Homegrown Games

Playing around with Charlottesville resident Brian Calhoun.

Brian Calhoun and Dave Matthews.

Photos courtesy of Brian Calhoun

When Brian Calhoun first created Chickapig, a game featuring half-chicken, half-pig hybrids crossing a road while dodging haybales and a pooping cow, it was a joke inspired by playing “a terribly boring board game” with friends. “I kind of complained and joked about it,” remembers the Charlottesville resident. But when Calhoun realized that the boring game had sold “zillions” of copies, he says, “I started wondering to myself if I could make a game, with no thoughts of commercializing it in any way. I just wanted to do it as a hobby.”

Calhoun combined a whimsical animal hybrid—he’s drawn them since he was a kid—with an idea for a light strategy game and presented the results to his friends. They enjoyed the game, even playing when he wasn’t around, so Calhoun made a dozen copies for them, featuring clay pieces packed into custom wooden boxes. “They were gifts for my friends, and I thought that was going to be the only 12 Chickapigs that every existed. Then I started getting requests for more,” he remembers.

A guitar maker by trade, Calhoun has a full woodworking shop on hand. “I just enjoyed it,” he says. “I was making wooden boxes and I was sourcing parts; I was kind of figuring out how to put it together. … I was getting some encouragement, so I was like, I’m going to turn this into a little business—I’ll sell it at the farmers market, that sort of thing.”

But as edition after handmade edition sold out, Calhoun redesigned the pieces and hired help—his mom “stuck thousands of stickers onto wooden disks.” First he improved his own process—for example, going from individually drawing and cutting poop pieces, to stamping patterns for 50 and cutting multiples, to ordering and stamping bags of precut wooden disks—and then hired a local printing company, Cardboard Safari, to print images directly onto the wood and cut them out with a laser. Eventually he partnered with the well-known game publisher Buffalo Games to manufacture the game. “But I’m glad I didn’t just skip all of those steps. I got to get my hands dirty and figure it out,” he says.

Far exceeding Calhoun’s goal of selling a few copies at the farmer’s market, Chickapig is now in major retailers nationwide. It debuted at number one on Amazon, and hit the top spot again the day it was featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” The game was nominated for a 2019 Toy of the Year award and won a 2019 National Parenting Product Award. “It’s grown a lot in the past year,” admits Calhoun.

Big stores and publicity aside, part of the game’s popularity stems from Calhoun’s grassroots marketing efforts. “We would have game nights in Charlottesville, and we’d get more than 100 people playing this game before we were even selling it,” he explains. “We’d made these really big, like 3 foot by 3 foot, magnetic Chickapig boards, and we would make these events out of it” at local bars. After about a year of marketing to adults, Calhoun realized kids were playing, too, “so we started these school programs. Chickapig did really well in schools because it’s got the critical thinking element, but it’s fun and lighthearted. We were getting great feedback from teachers and parents who thought it was good for the children—they wanted to put down their cell phones and play. Our market now is families, where you capture both the children and the adults.”

Brian Calhoun with his books.

Photo by Brad Lenz

But for Calhoun, the game was just the beginning. Noticing that players’ siblings laughed at the pieces even though they were too young for the game, Calhoun wrote a nursery-age book, Little Joe Chickapig—a story about following your dreams. (Much like the game, he relates, he paid to print several thousand copies of the book before it was picked up by a publisher; he’s slowly giving the self-published copies to schools and charities across the Commonwealth.) A game for younger players, Chickapiglet, was released in July.

Calhoun has also partnered with his friend Dave Matthews, whom he met through the guitar business, on a new game for adults called 25 Outlaws. Calhoun describes it as a western-themed game where gangs of outlaws alternately play poker and “rob each other, have duels, rob the bank, that kind of thing.” He says he created the concept awhile back “and then I just sort of forgot about it. Then, like a year later, Dave brought it up. He was like, ‘That game was fun. You should make that. In fact, you should make that and let me do all the illustrations for it.’” Calhoun and Matthews made prototypes and play-tested the game until they were having fun with it, and Matthews did, indeed, draw the art. The game was published by Buffalo Games and is in stores now.

And Calhoun dreams of doing more with Little Joe Chickapig. Eager to create “a whole world” around the character, he wants to write more books—and he dreams of doing an animated series. “Now, of course, that’s a world away,” he says, “but, as the book says, you’ve got to follow your dreams, right?”

For more on board games, pick up a copy of our December 2019 issue. To read more about Brian Calhoun, click here.

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