Originally published in January 2000.
At 54, Jay Tummelson has a job many of us might envy -- he travels the world, mainly Europe, scouting for the best board games being designed. Then his company, Rio Grande Games, publishes those games for the English-speaking world and he gets to do it all over again. Along the way, it's no exaggeration to say that he has changed the shape of the board game market in the U.S. and elsewhere.
His timing couldn't have been better. In early 1998, when he formed Rio Grande Games, the Internet was taking off as a new mass outlet for news and information. The Net has made it much easier for people to share information and discover new ways to spend their entertainment dollars.
At the same time, the extraordinary amount of technology we face on a daily basis has made it more appealing for many people to take a look at how they can get away from the computer and spend more time with family and friends. After spending all day on a computer at work, people could be less likely to want to come home and stare at yet another 17-inch (or, worse, 14-inch!) screen. Enter a sort of board game revival, which some theorize is already underway and will continue into the forseeable future. And German-style games -- many created specifically as family games -- are so well designed that many people who "discover" them wonder why they didn't know about them before.
No doubt that description includes an over-simplification or two, but it is true to say that Tummelson makes his living as an independent businessman in the board game industry, and he's having fun doing it. He's also receiving quite a bit of significant recognition.
For example, Torres, distributed in the U.S. by Rio Grande, was named Game of the Year by Games magazine. After playing this game myself, it's not hard to imagine why the folks at Games were so enamored with Torres.
But even more impressive than that single accolade is the fact that the 2000 Games 100 list included more than 15 Rio Grande releases.
Tummelson took some time to answer a few questions about Rio Grande and his interest in board gaming. Since some readers may be unfamiliar with Rio Grande's games, we'll start with Tummelson's comments on four of his most recent success stories.
Please tell us a little about these four games:
Torres, 2000 Games 100 Game of the Year
I saw the game as a sample last Christmas (1998). I liked the game, but was told it would not be produced for several months. When the time came, I was ready and jumped at the chance to do the English version. Torres is a game of tower building. With each player having just 5 action points to spend each round, the game moves quickly and is filled with difficult decisions.
Tikal, 2000 Games 100 Best Family Strategy Game
I saw this game at the same time as Torres, but it was scheduled for earlier printing. As I had not worked with Ravensburger before, I had to make some new contacts. Fortunately, this went quickly and well. We met in Nürnberg [Germany, at a game fair] last February and agreed for me to publish the English version.
In Tikal, the players are exploring the ancient Mayan ruins. They build the board as the game progresses and they discover the various parts of Tikal. This too is a game of difficult decisions that changes every time you play.
Ricochet Robot, 2000 Games 100 Best Puzzle Game
I first saw Ricochet Robot as a prototype last year when I visited Han im Glück. I was immediately impressed with the game, but thought it had a few problems (as did the folks at Hans im Glück). We discussed possible solutions and I agreed then to do the game, being certain the problems would be resolved (and they were!). It was shown at Nürnberg and released shortly thereafter.
In Ricochet Robot, the players work separately to solve a series of puzzle. In each puzzle, the goal is to move a particular robot to a specified spot on the board. The player who finds the shortest route, wins a chip and the players with the most chips, wins the game.
Mamma Mia, 2000 Games 100 Best Memory Game
I saw this game when I visited Abacus Spiele in the summer of 1998. It had a different theme, but I liked the game play. Later, they decided on the Pizza theme and we agreed to co-publish the game.
In Mamma Mia! players try to fill eight pizza orders. Each player has eight orders to fill and a hand full of ingredients. Players discard ingredient cards and, sometimes, pizza orders to a common stack, where they hope to fill those orders later in the game.
When did you start playing boardgames?
As a child, first with my parents and sister and later with school friends.
What were some of your earliest favorite games?
Chess and card games (gin and canasta) were my favorites. Of course, I played Monopoly, but found it boring and too luck-driven for my taste. I tried other board games that I found more interesting: Risk and backgammon come to mind, but it was chess and the card games that really interested me and that I spent most of my time with before I went to college.
When did you become interested in German/European games?
When I was working for Mayfair Games (from 1995 to 1997). Darwin Bromley had begun to import German games, but they were very expensive ($70 or so) and did not sell well. I felt we needed to publish English versions and at a cheaper price in order for us to bring these games into the US. Thus, in the summer of 1996, we published Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix, Manhattan, Modern Art, Streetcar, and The Settlers of Catan as our first English versions of German games.
Why do you enjoy German/European games?
The games are short, usually less than an hour and rarely longer than 90 minutes. They have short rules, but strategies that are difficult to master. Thus, they have very high replayability. Although I enjoy games such as Civilization, its length makes it a difficult game to find time for.
What jobs did you hold before becoming involved in the board game industry?
I had several jobs in the computer field from 1964 until 1995: consultant, systems programmer, systems manager, and data center director.