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Interview: Game Inventor Bruce Alsip Discusses Canoe, Strut!, and Staggers

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In an industry dominated by electronic gaming, Bruce Alsip stands proudly as a torchbearer for tactile board games. Rather than motion-sensing controls and hard drives, his creations are played with dice, cubes, cards and boards. With over 30 years in the business, his most recent passion has been a trio of games he produces and markets independently under his own brand, Alsip & Company. The flagship is a complex strategy game called Canoe. “Simple to learn, yet difficult to master” is the succinct and accurate claim made of Canoe on the Alsip & Company website.

An Alsip & Company game is more than a finely honed concept with a set of well-articulated rules, even though these elements may be enough for other game developers. Bruce Alsip has taken things a step further, creating a rich backstory to accompany his trio of Canoe, Strut!, and Staggers. He sees his creations as part of an overall lifestyle, one that emphasizes mental agility. These games provide exercise for the mind, not to mention a good reason to socialize.

I wanted to know more about Mr. Alsip’s work, and the processes he goes through when painstakingly crafting timeless gems. I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss these matters with him in detail.

I’m consistently intrigued by the full range of detail you invest in your games, going back to your very first one on the market, Wykersham [1980]. You’re intent on crafting a kind of cultural backdrop to accompany the game.

I want to tell a story with my games, which means having a rich product behind it. You can’t tell a story and then give them a schlocky product. So you build this history – this mystique – then provide a product that has the same feel. It’s satisfying to me to have someone buy a product that I would want to see in my own house. I saved an old ad for Bentley Motors that says, “You don’t park it, you position it.” That’s what I try to embody with my games.

You’ve made Canoe available with a variety of hardwood game boards. There are carrying bags made of high quality leather and all-weather canvas. It’s a far cry from the tattered cardboard boxes with splitting seams, sitting on most closet shelves.

Exactly. I want my games to have an heirloom quality. Handed down through generations. Signed. Registered. Enhancing a simple box like Strut! with a leather wrap to differentiate it from other production games. When I hand-sign the Strut! box and date it, that’s kind of fun. It’s like a book signed by the author. So the quality is really important, and “Made in the USA” is very important to me. I can’t quite source it all in the U.S., because with dice I can’t get the quality here.

A lasting legacy is the obvious goal. Not unlike the legacy left by your uncle Earl Willits and his brother Floyd, whose carefully crafted Willits Brothers Canoes served as an inspiration. Who else helped inspired your dedication to fine quality?

I was working with Tom Dusenberry, he was Vice President of Acquisitions at Parker Brothers, when I licensed Bottle Topps [1993]. His whole thing was the “wow factor.” He wants to be wowed when he opens up the package, he wants to be wowed when he plays it, and he wants to be wowed by the price.

My current games have that same kind of feel. When you take it out of the box, you’ve got ownership. The other thing that’s cool – and I love this aspect of my business – when you pick up the phone, you’re going to get me. You can ask me a question, “When I move my cube here and roll, what happens?” And we can walk through it. The customer goes, “Wow!,” because you can’t do that with any other company. It’s like, “Press 5 if you want the alphabetical index.” Being accessible is the key.

So let’s talk about your current games. You’ve described Canoe as a “world-class strategy game.” What elements are needed for a “world-class” game?

It’s taking elements of other games to make a new game, with a new format. It’s taking something that has a blend of strategy and chance. But the chance does not outweigh the strategy. With Canoe, the dice are the vehicle; that’s what drives the game. The dice don’t determine the outcome of the game. To be world-class, you’re talking about something that other countries can pick up without a language barrier. Backgammon is a perfect example.

Tell me about the development of Canoe.

What triggered Canoe was my fascination with the doubling cube in backgammon. I liked the fact that the game is propelled by such a cube. Usually it’s either disks like checkers, or markers of some sort. So what I got out of backgammon was the doubling cube. I turned my cube into the gears of the game. The problem with backgammon is you can be strategically positioned, then double-doubles will kill you. It’s the luck of the dice, so again there’s the balance between strategy and chance. Canoe is rarely determined by the roll of the dice.

How is Canoe unique in the way it positions the two players?

Canoe is the only strategy board game where you play at right angles, rather than competing across a table, face to face. I designed it that way so players felt more connected. Two people can play on the same side of a restaurant booth or train compartment. There’s more intimacy, more romance for couples.

More in the vein of a party game, you have Strut!. What is its appeal?

First of all, it’s a dice-driven card game that has similarities to Yahtzee. Also Uno, being the first to rid yourself of all cards. When you’re going through the Strut! rules, don’t complicate it. Just kind of learn the basics of what happens. Then from that point you can learn what the cards do; the action cards. But I think keeping it simple, like a Yahtzee framework, is the key. But it’s definitely not Yahtzee; it has a lot more depth than Yahtzee. It’s a fast and furious game.

The development of Strut! happened over a fairly long period of time?

I think I started developing Strut! in 1984. At that time it was called “Skagit,” like Skagit County [Washington State] – just a working title. It was a great game and we came very close to licensing it in Europe, but it lacked something. So we did two things to the game. We put the black die in, then the very last addition: the Black Rooster, which is deadly. Some people don’t like the Black Rooster [which, when played, eliminates the winner’s accumulated points]. But you don’t have to play it, you just leave it out of the deck. You can have a game that lacks just that one-tenth, that one little twist that turns a very good game into a great game. And I think Strut! is a great game, I really do.

So you’re not bothered by people creating house rules for your games?

Not at all, you can always put house rules in a game. The nice thing about Strut! is that you can leave the Black Rooster out or you can change what it does. Instead of losing everything, you can modify it. It can wipe out ten or fifteen points instead of going back to zero.

Rounding out your current roster at Alsip & Co. is Staggers. What’s the backstory on that one?

Staggers was maybe eight years from conception to putting it on the market. Staggers was also inspired by another game, Shut the Box, which is a very old, sea-going English game that the crew played for money. You roll two dice and you have twelve numbers; it’s a number elimination game. So I looked at that game and said, “I’d rather have more options.” That’s why we added a third die and a total of eighteen numbers.

The playing surface of Staggers, in its standard edition, is leather. But you’re introducing a napkin version, with a cloth playing surface.

We looked around forever for a really high quality napkin. You can wash it over and over again. It goes anywhere. You can fold it up and put it in your back pocket. Camping, parties – anywhere. It’s a great “leave behind.” That’s a term I really like to use when we’re talking about these games. You’re visiting somebody and you just leave it behind. A lot of my games are “leave behinds.” Even Canoe, the leather version.

Over the 30-plus years you’ve been developing games, what do you consider your proudest accomplishment?

As with any art form, whether painting or whatever, it’s not a big deal for me to have developed a game. I don’t look at it as, “Wow, I developed that.” Besides, it’s not all you. It’s family, like my daughters saying, “Dad, why don’t you try this?” My wife has contributed as well, as she has a good eye for design.

What’s really satisfying is when I talk to someone who says, “Our favorite game is Canoe, we play it every night.” That’s really rewarding for me. When I go to bed at night, sometimes I think about how many people are out there playing one of my games. What’s really gratifying is to know they’re having a good time, doing their mental gymnastics which keeps them young. That’s really rewarding for me. More so than saying, “Gosh, look at me – I invented it!” When we did Bottle Topps, we sold 1.1 million units, most through Parker Brothers. I mean, that’s kind of a monetary achievement.

On the flipside, what kind of disappointments have you experienced?

The biggest disappointment, I think, is the failure to focus. You kind of have to shovel a lot of dirt to get to where you are, and some of that shoveling is not necessary. And that’s kind of a negative, as far as I’m concerned. Things I’ve developed that didn’t ever get on the market, and that were costly. Like $6,000, and you don’t see the result. So that’s disappointing, it really is.

With the continued popularity of video games among younger generations, what do you predict for the future of board games?

If kids today don’t play tactile table games, they will have nothing to reminisce about. Scary thought, right? We are moving so fast that kids today will be unable to picture the past, even 20 years back. It does seem to a high degree that traditional games may go the way of the buggy whip. But people still need to throw dice and deal cards. Sometimes it’s nice to break away from the computer and TV screens.

Despite Bruce Alsip’s traditionalist leanings, he expressed excitement about the development of an online version of Canoe and his current Staggers iPhone app. He understands the importance of moving forward, while continuing to preserve the time-honored ways of the past. For those interested in more information about Alsip & Company’s games and accessories, spend some time checking out their official website.

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About The Other Chad

Hi, I'm Chaz Lipp. An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."