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Game plan | A Brunswick entrepreneur is on a roll with his dice game, Cabin Fever

BY

2/21/2011
Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Mark Leaman expects more than 1,000 sales of his newest game by the end of the first quarter

While this winter’s snowy conditions have hindered businesses across a good chunk of the country, they’ve been a boon for Brunswick game maker Mark Leaman and his apropos dice game called Cabin Fever: The Game from Maine. The goal of the game: Score enough points to dig yourself out of your snow-entrenched cabin before your opponents can. If only it were that easy in real life.

Though he created the game in 2008, it started gaining momentum when Cabin Fever was named "Game of the Con" at the annual gaming convention SnowCon in Orono in January — an honor given to a new, unique game. That attention earned Leaman a story on Comcast network NECN, which happened to air across New England just as the East Coast was being pummeled by a Groundhog Day storm. By the end of the week, the barrage of orders led Leaman to temporarily shut down his online store. "I’ve been very fortunate," he says. "Every now and then you come across something that seems to have a life of its own. It’s not viral, but is has an appeal factor that really strikes a chord with people."

It was similar weather that first crystallized Leaman’s idea for Cabin Fever. Outside of his day job as webmaster at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, he’d been developing a board game of the same name, but the upfront manufacturing costs kept the idea from progressing. Instead, he shifted to a smaller version with a few simple components, and released the game after a successful test run with his teenage son during a power outage in the winter of 2008.

With six die and a simple plastic cabin in a pint-sized box, Cabin Fever seems Yahtzee-simple. But a quick demo shows the depth of the game’s play and why it’s recommended for ages 13 and up. The game uses a combination of luck and strategy — certain rolls earn you a point-loaded vacation or chairlift, while others put you in the middle of a squall or, worse, a Nor’easter, leaving you "snowed in" again.

With a passion for low-tech games stemming from childhood, Leaman launched his business, Merrymeeting Games, in 1996 and released his first product, a role-playing game called Surge. But it was more a hobby than a business until last fall, when he attended a TEDx Dirigo conference, an annual event featuring innovative and inspiring speakers. There, he snagged two minutes with presenter Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt’s Bees, to ask her opinion on where to take Merrymeeting Games. Her advice? "‘You have to decide to be a business,’" Leaman recalls. "I said, ‘You’re right,’ so I decided to stop goofing off and see what I could make of this."

Leaman says he’s on target to sell over 1,000 games by the end of the first quarter and has received orders from all over the country. He assembles all the games himself at home, printing and cutting the rules and packaging, which he also designed. He orders game pieces from a Boston company called Koplow Games in batches of 200, and uses money from each run’s sales to fund the next, as well as to buy better equipment, like a die cutter. "I can’t make them fast enough for people who want them," he says.

The game sells for $7.95 and is available online, as well as in a handful of stores across the state. Given its recent popularity, he’s considering alternative manufacturing methods or licensing it out to another company.

Leaman is also developing another game called ENDZONE, a futuristic sports-themed board game he plans to release in March. But he has no intention of quitting his day job. "Mostly [inventing games] is for the satisfaction component," he says. "People like and enjoy what I make."