Tag Archives: board games

Gaming with Marcus Ross

May 6, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marcus Ross can frequently be found at Spielbound, one of Omaha’s hottest spots for board game enthusiasts. While Ross thoroughly enjoys board games, he’s not content just playing them—he also designs them. With three games officially published and more on the way, this Omaha native has taken his gaming passion to the next level.

As Ross describes it, his “real job” is working as a programmer for HATCX, an app that helps consumers compare prices between different medical services. His duties consist of back-end programming, which means while other programmers may be concerned with an app’s appearance and interface, Ross is focusing on the actual data the app provides to users.

Ross first took the plunge into game development several years back. He had been working long hours at a job he didn’t like, and his father had recently passed away.

“I thought ‘What would I be doing if I was just doing what I wanted to do?’” Ross says. “And I thought, ‘Game designing.’ So, I started just trying to spin up something like that.”

The first leg of his journey began in 2012, when he roped his cousin, Cara Heacock, into a “startup weekend.” This event required small groups to come together and pitch a business idea. Thus, Ross’ game development company, Water Bear Games, was born. Of the eight groups participating, they placed fifth. Despite the rough start and most of the other group members quitting, Ross kept moving forward with his business idea.

“I think we’re the only company that’s still going,” Heacock says.

She says she admires Ross’ determination. Even after experiencing several hiccups, Ross kept moving his vision forward.

Designing board games isn’t as glamorous—or as simple—as one might think. Countless hours of critiquing, crafting, and redesigning are poured into each of Ross’ projects, and some of them never even make it out of early development.

“I was just playing games, appreciating them, and saying ‘I think I can do this, it should be fun,’” Ross says.

Ross’ mid-development demos look far different from their polished, final forms. Game prototypes are a mishmash of various game pieces, homemade cards, hand-drawn boards, and just about anything else needed to make a board game function.

Ross’ first big break came in 2013, when Water Bear Games submitted a game design to a development contest hosted by the creators of Cards Against Humanity. Out of 500 contestants, Ross’ game, Discount Salmon, rose to the top. With guidance and publishing provided by Cards Against Humanity, Discount Salmon became a reality within a year.

As a joke, Ross had said he would wear a fish costume to promote the game if they won. Discount Salmon’s victory was a surprise, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a full body fish costume at the country’s largest gaming convention to promote it.

“The fish costume did the perfect thing,” Ross says. “The game is absurd. If the fish costume would bring you over, you’re already the right audience. The game sold itself.”

Spielbound guests pulling one of Ross’ games off the shelves might find themselves meeting the creator. He’s not shy when it comes to introducing himself or his games.

Ross is looking to the future of his game development career. He’s putting the finishing touches on his latest game before sending a prototype off to the publisher. If they choose to pick up the game, Ross could have his fourth game hit the shelves in 2019.

Visit waterbeargames.com to find more games from Ross and Heacock. 

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of The Encounter

Don’t Be Bored, Get Board

January 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Every Friday night, Mickey Williams hosts a weekly ritual—board game night.

The 32-year-old Williams is a board game enthusiast. He resides just south of Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood. Downtown buildings and lights are visible from the front porch of his nearly 100-year-old house. During his Friday board game nights, Williams opens his home to friends and strangers alike.

The weekly gaming tradition has been ongoing for about five years. Some nights draw 15 or more players. “It is not uncommon that we get 10 at once,” he says while arranging one of the night’s more popular attractions, Ticket to Ride, a train-themed game.

To accommodate an irregular guest list with visitors arriving at unpredictable hours, Williams makes full use of his home’s ample gaming space. In his living room, there are three dining tables. In the basement, an open ping-pong table is available for more expansive games. Other spaces, such as a gossip bench, are set up for chess and other small games.

boardgamenight2The walls and ceiling are decorated by players with graffiti and artwork, which Williams welcomes in the yet-to-be remodeled portions of his home. The wall art includes full-color drawings of anime characters, unicorns, miscellaneous doodles, and a mural of a T-Rex on the dining room ceiling. Quotes are scribbled in unexpected places.

Amber Ostergaard, a two-year regular of the board game night, painted the dinosaur on the ceiling. She says many guests have left their marks; it’s all part of the atmosphere.

Living room cabinets and the old home’s built-in shelves store a treasure trove of 127 board games “including expansion sets,” says Williams, who also invites guests to bring their own games.

The event is low-key, but Williams enforces basic rules to ensure the satisfaction of his players and the continuity of the event. He offers these rules as a guide to others who are interested in hosting their own game night event: “Playing games is required,” Williams says. “Every attendee must play a minimum of one board game every time they attend or be forever banned from future attendance.” This is the most common rule broken and enforced at game night, though Williams also will eject visitors who are excessively drunk or making other
players uncomfortable.

Williams says that many board gamers are “not adept at dealing with difficult social situations,” and that “creating a comfortable environment gets these people out to play.” Williams does not tolerate any form of harassment at game night. He tries to apply the rules “as evenly and non-sexistly as possible,” and he says, “there have been females that have been ejected for their behavior as well [as male players].”

Ostergaard says the event is “inclusive to both genders,” and male and female players seem fairly evenly represented on Fridays. However, Williams does not allow children due to the presence of alcohol.

Another crucial and inflexible rule of Williams’ board game night is that it happens every Friday. No matter what. If the event were inconsistent, Ostergaard says people would lose track of it.

“You don’t have to worry about, ‘Did I miss it, or did I not miss it?’ You don’t have to search for it in your events on Facebook. It’s just every Friday,” Ostergaard says. Williams adds that having a closed Facebook group for the event does help with reminders. “We try to take a picture of each game,” he says, laughing. “We try to post the ‘who won’ and whatnot, but we’re really bad at that.”

Because Williams facilitates game night, he doesn’t have time to be a typical host. “I’m trying to make the games happen,” he says, between his efforts at teaching rules to newcomers and clarifying disputes between veteran board gamers.

For anyone interested in hosting their own game-night event, Williams recommends simple games such as Ticket to Ride.

“You can have five adults who have not played games since they were children sit down with the rule book and learn to play [Ticket to Ride] in 20 minutes,” Williams says, noting there is less than one page of rules. Settlers of Catan is another popular game with a variety of expansion sets, perfect as groups become more advanced and parties gain more participants. Meanwhile, the game Carcassonne is also a Friday night favorite.

More complicated games such as Risk, Axis and Allies, and Diplomacy have their places at game night for his regular crowd, Williams says. Conversely, simpler games—such as Sushi Go and The Resistance—are great due to their brevity and relative ease.

Williams says the key to keeping everything moving with so many guests is to “concentrate on having multiple games of multiple lengths and multiple difficulties going on simultaneously.”

If someone were to show up in the middle of an ongoing game, the house is set up to accommodate late arrivals. They could play a quick two-player game such as Blokus or Connect Four, he explains, “then we can figure out who is staying, who is leaving, and what game we’re all going to play next.”

Everyone gets in a game. Actually, they have to. Otherwise they are forever banished.