Alex and Whitney Kimerling on putting inventors at the heart of Hootenanny Games
Alex, Whitney, it’s great to tie-in. This year has seen you launch a brand-new games company in Hootenanny Games. Before we dive into that, how did you find your way into this industry in the first place?
Alex Kimerling: I’ve always loved games, but I was a mechanical engineer out of college. I earned an MBA and worked for a few start-ups. I ended up working for a young board game company in Nashville, and that’s where I was for the past five years prior to launching Hootenanny. So I fell into it really, but I love it – and the people. Everyone is so supportive of each other regardless of whether you’re fighting for the same shelf space. And we’re not selling a commodity here. Everyone is looking for the creative spark that speaks to them, and helping relay that to the world… It’s a very positive space to play in.
And Whitney, does that somewhat accidental path in ring true for you too?
Whitney Kimerling: Well, I’m actually a lawyer by training, in the realm of product liability defence work. I representedmanufacturers in Tennessee and nationwide here in the US. During the pandemic, we were both working from home… I was taking Zoom calls about things that just bring you down, while Alex was over there playtesting games over Zoom!
It doesn’t seem fair!
WK: Exactly! And in a very dark time, he was still able to bring joy to people. That was a lightbulb moment for me. I’ve always loved games and I thought: Maybe I’ve gone terribly wrong with my career choice! We’ve always wanted to work together, so it felt like a no brainer to make this leap.
Amazing. So did the pandemic make it feel like the right time to make that leap and start your own company?
WK: Well, is the timing ever really right to make this kind of a jump? At some point you just have to say: “Okay, we’ve talked about this for a while, let’s rip the band aid off and do it!”
AK: It just felt right!
I got to see your debut line-up at New York Toy Fair and it’s a brilliant range of games. How would you describe the values of Hootenanny Games and what sort of games you’re excited to put out into the world?
AK: We really like games you can play as a family; games that bridge the gap between generations… Games where, as soon as the kids go off and do something else, you’ll keep playing them with your friends.
Well, that shines through in your first four games: Verses, Floats McGoats, Snarkas and SIXEM. What made these perfect for Hootenanny to launch with?
WK: We wanted to have a little bit of something for everyone. We wanted a party game, a board game, a card game and a dice game. We’ve covered all bases! We also wanted them to be easy to learn but have substance too. Oh, and they’re all inventor items!
Oh really! Is working with inventors something that will remain important to Hootenanny moving forward?
AK: Absolutely. Early on we knew inventors would be the lifeblood of our company. Our creative minds don’t necessarily align with inventing games! Luckily, over the last 5 years, I have been able to work with lots of fantastic inventors, and our goal now is to get out there and meet more of them. Inventors being willing to work with us and bring us incredible ideas is key to Hootenanny Games surviving long-term. We value that community tremendously.
I wanted to also mention, aesthetically, your range looks amazing – from the components to the packaging artwork. There’s not a ‘rough and ready’ element that you might expect from a brand-new company. What guided your approach to the graphic design of your games?
WK: For us, as a new company, we wanted to put our best foot forward. We want people to know us for fun, beautiful, quality products. Gameplay is so important, but you need someone to want to pick the game up off the shelf. And Nashville is such a creative city, so we’re fortunate to have great minds here that we can tap into, like our graphic design team… That team doesn’t typically design games – and that’s helped us to differentiate ourselves and the style of these games. As you might imagine, they usually do a lot of design in the music industry – like Taylor Swift’s merchandise!
This approach has been key to us getting attention from the industry – whether that’s from retail buyers or from inventors. It shows everyone that we’re committed to doing things in the right way. We actually spent quite a long time with each of these games because we wanted them to come out fully baked.
AK: There’s also an element of passion and professionalism here. We care deeply about the games that we put out there.
It shows. Let’s dive into these games, starting with your dice game: SIXEM. Dice games are an established sector, with some big hitters, so why did SIXEM jump out for you?
WK: SIXEM has such a fun competitive element – I was instantly hooked. It’s hard to find a game that’s fun for everyone, especially when it’s one where you’re all playing at the same time. But those elements of chaos and sabotage work really well here.
Yes, everyone has a board with a grid on it and you spin a spinner to determine the winning pattern – like completing ‘1 Vertical Line’. Then everyone is frantically rolling coloured dice at the same time, picking which ones to note down on your grid in the hope of achieving that winning condition first.
WK: Exactly. If I roll a ‘blue 1’, I’ll put an X next to the square on the grid that aligns with the blue 1.
AK: Yes, and it’s far more strategic than it sounds!
WK: The twist is that is if I roll a ‘blue 1’ and mark it on the grid, but then I roll another ‘blue 1’ in a later round, I can make another player erase that X from their board.
So there’s a value in rolling something you’ve already ticked off because that enables you to play nasty!
WK: Exactly! If I know Alex needs one more specific roll to win, I might roll something deliberately with the aim of wrecking his grid by making him erase something.
Nice! I’m sold!
AK: And it was invented by the incomparable Martin Nedergaard Andersen.
Great stuff. Let’s move onto your card game Snarkas. This came from inventors Will Sakran, Sara Farber and Bryan Wilson. Why was this one a winner?
AK: I love this game! It gets more and more competitive the longer you play it. It’s so simple, but the scorekeeping is exciting and there’s a fun verbal element of yelling “Snarkas!” It’s an upbeat, modern game with a classic card game feel.
Theme-wise, there’s robots, gems, the Snarkaverse… Talk us through the process of adding story to the game – because I imagine you could’ve gone in several different directions with that. Or avoided a theme altogether!
WK: Yes, when we were discussing themes, we wanted something that had a broad appeal. We didn’t want a theme that might put people off.
Yes, it’s a delicate thing isn’t it… One slight misstep theme-wise and it’s suddenly a kids’ game – or one slip-up the other way and it’s a slick adults-only card game.
WK: Exactly! Our kids love this game, but Alex’s parents took it on a cruise to the Baltic and played it repeatedly with their friends – so it has a wide generational appeal. We didn’t want to compromise that with the wrong theme, and we’re really happy with how it all came together.
Speaking of fun themes, Sara and Bryan are also the inventors of Floats McGoats, which has real table presence. What’s the story with this one?
WK: We were sold on the title! Floats McGoats – you can’t say it without laughing! A game featuring ruthless goats and a shark… I mean, at every turn there was something surprising that we liked.
AK: When we first played it, it was almost a contradiction, because you have the silliness of the name but it’s actually quite a thinky game. There’s a lot of strategy involved! We felt if the art and the theme and the gameplay could all mesh together, it would be a success. Hopefully we’ve accomplished that.
WK: The design process was a fun one too. Figuring out the logistics of the goats so they’d stack in the right way… These are interesting challenges to have!
I don’t get to ask people about goat logistics enough in these interviews.
WK: Ha! Well at one point, we had a tagline centred around the fact that goats can’t swim. Then I said to Alex: “Wait… Can goats swim? We need to Google it before it goes on the box!”
Your current tagline is ‘A game that floats yer goats’, so I take it goats can swim?
WK: Well, there’s conflicting information out there!
Well, better to be safe than sorry. At least you won’t get any grief from the goat community.
AK: They don’t teach you this stuff at business school, Billy.
WK: And we’re not kidding…
I’m hoping these beautiful goat puns are intentional! You’re nodding Whitney, Alex isn’t – let’s not butt heads.
There we go. Three goat puns on the trot! Four if we think goats trot… Anyway, let’s move swiftly on before we lose the readers! Verses – the tagline for this is ‘Perfect songs. Petty moments.’ A party game with a Nashville connection?
WK: Yes, we’re in Nashville – Music City USA – so we wanted to bring that aspect to this debut line-up. Verses is a very familiar gameplay. We have ‘Moment’ cards that have funny scenarios on them, like “The song that sums up your love life”. Then everyone has ‘Song Title’ cards, spanning decades of music. You have to pick a Song Title card to match with the Moment card.
Everyone then votes for their favourite match using some guitar picks we’ve included in the game. And you can actually play the guitar with them – they’re styled after one of Alex’s favourite Gibson guitar picks. It’s a fun game that gets a lot of laughs.
And who invented this one?
AK: This came from the team at GPI.
WK: And Grant Lyon wrote some content for the game too.
Great stuff. Now, for any inventors reading, what sort of games are you looking to license moving forward?
AK: The four categories we’ve spoken about are ones we’re looking to continue innovating in – but we’re not limiting ourselves to just those four. Sometimes inventors pitch game ideas that aren’t easily categorised – we love seeing those too! We’re open to lots of different ideas.
WK: Our goal is to grow in a smart way. We’d like to put out three to four games each year to build on the foundation we have now.
Before we wrap up, we’ve mentioned Nashville a few times. How does being where you are in the world fuel your creativity?
WK: There are so many creative people here in Nashville. There’s a joke that your waiter or waitress in a restaurant may be the best guitarist you’ve never heard of – and it’s true. There are so many people here that can think outside the box. It’s invigorating to be around.
AK: The same ideas and process that goes into writing a song or producing a record share a lot of similar elements with creating a toy or a game. They’re both about creating the right vibe for the end user.
Guys, this has been great. Huge congrats on your first line of games and thanks again for taking time out to chat!
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