Nick Prueher on how a cocktail of bad dates and retro slumber party games inspired his new dating board game, Dream Crush
Dream Crush, a new fantasy dating game from Mondo Games, sees players guess which crushes their friends like best at five increasingly intimate relationship milestones.
Only the player who knows their friends’ tastes – good or bad – can win the game and live happily ever after in a life of endless bliss with their Dream Crush.
The game was the brainchild of Found Footage Festival co-founder Nick Prueher, inspired by his affection for slumber party games from the Eighties and Nineties. We caught up with Nick to find out more about the development process behind Dream Crush, and why watching obscure VHS tapes helps to fuel his creativity.
Hi Nick! I’m delighted to catch up with you. Before we dive into all things Dream Crush, what’s your history in the world of board games?
Dream Crush is my first board game design, but I’m a lifelong gamer. I grew up playing party games, that’s what we did at family gatherings. Do you know the game Cootie? I’m not sure it made it to the UK…
I don’t, but please enlighten me!
It’s a bug-building game. There’s a plastic bug, and you roll dice and start to add legs to it. There’s no strategy – the first person to complete a Cootie wins. No-one really drank in my family, so instead we’d have, what we called, a bag party. You’d bring a bag full of five items: two good items, like a deck of cards… two bad items, like the hair from your shower drain or an expired jar of capers… and one item that’s either-or, so a Rock Me Amadeus record – that’d be cool for me, but you might not like it
I’m already loving the sound of this.
Yes! So you’d assemble your bag. Then, at the party, we’d play rapid-fire rounds of Cootie with like 40 people across 10 tables. You have a partner, you introduce yourself and then you’d start making Cooties. If you win, you get to grab something from your opponent’s bag and give them something you don’t want from your bag.
At the end of the night, you’d have played around a dozen games of Cootie and ended up with some interesting crap.
Like a vinyl record covered in capers! I’m sold! As soon as the pandemic is sorted, I’m hosting a bag party. So games were a big part of your life as a kid… Did that change much as you got older?
It was part of my DNA growing up, and in the early 2000s I got into hobby gaming. Now I have regular game groups, but I still have a soft spot for party games as well – and my heavy Euro-gamer friends all still like playing party games.
Which brings us nicely to your first published game – Dream Crush. For anyone that hasn’t seen it yet, how would you pitch it?
Dream Crush is a party game made for groups of friends or complete strangers; it works for either. It’s inspired by those dating slumber party games from the Eighties and Nineties – and even before. There was a game called Mystery Date from 1965 that started all those ideas. You’d open a door that would reveal who your date was going to be. I believe this was parodied in The Simpsons where they end up with The Dud and he looks exactly like Milhouse.
So how do you play Dream Crush?
In the game, you’re evaluating three potential crushes and you gradually find out more information about them over five rounds. You pick, knowing what you know about them, who you want to go on a date with, or whatever the scenario is for that round. As you learn more about them, you can stick with your original crush or go in another direction.
It’s fun to choose who you would date, but the real core of the game is guessing who the other players will pick. There’s a bit of pretend in it, but generally the idea is to go with your heart and pick who you really would you want to be with in these circumstances.
You mentioned the inspiration being other dating games, but did you have any real-life dating trauma that helped feed the idea?
Ha! Absolutely. I’ve used my entire dating history. Lots of it is inspired by little things that irritate you about other people. And things that you do that irritate other people. Half of the “secrets” in the game that you learn about people are either traits that bother me or things people hate about me in relationships! You do find out good things about people in the game too, but you also learn things that could turn the tide in relationships – and lots of those came from my own experiences and other people’s experiences.
Can we dive into an example without getting anyone in trouble!?
Yes, I went on a date with somebody that was really bad. It turned out the person was between places to live. It was awful. It turned from a date into me being a social worker. I was like “I can give you a roof over your head tonight but tomorrow you’ve got to go”. It was the longest 10 hours of my life. I ended up driving her to an ex-boyfriend’s place in New Jersey – a two-hour drive. They had me drop them off at a nearby library and as she left I said: “I’m sorry the date didn’t work out but good luck. Moving to a new city is tough, I hope you land on your feet.” She just turned around and said “I’m sorry I’m not cool enough for you!” and then closed the car door. I was like ‘nooo!’ And then I had a long drive back home to stew in the misery.
Ooof! That’s tough!
I also dated someone who was the hero of every story they told. I’m always self-deprecating, but her stories would always end with something like ‘so I told the flight attendant that I can’t be treated this way, and the whole plane applauded me.’ So ‘Makes Themselves the Hero of Every Story’ is a secret card in the game!
Ha! I hope they stumble across that in the game and have a pang of self-awareness! So how did this take shape as a real game that you could pitch to Mondo?
My day job is touring a comedy show called the Found Footage Festival. It’s based on old VHS tapes that my childhood friend Joe [Pickett] and I find at thrift stores. We pick out clips from them and take people on a guided tour of our VHS collection. So we spend a lot of time at charity shops and thrift stores, and because I’m a gamer, I always look at the board game sections of these shops.
I started finding these pink and purple Nineties games for slumber parties. They were like a forbidden fruit for me – friends’ sisters would play these games, but I wasn’t allowed to. It was a tantalising chance to find out what was behind the curtain, so I started picking up these games like Girl Talk: Date Line and Dream Phone; games that are all about who likes you and things like that.
During that process, I realised there was good stuff in there that could be salvaged because these games always led to interesting discussions. And I would play these with my nerdy gamer friends – I wasn’t playing with my teenage niece and her friends. We would end up talking about what we like, what we dream of in a relationship and stuff that everyone likes talking about, but you need a little prompt.
So once you had the basic framework down, inspired by these other dating games, how did you develop it further?
I started making a homebrew game with photos from the internet of people who could be potential crushes you could try to woo. Then I started making up traits and workshopping the game with friends.
I was at VHStival, which is a VHS festival that was taking place at the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre. Alamo Drafthouse owns Mondo, and the owner – Tim League – was there showing us a new Mondo game that had just come out. I told him that I had a game in my backpack and so we tried it that night and we were up till 3 or 4 in the morning playing the game. I said ‘Can we make this? You have a games company!’ and he was really into the idea.
He printed his own version of the game and started playing it with people at Mondo and with film stars that he knew, because he’s connected in the movie business. He said ‘We’ve got to make this!’ and that’s when it started to take shape. We went to board game conventions together, and workshopped it, and Mondo has great connections with graphic designers too.
I was going to say, the artwork for it is brilliant.
Yes, the artwork was by a great design team called We Buy Your Kids. They’re really talented artists. They started coming up with stuff and that’s when I knew we had a real game here. And then we had Chris Bilheimer and the Mondo team look after the graphic design.
I was actually working with Chris on how the cards would look, and I thought he was good but I hadn’t looked into his background. When I did, I realised he did the album cover for REM’s Monster and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and many others. I was like wow, there’s some pedigree here! What am I doing giving notes?
Ha! He’s finally peaked! Now I can see a pile of classic dating games behind you, and while I’ve got you, it would be great to delve into some of those… Ask Zandar looks interesting!
Yes, I guess there’s a game in there but Ask Zandar is really more of a toy. You ask a crystal ball questions and it answers yes or no. Like a Magic 8 Ball.
If not Ask Zandar, what for you is the pinnacle of dating board games?
I really like Dream Phone. It comes with a bright pink phone, and it’s like Clue – you have a pink sheet and you’re getting clues as to who really likes you. Things like: ‘he doesn’t play football’, so you cross the football guy off. It’s basically a deduction game. The best mechanic is that occasionally you get a card with a number on it to dial. So you dial the number into the pink phone and it might say ‘You and the person to your left can listen to it.’ So you gather round the phone and listen to someone give a clue like “He doesn’t wear shorts.”
I remember we got snowed in once and three friends came over, all guys, and we sat around and played Dream Phone. It was one of my best gaming experiences. A couple of bearded guys hunched over a pink phone! I wonder if there’s a way to do a different spin on that using an app? You could put your iPhone into a peripheral that looks like a chunky old phone. I think there’s a lot to rescue from these old games.
There’s also a VCR game called Party Mania. It’s all about trying to get your chores done before the big dance. You’re watching a video tape while rolling and moving and drawing cards, but every so often your mother or annoying little brother interrupts with something like ‘Take Three Chore Cards’.
I’ve found a recording of the game on YouTube, so I’ll put that here so that people can enjoy Party Mania in all its glory…
There’s not much there, but in terms of what’s in my wheelhouse, making whatever the modern version of a VHS game would be fun.
One of my all-time favourite games is actually a VHS game – Atmosfear.
Of course! With the Gatekeeper! There’s got to be a modern version of that. I’d love to work with someone like Restoration Games and bring back that kind of game; still keeping that VHS aesthetic but using an app.
You mentioned earlier your day job running the Found Footage Festival. How did that all start?
My buddy Joe and I have known each other since we were 10 years old, and our main hobby growing up in a small town in the Midwest was going to thrift stores. I should add that these are different from UK charity shops.
In what way?
Well charity shops in the UK are nice! They are well curated, there’s designer clothing in there. Thrift stores in the US are just garbage – and it’s glorious. In the UK, I found one Cricket Bloopers tape and a Cliff Richard tape, but in the US, you get home movies, promotional material – there’s wonderful garbage to be found if you sift through it, and that’s what we did.
We would find old answering machine tapes and play them to hear what the last thing recorded on them was. In the Nineties we started finding VHS tapes that were ending up there. I found a Mr T educational video, a McDonald’s training video… On Friday and Saturday nights, none of us had driver’s licences so we’d go to my parents’ basement and watch these tapes. And we got obsessed with them.
So how did the obsession lead to a career?
Well it continued in college and post-college we kept finding more videos. Eventually, in 2004, we had enough tapes that we thought to take it out of our living room and into a theatre. Joe and I are comedy writers by trade, so we took our best clips and developed a guided tour through our VHS collection, with a running commentary of jokes and updates about the people in the videos that we’d tracked down.
It went really well; The New York Times wrote about it and we started getting a lot of people coming to these shows. It grew organically and for the last 11 years it’s been a full-time job for us. We do around 120 shows a year, around the US but also in the UK. We play Edinburgh every year.
Has the pandemic thrown a spanner in the works with regard to that?
Yes, but we now do online shows. We do a show called the VCR Party on YouTube on Tuesday nights. We take out old tapes, have special guests and watch some highlights.
They are a joy – I’ll put one here for people to check out! This one introduced me to Dancin’ Grannies!
Do you find there’s gold of some sort in every tape?
No! Some are completely unredeemable. The worst is if they’re boring-bad. If they’re amazingly bad, that’s what we’re looking for. The other day I watched a cash register instructional video from 1988. It was two hours long. That’s not time I’m getting back!
It all sounds like the start of a Netflix crime documentary – one of your tapes will end up as a vital piece of evidence somewhere.
We actually once found 30 tapes that were titled ‘Courtroom Evidence’ at a thrift store outlet in Oregon a few years ago. We grabbed a couple but there was nothing interesting there!
Bringing it back to Dream Crush, do you find watching these old tapes helps fuel your creativity and gives you ideas for games?
Absolutely. Like any creative process, you’re ingesting things and spitting them out through your brain, putting a new spin on them. For some people that’s literature, for some people it’s the news, and for me it’s things made before 1992.
Board games, VHS tapes, TV… There’s lots to be mined from that and updated; when looking at a game about relationships, there was so much to modernise. The games I mentioned earlier were all games for teenage girls. Now we know so much more about gender and romantic preferences and it’s not monolithic or black-and-white.
So in Dream Crush, we have men, women, non-binary people – we have tried to be as inclusive as possible. The game works for everybody so there’s no reason to make it for one type of people. It’s a fantasy dating game – even though I’m a boring straight cis-man it’s fun to play with a random selection of crush cards. In a way, it’s transgressive – it forces you to think about why things have been so limited.
Have you been bitten by the game design bug now?
Yeah definitely. I have a Sushi Go-style idea – it’s a drafting game called Employee Picks. You work in a video rental store that is somehow still operating and you draft cards to make your Employee Picks shelf the best. We’d use actual VHS covers from our collection.
I don’t think I’ll ever be a Reiner Knizia or a Klaus Teuber though. I don’t think I have the mathematical brain to do those kinds of games!
So that idea would be a way of licensing what you’re doing with the Found Footage Festival into consumer products – would you like to build a licensing programme around the Festival?
I think theme parks is the next natural step for us! No, seriously, I would love to find new ways to get the Found Footage Festival out there to people. I mean we don’t own the copyrights for the tapes, but most are not movies. They’re from defunct ‘mom ‘n pop’ production companies that were around in the Eighties and Nineties. We’ve even had universities reach out to us wanting to digitise our library and make it accessible.
The collection is valuable, but really it’s all about the curation. We’ve picked out what we feel are the funniest parts and presented it in a certain way. We’re actually working with the BBC right now on a TV project that would be based on our show. And that would be for the UK. There’s so many different things you could do with the material.
Before I let you go, is there one tape that you’ve found that remains the gold-standard?
It changes but the one that I’m excited about right now – and I named it my top find of 2020 – is called Camp Cabbage. Do you remember Cabbage Patch Kids?
Well in 1992, Cabbage Patch enthusiasts could go to Xavier Roberts’ home – he’s the creator of Cabbage Patch Kids – in a small town in Georgia for a week-long convention. There were talks, seminars and a trade show floor. The highlight was a meet-and-greet with Xavier Roberts.
So we found a souvenir video called Camp Cabbage 1992 that had highlights from the convention. It was very homemade and the people-watching aspect of it is amazing. It really captures a moment in time. It’s also kind of sweet too, and it’s what we needed after the events of the past year. It’s sweet, it’s funny, there’s a hand-painted denim jacket featuring Xavier Roberts’ face – it has everything.
What a perfect place to wrap up! I’ll add a link to that below so anyone that didn’t get the chance to attend Camp Cabbage back in 1992 can experience that. Nick, this has been a treat – congrats again on the launch of Dream Crush… I’m already looking forward to catching up again soon.
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