Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Meet Kadon Enterprises

I interviewed Kate Jones, game designer and president of Kadon Enterprises, Inc, and Stephen Sniderman, game designer and co-editor, with Kate, of The Life of Games, an on-line periodical on board games. The interview was held via email. Take a look at their site and you’ll see why I thought they would make interesting interview subjects.

Tell us about yourselves, apart from gaming.

Kate: A condensed bio sits on my website, at http://www.gamepuzzles.com/kjbio.htm . It reports that I was born Hungarian, survived World War II, the 1969 Washington DC race riots, and the Iranian revolution, and ran through a variety of careers, including advertising copywriter, librarian, graphic artist, ballroom dance teacher, competition dancer, office methods specialist, editor, proofreader, web designer, conference hostess, and consultant besides game and puzzle designer/manufacturer. It's amazing how much one can do with only 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night.

Somewhere early in that line-up of frenzied productive activity I took out a few years to marry, give birth three times, divorce, remarry (now 35 years with the right man, Dick Jones), spend winters on creative retreat in Florida, travel the world, speak serviceable Hungarian, German and Farsi, and maintain spirited correspondences on philosophical topics. Reading, especially science fiction, was a voracious affliction through my teens and an occasional hobby thereafter.

Stephen: I recently retired from Youngstown State University, where I taught American literature and creative writing (fiction) for 36 years. My wife, Marilyn, and I have three adult children. Peter and Lani are both married, and Andy is getting married in November. We have no grandchildren yet.

In addition to inventing games, I also construct puzzles, and have been a contributing editor to GAMES magazine for several years. They have published dozens of my puzzles and three or four of my games. My other hobbies include tennis and racquetball. I also volunteer at the Children's Museum of the Valley, where I have a display of play activities.

Most of my time, though, is being spent on a research project that I hope will turn into a book (or at least an article). The tentative title is The Dynasty Phenomenon. I'm interested in why certain groups of people are overrepresented or underrepresented in various skill activities. There are hundreds of examples. Here are a few: almost all the great violinists of the first seven decades of the twentieth century were Jewish; field hockey was dominated by India for about 40 years; Finns have had the best javelin throwers; a disproportionate number of jockeys are Hispanic; one high school has won over 500 badminton matches in a row; a large percentage of the best board games come from German inventors. On the other hand, there are only a handful of professional black tennis players; the Chicago Cubs have not been in the World Series for almost 100 years; only 11 of the top 500 chess players are female. (If your readers have other examples or possible explanations, I'd love to hear from them.) My question: Is there a single theory that can explain all (or the vast majority of) such phenomena?

Tell us about the history of your involvement in gaming.


Aside from traditional childhood games and a love of riddles, logic puzzles, crossword puzzles and such, I did not consider games much of a part of my adult life (see other preoccupations above). With high school friends we had spent inordinate amounts of time on Monopoly and Canasta.

Years later, during a nearly four-year stint in Iran, I picked up a copy of Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth in an airport newsstand, and discovered pentominoes. Their mathematical perfection, infinite variety of challenges, and elegance of completeness found fertile soil in my brain. Hello to the world of recreational mathematics and the universe of combinatorial games and puzzles.

Having just sold my graphic arts business, I stood at a crossroads of my life. Someone said, "Why don't you go into business to make that game you invented?" (Meaning the activities I had developed for pentominoes.) And thus it came to pass in 1979. And thus Quintillions was born, and it begat over 100 other unique, original, mentally stimulating sets of tiles, picturesque game boards, radical game concepts (see Lemma), and an ever-growing company that is this year (2005) celebrating its 25 years of "creating gamepuzzles for the joy of thinking".

And what a change there has been in the world of gaming in this quarter century, where Rubik's Cube turned the world upside down, and then Dungeons and Dragons created a new genre that has suffused the culture of the world in a way no other recreation ever has before. Would the Internet have become this big this fast without games? Would computers have become this ubiquitous without games?

The special cozy little niche that Kadon Enterprises has carved out for itself is a cultural marker: the Ascendance of the Geeks. Recreational thinking. Geek chic. The brains have it. Intelligence rules. Beyond the snobbishness of chess, beyond the toy box, games are no longer just for kids or just for Russian eccentrics. Gaming is a life-time avocation for grown-ups, no longer just a pastime, but a nourishment for mind and friendships.

Games have spawned millions of players, thousands of designers and websites, specialty shops, a new style of parties, and even the proliferation of Renaissance Faires as gigantic role-playing theme villages. Big bucks all around. See our gorgeous pavilion, Ye Olde Gamery, at the Maryland Renaissance Festival ( http://www.gamepuzzles.com/renfest.htm )

What makes Kadon's games different is their unabashed aesthetics and non-predatory philosophy. The highest quality of materials are used, with durability and longevity a major criterion. Hang the expense, they need to be this way. Wholesaling is thus out of the question. Marketing direct to the consumer is by way of the website and dozens of exhibits through the year at art shows, science fiction conventions, gaming conventions, math conferences, educational events, anywhere that large groups of thinking people congregate.

We've abandoned mailing out catalogs. A catalog can still be printed out from the website, otherwise printing and postage expense become prohibitive. The only catalog we still produce is for the Renaissance Festival, written in a quaint Shakespearean verse, a literary curiosity that has won a festival award.

Kadon's reputation has attracted game designers looking for a publisher, and lately we've brought many of them into the family. One of the latest is Stephen Sniderman's magnum opus, Flying Colors, a repertoire of some 1000 game combinations, slick and elegant and ingenious. We manage to introduce some four or five new products a year, and never discontinue one already in print. An odd policy, perhaps, in an industry where turnover and the search for the next megamonster hit is the norm. Kadon guarantees lifetime replacement parts, because no product is ever retired once it is given life.

The gamepuzzles website hosts a journal, The Life of Games, with co-editor Stephen Sniderman. Its goal is to explore ideas about the whole phenomenon of games, culture and the human mind. "Ideas are the gameboard of the mind. Play on."

Stephen: I've been making up games my whole life. When I was a kid, my father worked for an industrial laundry and would take our shirts there to be cleaned. When they came back, each shirt had a piece of cardboard in it to keep it from wrinkling. This cardboard gave me an endless supply of potential game boards.

When I was 11 or 12, I sent some games to Parker Brothers and a few other game companies. Of course, they came back, but I got nice rejection letters. Nevertheless, I did not try to publish my games again for many years. I did self-publish a co-operative game called Together, which is featured (along with Order and Chaos) in a book called The Greatest Games of All Time (1991) by Matthew J.Costello.

When I found out about Kadon and Kate from GAMES magazine, I decided to show her Together, Order and Chaos, and other related "casual" games I'd been working on. (A "casual game" is a two-player game in which a tie is impossible. It's "casual" because a casual party has no ties.) Kate liked the game-system concept and published Flying Colors as part of Colormaze, which uses some of the same equipment.

Currently, Kate and I are working on another game system that involves an original set of tiles.

Is this your first attempt at a game company?

Kate: This is my second business. Had a graphic arts shop, sold in 1978. Founded the game company in 1979. Celebrating its first 25 years throughout
2005. Yay! We're survivors!

Did things go smoothly?

Kate: Not at first. Had a bitter break-up with partner in early years. Real smooth after that, especially after we learned not to make the same stupid mistakes again and again.

After the design, who does the playtesting, and who decides on the actual graphics/components?

Kate: I design and decide. Got a good crew of playtesters on board. Lately I also develop designs by other inventors.

Has anything you made succeeded beyond your expectations?

Kate: Yes, several: Roundominoes, Octiles, Game of Y, Vee-21, Royal Game of the Goose. See the list of hottest sellers on our website. Half of them were surprises. The others I knew would be hits from the get-go.

Has anything done poorer than you expected?

Kate: I don't usually have unreasonable expectations. I make something wonderful in the best way possible and let nature take its course. The only
one that has disappointed me is one of the games by Martin Gardner. The Gardner name alone was not enough to kick-start this sweet little wordgame. But then our real strength is in the geometric tilings and abstract games.

Where do you market and sell?

Kate: Direct to the consumer via website, and in person at displays in arts and crafts shows, gaming conventions, science fiction conventions, math conferences, Mensa gatherings, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, educational conferences, and occasionally by special invitation at private events...wherever large numbers of intelligent people gather. Send out email newsletters occasionally or postcard mailings, and supplies of catalog sheets to some conferences. No print advertising; it proved to be useless. Some link exchanges, word of mouth, interviews, publicity, reviews in games publications. I don't wholesale.

Pick one of your most interesting games. How was it conceived? During the design, did you hit any dead ends and start over? What issues came up during playtesting? What are its strongest distinctive points?

Kate: The game that best fits this question is Lemma. I was driving to Chicago from Baltimore one day, back in 1983, and I was musing about games - about the traditional themes of games, namely war and acquisition (chess, checkers, Othello), a race (backgammon, parchisi, Chinese checkers, Sorry, et al.), and "positional" or abstract strategy (Pente, go, dominoes, Othello). Just about every game I knew of fit somewhere into one or more of these categories. As I was driving along, the thought kept drifting through my mind that surely there had to be something else... And then it hit: a game where the players themselves create the rules. So it makes a different game every time.

Where I hit the dead end was what the board should look like. The 10 seconds of inspiration were followed by 10 months of perspiration as I struggled with the right board design. It was worth the effort.

The major issue during playtesting, before I had the final board, was that players made absurd rules and tried to overthrow the metarules. This helped me to refine the metarules, limiting the rules to only the board and pieces, and excluding body parts, articles of clothing, time cycles, and anything else that could not be shown on the gameboard.

The strongest distinctive points of the finished, polished, published Lemma game are the creative stream it produces in players' minds, the whole "meta" effect and psychological interplay among the players. It is a radically different game from anything else people have ever played. The game becomes hot when all the players want to talk at the same time, debating the pros and cons of a proposed new rule. Players can challenge a proposed new rule if it is not consistent, if it goes against a previous rule or against a metarule, if it is compound rather than a single element. The game has some great fans, and then some who just don't get it.

Stephen: Like Kate, I have noticed that most games (and sports) share a good deal in common, and I've always wanted to invent something unique, or at least unfamiliar. This led me in several directions. Since almost every game I was aware of involved winners and losers (this is before I knew about Role-Playing Games), I tried to make a game in which everyone either "wins" or "loses," that is, the players are playing the board. This led to Together, a "co-operative strategy game," which I originally self-published and eventually showed to Kate. It is now part of Flying Colors. The basic idea is to scatter 25 pieces of 5 different colors on a board and, in as few moves as possible, reassemble the pieces in groups by color. (Kate especially liked the fact that the "groups" at the end of the game formed pentominoes.)

I also noticed that virtually every game and sport I knew could end in a tie or a draw or endless play. Moreover, every game was either a "first" game or a "most" game--that is, you won by doing something first (e.g. mating your opponent's king) or earning the most points (as in Scrabble). I wondered if there could be other kinds of objects for a two-person game, objects that would eliminate the possibility of ties. I've come up with several "Otherwise" concepts: Player A wins if a certain condition exists. Otherwise, Player B wins. In addition, I realized these games had to be "bounded," that is, they had to end after a finite number of moves. I decided to call them "casual games," after casual parties (where you will see no ties). Several of these are illustrated by Chessence, which appears in the second issue of The Life of Games, along with a discussion called "Down with Ties!"

You say that you will continue to reprint any game or sell any game pieces. How is this economically feasible? Don't most print runs run in the "5000 copy minimum" range?

Kate: No, we have the capability to make even just one single set or part. We do not "print" runs. We handcraft boards and only print the rule books, in as few as 500 lots. Our lasercut puzzles can be in any quantity we want, from 10 to 30 units. We usually have spare parts lying around for when people request one piece. Otherwise we make the spare part from the existing cut pattern and scrap material. We don't wholesale, so making small volumes is not an issue.

Aside from your own games, what games do you like to play? With whom? Do you play "party" games?

Kate: On the rare occasions when we are not working, I enjoy playing any of our own, also Pictionary, Fluxx, Set, UNO (a tradition for New Year's Eve), Scrabble, and any game that friends want to try out. A really cool game I was introduced to last year was Project Kells, an ingenious and exquisite game of forming Celtic knot patterns with tiles.

Stephen: The only game I play other than my own is Trivial Pursuit, although I play several sports - most often, tennis and racquetball. My wife and I used to play bridge regularly, but that was many years ago.

What games are played by your kids and social circles (outside of work)?

Kate: We have a hotbed of D&D and generic role playing aficionados.

Stephen: My kids play Cranium and Fantasy Football. The only game my friends play is Trivial Pursuit.

If you invite someone for dinner, or you are invited for dinner, does that usually imply (or hope) a game will be played? One of yours?

Kate: Yes, the favorite for a group of 3 or 4 is Kaliko. It's the original path-matching hexagons game that's been around for over 40 years and "inspired" the Tantrix game. Another favorite is our flagship, Quintillions, which is the granddaddy of the theme that "inspired" the newly popular Blokus game. And for family groups of varied ages, by popular request we play The Royal Game of the Goose or its more serious companion, Game of the Labyrinth, which are very old, historical parlor games. When we go out to dinner with friends, I usually bring along a small game or puzzle, maybe something new I've come up with, to try out while we wait.

Stephen: Almost never, although I usually have one ready in case someone is dying to try something new. For awhile, some friends got together specifically to play games, and we tried Scattergories and Taboo, but that didn't last long. As a result, I've become my own playtester. However, I just taught a course in creating games and puzzles and got to test many games during the 15-week semester. I plan to teach that course each Spring.

Sounds great. What was the forum and the syllabus? What was the reaction
from the students and their parents before and after the course? Where are you teaching?

Stephen: I just retired from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. I have taught American literature and creative writing for 36 years. I will continue teaching a reduced load for the next five years (on top of my pension).

We used a book called Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in games and game design. They ask all the right questions and give some very sensible and insightful answers.

There were 11 students in the class, and each had to devise his or her own syllabus, indicating how many points they would receive for homework, attendance, game making, puzzle making, and so on. Until about the 10th week, we played my games, then for the rest of the semester, we played students' games, which were uniformly innovative and near-professional in their presentation. It was a very satisfying course for us all.

Almost all of your games seem to be almost totally abstract. How do you feel about the story or theme of a game? Have you played any themed Eurogames, like Ursuppe, Wallenstein, or Puerto Rico? Have you considered producing any games with rich themes?

Kate: I have played a few themed games, like RA and Civilization and the previously cited Kells High Kings of Tara. To me the richest theme is the
totally abstract, because it is all-encompassing. Any themed game can be analyzed in terms of its abstract mechanics. In fact, we do have one themed game: The Game of the Labyrinth ( http://www.gamepuzzles.com/lab.htm ). It is of very old historical vintage and a unique interpretation of an ancient artifact, the Phaistos Disk.

I prefer abstract games for the purity of the concept. Any player can invent a theme to pull over the basic structure and anthropomorphise the pieces into people in a struggle for survival. My interest is in the creation and exploration of systems: their dynamics, their evolution, their survivability. Anyone can make a game symbolic of two warring groups trying to destroy or subdue each other. It is far more challenging to come up with a conflict situation that resolves to everyone's benefit. As long as we teach our children, through games, that all life is predator-and-prey, or destroy-or-be-destroyed, the world will not find peace and security. So I continue to search for an abstract game theme that is not zero-sum. Admittedly very few even of our products come close to that ideal as yet. But I do want games where competition does not involve beating in the other fellow's kneecaps.

I see from your bio that you have a good relationship with some of your customers. Can you give me an example of a few favorite customers and maybe a funny or poignant customer experience? Any really bad customer experiences stand out (names not required)?

Kate: Yes, most of our helpers started out as customers, and many of our customers have become friends. Each has a story. Here's one of the cutest, and I've even added it to the website. Long long ago a couple of supergeeks who also frequent the Renaissance Festival and science fiction conventions happened also to be at a Mensa event I attended, so we kept crossing paths and they kept buying my wares, as gifts for each other and for themselves. I didn't realize how great fans they were until a couple of years ago when one of them, Dayle Hodge, let me know that his wife had bought him a puppy for Christmas and named it Kadon, in honor of Dayle's great partisanship of our enterprise. Now whenever people hear him call his dog, they ask about the unusual name and he can give us a little plug. So we have a furry spokesman. See him here: http://www.gamepuzzles.com/mascot.htm .

Another loyal customer, Ben Baldanza, president of an airline in his serious mode, game collector, game reviewer, has also interviewed me for Counter magazine. You can read it here: http://www.gamepuzzles.com/baldanza.htm .

Many of our oldest customers have brought up their families on our games, and after 25 years we're now selling to the next generation.

Then there's the story of Julie Stevens, who would come to the Renaissance Festival every year and buy our games for her collection. One year she sat there playing with one she already owned. Jokingly I inquired which one she was going to buy that year. She admitted as how she wasn't sure she could buy any because she was out of work. "Oh, what do you do?" I asked. "I'm a computer programmer," she said. Well, I had the greatest need for someone to take over the customer data entry into our then-new computer, so I immediately offered her the job, and she accepted. "Oh, by the way, where do you live?" I thought of asking at that point. "Over in Virginia," came the answer. "Oh." (Our place is near Baltimore.) Distance was not to be an obstacle, however. For over 10 years, Julie comes to the house, stays over for the weekend, and gets our records caught up periodically, even though she now has a real job as well, besides being deeply into singing with a Gilbert and Sullivan opera company.

Finally, a customer who became a very close friend, Dr. Kimberly Kiddoo in Coral Gables, Florida, is a psychologist and uses our games in her practice. Her major interest is education of gifted children, including her own son, Cris. Her office is decorated with our puzzles, and so is her home. And when I'm on retreat in Florida, we three get together and play all kinds of games. Kim and Cris are among my best playtesters, as well.

Overall I am incredibly fortunate that so many of my close associates have been with us for a long time. They are like my family. Each person is unique, with an area that's their specialty. And most of them are also shareholders now, owning a piece of this oddball company.

In the Bio, you mention Ayn Rand a few times. Is her philosophy influential in your life?

Kate: Undeniably. She gave words to what I already believed but could not express. Individualism: that each individual has the right to live for his
or her own sake. That life is infinitely precious, the ultimate value, but that it must the life appropriate to a rational being, not that of an animal or vegetable. That honesty, integrity, productivity are virtues in themselves, not handed down from some imagined higher power. That dealing with others as equals, by mutual agreement and exchange, is the foundation for civilization. That all values of ethics and morality can be rationally derived, and the very purpose and meaning of life defined by objective reality. Any deviation into religious belief and mystical faith leads to the most disastrous consequences for humanity, because they undermine the great truths: the Laws of Identity, Causality, and Non-contradiction.

I knew all these things by my own convictions, but Ayn Rand proved it and gave me the reinforcement to assert them in my own life, against the overwhelming pressures of parents, teachers and media. It is interesting to watch how the truth she has spoken can be twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, as Kipling put it. Yet all she said and built up as a philosophy is reducible to what amounts to the golden rule: Treat others as you would be treated (mutual respect); love thy neighbor as thyself (equality). She put it this way: "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I shall never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another to live for mine."

The influence of such a philosophy is that I do my work and run my life by harmonious integration. It's like a big puzzle, getting all the pieces to fit.

Your genesis as a game designer began in Iran and you spent several years there. Is Iran still a part of your life?

Kate: I have not been back there since 1979. I have dear and cherished Iranian friends in the U.S. and have warm memories of the people, the food, the culture and climate. Islam is not their original or natural religion. I can only hope that someday the Persian art and enlightenment will win out against the present situation. It is a very complex mix of values at war in the souls of the people. The Islamic revolution is a gruesome example and proof of the evils of fanatical religion. And in the name of Allah the most merciful, the most horrid deeds are justified. It bears mentioning that the Persians are not Arabs.

We've drifted rather far from games and game design with these topics, but when you look at it objectively, the global situation is just a bigger game, and the strains and conflicts among nations are the mega form of what we try to capture on gameboards. And what is really at war here are the ideas, the memes, that have taken root in the human software. It is ideas that move the engines of war. It is the survival algorithm of "us" against "them". The DNA is confused, the selfish gene is running wild. If we would only recognize that "we" and "they" are really all one and the same, all humanity, not predator and prey, we could change the world overnight. The Internet can be the great unifier, if we can just keep the politicians out of the way.

The cosmic game is afoot.

Do you regularly visit Internet sites about games, or read gaming lists?

Kate: Yes, I look at all sites about games that I learn about, at least once, to keep tabs on the state of the art. Some favorite sites, such as the ones linked from our Resources page, I check periodically for updates. I also read GAMES Magazine primarily, and receive a few other game publications, such as Abstract Games and AGPC and others listed in our Resources. What the rest of the gaming world is doing does not, however, affect my decisions of what to design and make. I'm pretty much a lone wolf, an independent artist.

Stephen: No, not regularly, but I occasionally visit game sites. I do not read gaming lists (and am not even sure what they are). My main source of information about games is GAMES magazine. As a rule, though, I'm only vaguely interested in other people's stuff, unless it is establishing a truly new direction in game design.

Thanks for your interesting answers! Any final words?

Stephen: My goal has always been to come up with a new way of thinking about games. For me, the ultimate would be offering the world a brilliant new theory about the nature of games and illustrating that theory with a brilliant new game or metagame or metametagame. Of course, that game would be enormously fun to play by any number of people of all ages and cultures, would become an instant and permanent megahit on the internet, would bring the world closer together, and would eventually lead to universal peace and harmony. And they'd give me the Nobel Prize and my name would live forever in the annals of game theory and game invention.

Kate: Sure. I share some of Stephen's philosophical angle on viewing games, and his idea of games creating peace and harmony in the world is not too far out. Games are microcosms of social memes and attitudes. We inculcate values
in children's minds from the earliest age through the games we play with them. Other childhood influences, like fairy tales, also have a powerful deep effect in forming a child's perceptions of how the world works, and how it should work.

Games of war and conquest, destruction, elimination, "enemies", are pernicious because they plant, and seem to legitimize, a view of the world divided into opposing camps where differences are settled violently and goods are appropriated by force. For peace and harmony to become the norm, games will need to teach conflict resolution, resource allocation, individual justice and fair play, intelligent decision-making and mutual trust, free will, collaboration in overcoming natural problems and disasters, mutual respect, recognition of property rights and individual
liberty, and the accumulation and rational use of human wisdom. And we need an end to the "us against them" division. If there must be an enemy, let it be the natural dangers that threaten us with extinction: disease, DNA degradation, famine, meteors, overpopulation, floods, fires, tsunamis, extremes of hot and cold, the sun running down, the atmosphere boiling away, the water supply becoming compromised, etc.

Tall order - anyone up to creating games that are based on those values? Games that are challenging and fun to play without the predator/prey scenario and the artificial excitement of destruction? I send out the challenge to all game designers: come up with such a game, and Kadon will publish it. Game invention may well be a road to saving civilization, and humanity.

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