos or help out in the booth, all sorts of things. In '97, I noticed Fluxx when it was being sold by Iron Crown Enterprises one year and didn't pick up the game at the time. Next year, I looked for it and ICE said that the Looneys had their own booth and were doing well. They had also added Aquarius by that time, and had a great set of fans helping them out. I loved the atmosphere of just hanging around them, and knew that was a cool place to be. In 2001, I officially became a "Mad Lab Rabbit". I think I first got mentioned in the webzine because I kept bribing Andy with mini-donuts at Gen Con 2002 - back when Gen Con was where it's supposed to be - Milwaukee.

What kept me coming back? These are really great people with a fantastic "come as you are" philosophy. Whoever I was, I was cool with them. I've never been around so accepting a group of people. I've said that I have to go to Origins each year, just to go to the Lab and soak in that balm to my soul. Now that I'm working for Looney Labs, I'm getting wonderful warm fuzzies every day!

Tonya: When did you know you wanted to work for them?
Carol: I knew I wanted to work for them ages ago - but at that time, there was basically only 3 or 4 people officially on the payroll. I did do volunteer work for them, including going to a mini-trade show (Alliance Open House) a few years ago. I worked that show by myself (well, with my husband's help in dealing with the backdrop and such) but there were no Looneys in sight - they were at another show the same weekend. Kristin was a mentor to me as I tried to get into the gaming industry from another angle. She was always there to answer questions and hold my hand as I tried and failed to get a business going. Kristin had said to me a few years back that she was some day going to get me to work for her in some form or another, and she grew her business to the point where that's now a reality.

Tonya: Without giving away any trade secrets, what do you do for them?
Carol: Basically, I take lots of stuff Kristin needs done and do it. I'm full time in the sales and support departments. What I do is call up game stores and distributors and see what I can do for them. Do they need a restock? I can take care of that. Have they seen our newest games (Treehouse, Family Fluxx, etc)? I can send them info and occasionally send a sample out. Do they need demo people in their store? I can set the wheels in motion to do that. I've even played a game of EcoFluxx over the phone with someone, going step by step through the process of the game so they knew how to playtest it at home that night. So far, I've been working by calling stores in the hobby game industry - those "Friendly Local Game Stores" that are the backbone of any local gaming community. All of my calls are to people and stores that either already carry our games or have expressed some interest in carrying our games. To do this, I'm calling all over the country - and all over the world. I've called every state in the union and about half the provinces in Canada, as well as calling the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany. I've not called Hong Kong or Mexico yet, but they're on my call list for the future. And all of this is done from my computer at home.

I also do some writing for Looney Labs. My copy is in the newest catalog that's coming out for Origins, and I'm wrangling some sort of brochure-thing together that will be pointed towards how teachers can use Looney Labs games in their classroom.

I'll be going to various conventions and trade shows where I'll be doing demos and talking to lots of great people. In that way, it's not a lot different than my volunteering as a Mad Lab Rabbit has been. From Origins in Columbus to Toy Fair in New York, to the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas, I'll get to play fun games in lots of great places with some of the best people in the business.

Tonya: What did you do before you got this job?
Carol: I was a teacher for 20 years. I've taught full time, been a full time/long term sub, short term /day-to-day sub, and was a classroom sign language interpreter - not all at once. I've been the only teacher in an elementary one-room school with 4 different grades running at once, I've been a "get a call at 5:30 am" sub, and have taught sciences in a standard 4-year high school. I've had students that have run the gamut from Mennonite farm kids to convicted felons with ankle bracelets in my classes.

Tonya: Why did you switch?
Carol: Teaching has changed since I graduated college in 1986. Or, more accurately, the education climate has changed. Parents are less connected to their kids, kids are more "wired" (cell phones, iPods, electronic games, etc), and they expect to be entertained and spoon fed now much more than they had in the past. I feel old when I say "back in my day things were different." But they were. The amount of work that is required to do the job of a teacher just isn't commensurate with the rewards - and not just monetary. Kids aren't being taught to learn any more - they are being taught to pass. Which means that many of them are being taught that cheating is the way to get ahead. And our culture seems to support that - look at all the CEO's and politicians who bend and break the law for their own gain, and say that it's a normal thing in business these days.

It's not a normal thing at Looney Labs. Integrity means something. Hard work pays off. Who I am and what I think and feel are valued. The flexibility I have in this new job is amazing, and every day I'm asked "did you have fun today?" And every day I can answer, "Yes." I get to go to work every day and have fun. There's a saying out there: "Find a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." I've found that job.

Tonya: What challenges do you face in working for a game company?
Carol: The hardest challenge I'm facing right now is knowing when my work day is over. At school, there are bells that say "ok, you're done here." When I had my own classes, either as a full time teacher or a long term sub, I knew my day was over when I finally finished correcting the last paper of the day - which was often long past the actual school day. Long past. Like until midnight or later. Now I've got a thousand and one projects that all need doing - and need doing now. Juggling that sort of a workload is totally different than teaching. But it is also one that I can honestly say "I did my best today, time to go have a life outside of work" and not feel guilty.

The other challenge is that I telecommute, which means that I am working alone from my home. I could start to feel disconnected from things, like I'm not in the loop. However, the Looneys are very aware of that possibility and work very hard at keeping me and our other telecommuters connected. We all have instant messaging up while we're on the clock, we have conference call staff meetings, and Robin, our wonderful office manager, writes frequent, very newsy updates, often with pictures, about what's going on in the main office in College Park, MD.

Tonya: What rewards are there for you?
Carol: I'm working full time in the gaming industry, earning a wage I can totally live on. How great is that?!? Not many people can say that. This is a dream come true for me. I work with great people who truly care about the environment and other people. I can't think of a better group of people to hang around with. As I said previously, I telecommute. My husband commutes 45 min (or more) each way to his job; I go from my bedroom to my office in the spare bedroom - about 3 feet. In these days of high gas prices, that's worth a lot. I also can take a break or go to the bathroom any time I want. This may not seem like a huge benefit, but because teachers are on bell schedules, they are statistically more prone to bladder infections than almost any other profession. With a totally flexible work schedule, I can set my own hours and do things in the real world during open office hours and not have to take a day off work. This makes things like eye appointments or renewing my license plates very easy things to schedule.

Best of all, I get to play games and get paid for it. With this sort of job, I'm never going to "work" a day in my life.