Columbia gamers form company to spread their enthusiasm

Thursday, May 9, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 9, 2013
Three gamers in Columbia created their own company to sell original games and spread their enthusiasm for gaming. They meet at The Heidelberg every few weeks to discuss and develop new games, as well as to have fun playing them.

COLUMBIA — The Heidelberg seems like an unconventional place for a business meeting, and this definitely doesn’t look like one.

Jay Sparks, Cooper Livingston and Chris Dijak are sitting in a corner booth at the Berg, eating appetizers, playing tabletop games and brainstorming. They come up with their best ideas around hot wings and toasted ravioli.


WHAT: Unpublished Game Festival

DETAILS: Sparks Games and nine other designers from around the area will present new games for a day of play-testing.

WHEN: Noon to 8 p.m., May 11

WHERE: Valhalla's Gate, 2525 Bernadette Drive; 573-442-9909

The three guys are dedicated gamers of all kinds — board games, card games, role-playing games, etc. Last November, they put together a company called Sparks Games to capitalize on their enthusiasm. 

Now, they meet regularly to work out rules for games they want to develop and sell. So far, they have developed "Tau," an open-ended storytelling game with a fantasy influence.

In August, they plan to take the new game to Gen Con, an annual convention in Indianapolis, to assess level of interest. Gen Con, short for Lake Geneva Convention, attracts roughly 40,000 tabletop and board game enthusiasts.

The convention is like Christmas for gamers, Sparks said. Veterans and newcomers  spend four days playing new games introduced by companies, large and small.

If there is enough buzz, they could be in a position to find a distributor.

"We're crossing our fingers for an explosive response," Livingston said.

'Tau' was a late-night inspiration

"Tau" was created with a regular deck of Bicycle cards, a Sharpie and four late nights at The Diner.

Inspiration came from tabletop card games like “Once Upon a Time" and "Magic: The Gathering,"  where players become characters in a fictional setting.

Each "Tau" card has an attribute that provides storytelling cues and rules about what characters can and cannot do as they play the game.

“Most of what’s happening is five people sitting around the table telling a communal story,” said Livingston, 23.

One player, known as the “storyteller,” creates the world of the game. The remaining players place their characters in that imaginary world, and the storyteller orchestrates the actions. The game can be as short as 15 minutes or far longer, depending on the story's development.

“We’ve had humans in an alien zoo, we've been inside an animal’s intestine and we've started on a cloud,” said Sparks, 36.

While most games are about winning and discovering strategies to beat the competition, "Tau" was created for the overall gaming experience. Instead of the story ending with the game, the developers want it to be remembered long after the conclusion.

"You come away from it with something you can keep every time," Livingston said. "You're really engaging the group's creative conscious to make something."

Gamers from the beginning

The original commercial, tabletop role-playing game, "Dungeons & Dragons," was published in 1974. It was inspired by popular fantasy literature — "The Hobbit," "Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia."

"Magic: The Gathering" was created in 1993 by Richard Garfield, a computer math professor who learned "Dungeons & Dragons" as a teenager. He devised the game as a fun way to teach his students probability and statistics.

During a game of "Magic," players are wizards fighting each other using powers and characters on cards that are collected and traded like baseball cards.

Sparks discovered the game in high school, and he and his friends began playing regularly.

“It seems like people either do it in shameful private and don’t want people to know, or people just embrace it, really enjoy it, talk about it and seek out other people,” he said. “I definitely did the latter.”

Dijak, 21, was a stranger to gaming until he moved in with his post-high school roommate. One night three years ago, his roommate pulled out a collection of “Magic” cards and taught him how to play.

“I had no idea about anything involved with gaming at all,” Dijak said. 

The next weekend, he walked into Valhalla’s Gate, a game store on Bernadette Drive, and bought his own deck. After that, he wanted to try every game.

“'Magic' is the gateway drug,” Sparks said. “You can’t help but to expand after playing this game.”

As a kindergartener at Stephens Lab Elementary School, Livingston learned about “Magic” from older kids, and his gaming passion continued to expand. He began hanging out at gaming shops and five years ago took a job at Valhalla’s Gate.

All three have regular jobs and must balance gaming interests with other commitments. Sparks is a bartender at McNally's Pub, Dijak works at Acme Hot & Fresh T-Shirts and Livingston has kept his position at Valhalla's Gate. 

“Being there all the time you’re just around it and basically eat, breathe, sleep games,” Livingston said.

Playing for success

The Columbia gaming community has been integral to generating buzz about Sparks Games and "Tau."

"When people I didn't even know came up to me and asked to play it, it told me that something was right," Sparks said.

Valhalla's Gate plans to hold a special event for the release of "Tau," including demonstrations. A non-published version will be available at an event this weekend, and a printed version will arrive mid-summer. As soon as the game is ready for distribution, it will be sold online and through Columbia's game stores.

"They are talented people and their game is very interesting and unique," Katie Burton, owner and manager of Valhalla's Gate, said about the team. "We want more people to know about their games."

Sparks believes there is a good chance at success with the game because it will be relatively inexpensive at $12 and easy to play. 

With a positive response, "Tau" could be picked up by a distributor and put in local game stores across the country, Sparks said.

“If I’m on a vacation in Florida with my family and I can walk into a game store and go to the card section and be like ‘There it is!’ It would just be cool,” he said.

They see their company as a producer of  games that will be outlets for social interaction.

"It's about getting games that bring people to the table," Sparks said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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