Jude Pullen and Mark Greenbaum on the origins of their DIY board game, Goats Vs Llamas
Jude, Mark, we’ve not interviewed you together before, so my first question is: what first brought you together?
Jude Pullen: It’s an unusual story, and kind of a product of Lockdown in 2020. Both Mark and I are fathers to young boys, and I noticed Mark’s post on Linkedin of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle playset that he made with his son out of cardboard boxes.
I myself had been doing something similar, but with less skill in the graphics/thematic side of things, but perhaps more detailed in the mechanical or engineering aspects… So I pinged him a message, curious to see what might come of it…
Mark Greenbaum: Yes, that was a very rough n’ ready TMNT playset – but to my surprise it trended on Linkedin. I think most people connected with it because it looked accessible, DIY. When I checked out Jude’s site – it was immediately obvious we were both cut from the same cloth – or in this case, cardboard box.
How did you go from pals to game design partners?
JP: Mark and I had a lot of laughs about working in a creative industry, we both freelance, but still play active roles in our family – and so there was some nice bonding over the efforts to juggle all of these things. Although the cardboard modelling was an ‘icebreaker’, I think we both have quite similar ethics and aspirations towards parenting, so this in many ways was the deeper connection. I sound very serious here, I know, and my wife often joked at the ‘Bromance’ sometimes, when nerding out on this joke or that, but I think she also was glad I had a nice connection with a father who was also trying to make sense of things.
I think that’s hugely important for anyone with kids – to be able to step back, have a laugh, and not feel so lost when things got tough. Lockdown was really hard some days, and I’m very lucky to have met someone like Mark, even though we’ve not yet met in person, which is weird when you say it like that!
MG: Our connection and desire to collaborate was why a game was made. It just so happened in this case, to turn into Goats Vs Llamas.
Yes, let’s dive into the game. It sees players climb a pyramid to reach a prize, all while doing lots of daft, silly things along the way. How did the idea come about?
MG: It was born like a phone doodle; a stream of consciousness. The original sketch was actually an inverted pyramid, and I was thinking of a Dante’s inferno style game. I just wanted a game that really had presence in the room.
It was more about the shape/size then the concept at that point. Jude turned it upside down and then we just ran super-fast, giggling through the whole idea – and didn’t look back. It’s rare that a collaboration is so 50/50 with effort/value at every stage of development.
JP: We were having all this fun, but were not quite in a position to go ‘all in’ on a business venture, and then Mark noticed the Mojo Pitch, and suggested we enter. I think we both instinctively knew this was a good way to work together, and also have a deadline to just get it done and not overthink things too much. I’m so glad we took a punt at it, as it was a terrific experience! Haha – sorry does that sound way too lackadaisical for you, Billy?!
“The Mojo Pitch – it’s worth taking a punt on.” That’s going on the website! How was that experience? You had quite a few meetings, right?
MG: It was a great experience. I was so hungry to get in the ring that I went in with two teams and had 40 meetings over three days. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, although I’m still waiting on my ‘overly ambitious’ award Billy!
Ha! Leave it with me!
MG: It was also the perfect opportunity to work with Jude. We both liked the open creative brief, which meant we could explore and dabble in the dark arts of board games!
JP: It’s funny how we actually came up with over 12 ideas, but the first one just happened to be Goats vs Llamas. It evolved from our wanting to do something with three dimensions, as this is not typical for many board games. I think we both were aware that even those that are – like Fireball Island or Mousetrap – these are not DIY, and I think we both enjoyed not just buying a game for our kids, but also the process of making a game together as a family.
We realised if we were going to do something without a traditional client, we should ‘go big or go home’…
After all, Mark and I were competing with some of the best in the industry of making popular hits, so we know we’d never compete with that decades-long industry experience, but if I’d learned anything at companies like Dyson – you can sometimes play up the ‘underdog’ advantage.
MG: I think I was doing packaging design with Jazwares at the time and am familiar with this industry which helps – but also, life is short, you just have to say ‘Silencio Bruno’ and dive in. As it turned out, we had a few big companies tell us that ours was the ‘best sizzle reel they’d seen during the event’ – so that was nice!
JP: I think they could see that we’d taken some pretty big liberties with the feasibility of the design – as it was never going to be a $19.99 price tag, which was desirable for most companies we spoke to – but I think they respected the fact we were exploring themes like ‘downloadable physical play’, ‘3D gaming’, ‘build your own’, as well as what parenting should or could be…
Goats Vs Llamas is not a ‘keep your kids busy’ game; it’s really a 100% commitment, and I realise this is a privilege of time for many people, but we were keen to explore just what this meant in the industry. In many ways, these are not questions you can always develop in a R&D lab – and was very much why we decided to refresh the game and put it out there to see what the market really thought of it.
We are encouraged that many parents are not daunted by the ‘time commitment’ to build the game, because the uniqueness of what you create as a family is clearly such a special thing.
Yes, I wanted to discuss that. You’ve made the game available to anyone who wants to play it. There’s a step-by-step guide on Instructables. We’ll put a link in here. Why go down this path?
MG: We’re often under NDA with clients and can’t share all of the fun stuff we do. As this was ours, and it was passed on – we thought, why not share and see what everyone else thinks. Once we revisited it again, we decided with a little more effort we could tighten it up and actually release it.
It’s now a DIY board game you can print, build and play at home. We all have that pile of cardboard in the garage – why not make something with it? It’s one less box I have to carry to the recycling centre!
JP: I’ve worked a fair bit on Open Sourcing projects, and one of the things I love is not just people ‘downloading as is’, but ‘remixing’ it – making it their own. Mark and I both observed that our kids had followed the entire process and they were so emotionally attached we were never able to throw away stuff, because for them it was emotionally significant.
I’m not saying ‘all plastic is bad here’ – I mean I worked at LEGO, right! – but I think most people can respect that when a kid really loves a toy, it’s often because there are memories attached to it, creative stories, shared rituals and jokes, and modifications and repairs… These ‘personal touches’ are the patina which makes a threadbare teddy cherished, and a shell from a holiday or a twig from a game impossible to throw away.
MG: I think what Jude’s trying to say is that we are and love being dads that do! Doodads… Patent pending! We want to inspire and give other parents the tools to create fun memories and experiences with their kids. The reaction and interaction from our kids was validating.
JP: Thanks Mark! I do go on too much, sorry! But yeah, we wanted to know if we’re all alone on this one, or if there are others who get it too – “Join Us”!!
MG: The exciting bit is where people can customise it and ‘make it their own’. I designed the Action Cards and Prizes to have blanks, so that kids can add their own versions to the game play. This is just the best, and often my son’s are better than mine!
We just won the $500 Grand Prize on Instructables’ Toy and Game Contest 2022 – and had some wonderful comments from parents, and teachers – such as this:
You mentioned players can use cardboard boxes to make the game. How important was the sustainability angle to all this when making the decision to release the game in this way?
JP: Having studied in Norway for a year – and been influenced by visionaries like Victor Papenek, who said “There are professions more harmful than industrial design but only a few of them” – we felt that the awareness of sustainability has ramped up hugely, even in the two years since we pitched.
Many designers will also say ‘timing is everything’ – and even if this game was a ‘pass’ for some companies in 2020, I would fully expect their stance would have shifted since then. However, one has to ask if making your board game out of recycled card is ‘doing enough’? When you look at how most board game boxes are mostly shipping air, this is frankly unacceptable on so many levels today.
Even if Goats and Llamas were cynically dismissed as being a little self-indulgent and self-righteous, Mark and I certainly would want to ask the question of ‘why more board games cannot be more space efficient?’. We don’t want to dunk on any in particular, but we all know some perhaps could have been flat-packed or had a little self-assembly once unboxed, right? Those big plastic trays that hold all the stuff are hopefully, increasingly a thing of the past.
Even if a company wasn’t doing it only for the ‘good of the planet’, surely they’d appreciate there is profit to be made in doing sustainable design well and reducing waste – but these things go ‘hand in glove’ with the consumer believing this is also a good product, and not being ‘cheap’.
The truth is, ‘doing the right thing’ is not a black and white issue; it’s as much about consumer voting with their wallets on sustainably designed games.
MG: We should also point out that although you can download Goats, Llamas and Prizes and 3D print them, we also made it possible to play the game with card cut-out alternatives.
That said, with over 870,000 3D printers in US homes, and apparently 2.1m sold in 2020, and 15m expected to be sold per year worldwide by 2028, we also think the notion of ‘downloadable toys and games’ is not too far-fetched to consider.
When the price of a 3D printer is now almost the same as a paper printer, this is something many middle-class homes will likely invest in as a tool, as well as part of education. Thanks to Jude, I now own and Ender 3 printer and can’t imagine life without it.
Looking ahead, is game design still something you guys will be working on together?
MG: We are already thinking about the next project, mostly because the process has been so much fun – we’re not sure which sandbox we’ll build in yet. Creating this board game gave us a nice variety of challenges though and I’d like to explore this area further. I grew up playing board games with my family and can appreciate the family time this format creates. I really enjoy the world building, character design and physical pieces.
JP: As Mark observed with my work on Bo Peep’s Skunk Mobile – I clearly enjoy the provocation – and finding things in the unknown or relatively uncharted territory. I owe a lot of this to mentors and friends at places like LEGO, but now I also enjoy working for many industries.
I had the pleasure of running a webinar series on Sustainability for ProtoLabs, with over 20 world experts, and in all honestly the subject of sustainability is so massive, it spans all sectors at a technical, legislative and brand level equally… So I’m excited to work with clients who understand that Goats and Llamas is a ‘starting point’. It’s a question of ‘what if?’ which can help validate the market by inspiring consumers and perhaps focus a design team.
Surely, whatever your sector, the smart move is to bet on the planet in one way or another. I’m excited to continue working with companies who see sustainability as an opportunity – there has never been a better time to do better, smarter and more creatively ambitious work.
Let’s end on a two-parter: What fuels creativity for you? And what kills it?
MG: That’s a great question. I can immediately think of several different instances that sparked my creativity but all are so different. I wrote a children’s book at 6am in my head, when a landscaper started using his chainsaw outside of our window… It was creativity sparked by rage! It could also be a day-to-day problem that stops me and makes me want to solve it… Creativity sparked by frustration. Both of my kids are a constant inspiration to me and by far the biggest inspiration for creativity to flourish: creativity sparked by creativity.
It all boils down to your mindset. I do my best thinking in the shower. I have to remind myself to change up my routine, or that staleness will kill my creativity and numb me to the inspiration around me.
JP: To me, creativity often feels a bit ‘yin and yang’ – there is a tension between getting enough stimuli to trigger ideas, but also having enough headspace to combine and clarify ideas. I cannot say I’ve discovered a formula per se, but I think many companies can’t quantify creativity, so they do not ‘schedule’ it as readily as they do a meeting, let’s say.
I think it often shocks people when I say I spend about a third of my time hustling for work, a third actually doing it – but easily a third – perhaps more – thinking about it. It’s impossible to ‘bill for thought’, but there is some truth in ‘fortune favours the prepared mind’. However, I should point out that although solitude is certainly necessary, the real learning comes from testing things in the wild.
For me, this is the fuel for so many things in work and life, and it always gives back more than you put in. This has certainly been the case with Mark, Goats and Llamas, and of course Mojo. Thanks for the opportunity, it’s certainly taking us on some great adventures!
Guys, thank you for taking time out to talk us through. Folks can find connect with you both at http://www.judepullen.com/ and https://greenbombdesign.com/ – and here’s another link to the game, if people wanted to build one for themselves: (https://www.instructables.com/Goats-Vs-Llamas-a-Crazy-Monumental-3D-Board-Game-W/). I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys get up to next.
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