For the Looneys, the game’s the thing -- Gazette.Net


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Andrew Looney sat down late on the night of July 24, 1996, and typed out the concept for a card game with constantly changing rules.

Sixteen years later, that game — Fluxx — is available in Target stores throughout the nation.

Looney and his wife, Kristin, own Looney Labs, a seven-employee game company in College Park. The company offers 20 game titles, with numerous playing styles, and generates about $1 million in yearly revenues. They hope to exceed that sales total this year with the entrance of Fluxx into the mainstream market.

Looney Labs historically has targeted hobby and game stores, along with online buyers.

“We’re geeks who make games for geeks,” said Andrew Looney, sporting a ’70s-style tie-dyed shirt emblazoned with Fluxx’s logo.

Fluxx hit Target stores Aug. 1.

“The stars aligned for us,” said Fred Yelk Woodruff, senior buyer for Publisher Services, the Norcross, Ga., distributor of Looney Labs’ games, in describing the ease with which Publisher pitched Fluxx to Target executives.

He said Fluxx’s sales history, family-friendly concept and the work of the Looneys to redesign their packaging boosted the game’s appeal for Target.

Publisher pitches 5,000 titles to hobby and game stores each year, with perhaps only 30 reaching Target, Yelk Woodruff said.

“It’s a cream-of-the-crop mentality,” he said.

Looney Labs was one of Publisher’s first clients.

Fluxx, which has earned a Mensa Select Award for its originality, playability and design, can be played in as little as five minutes. The object is to collect certain cards, known as Keepers, that coincide with certain goal cards. But to reach that point, players must contend with other cards that alter the goals and game-play.

The Target version is a less expensive and simplified form than the versions that sell in the other stores, but otherwise functions the same way.

“The challenge is making sure our move into mainstream doesn’t hurt the hobby and game market, which has helped us throughout the years,” Kristin Looney said. “Those stores are still our bread and butter.”

To manage this balance, Looney Labs designed more mainstream-friendly packaging for the Target version and included a catalogue for the eight Fluxx spinoffs and other Looney products, which will continue to be sold only in the hobby and game stores.

A match made at NASA

The Looneys met through their work at NASA, when Andrew Looney, a software engineer, asked Kristin, an electronics engineer, to test out a triangle piece game he envisioned through a short story.

“There’s a lot of similarities between game rules and software. Both need to function a certain way and be as efficient as possible,” Andrew Looney said. “But while a computer is always going to follow the rules, people are different. The longer the rules are, the more likely someone will not read them all. The real challenge is writing rules people will understand.”

Soon after the triangle game’s test run, the Looneys, who fell in love and got married along the way, created Ice House Games, named after Andrew Looney’s short story. The company was a side project that lasted from 1989 to 1996. During that time, the Looneys realized that the cost of producing the triangle game was going to be close to $12,000 for custom-molding. They switched gears into the card game genre, when Kristin Looney challenged her husband to make a card game.

A day later, Fluxx was born.

Most of Looney Labs’ financing has been through friends and family, with the original Fluxx run totaling about 5,000 units.

The Looneys also tried licensing Fluxx to another company, which went bankrupt after a few years. The experience showed the pair they were not the type to sit back and just watch a product.

“We want to be the company that takes it where it can go,” Kristin Looney said.

Looney Labs eventually started making variations of Fluxx, with new cards and new themes, leading to larger and more vibrant packaging for counter appeal, Andrew Looney said.

“It’s a regular, consistent seller in our market,” said Stephen Sinex, owner of Family Game Store in Savage, adding that he buys a complete pack of Fluxx variants every week. “It is a unique mechanic of changing rules and goals throughout the game. Gamers are used to buying things that are unusual.”

Sinex described Andrew Looney as “one of the best and most innovative game designers out there.”

Although he was unsure how Fluxx will fare in the mainstream market, he said most games that hit that market usually draw buyers away from stores such as his with their cheaper prices.

The game industry has fared better than many throughout the Great Recession and the slow recovery, because games can be replayed and are available for a relatively low price, Sinex said.

“They bring people eyeball to eyeball, and more people are beginning to look for that,” he said.

Looney Labs’ also recently launched Cthulhu Fluxx, which is based on the works of fantasy horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It is working on a special deluxe version of its Are You A Werewolf game through Kickstarter, an online funding platform resource.

The company continues to seek out new investors and soon will bring on an eighth employee to work on marketing, according to the Looneys.

lrobbins@gazette.net