9 Years, 10 Games, and 50 Monkeys
Tom Decker
United States
Foothill Ranch
California
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OK, so I've worked at a zoo for the past 9 years. Not just any zoo, but the zoo that calls itself "The Home of the 50 Monkeys." There’s actually a story behind the whole 50 monkeys thing, too. The man who donated the land, Joseph Prentice, originally put in the agreement that there had to be 50 monkeys on the property at all times or he got the land back. I didn’t always work at a zoo, though. I used to make video games…but that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Now I make board games in my spare time when I get a break from raising money for the animals. In fact, I've been fortunate enough to have had 10 games published while I've worked at the Santa Ana Zoo. And when I get stuck or need inspiration, I just step outside and go and watch the monkeys…or the pigs. Pigs are pretty cool, too.

So in celebration of my 10th published game, I thought I'd share a fun animal story that somehow relates to each game or my journey or just randomly fits in. I still feel very lucky and thankful to have had Chris Taylor (I) introduce me to Victory Point Games and help me publish some of my designs and my first games there. And I'm glad to be helping with animal conservation and species survival, too.
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1. Board Game: Circus Train (First Edition) [Average Rating:6.99 Overall Rank:5528]
Tom Decker
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Foothill Ranch
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I guess it's kind of natural for me to do games with animals since I work at a zoo. Circus Train was inspired by the book Water for Elephants, but I read that book largely because I was here at the zoo. When I first started here, the zoo wanted to focus only on South American animals. Oddly, we had two colobus monkeys (from Africa), a male and a female, but the male had been "fixed" with the intent that we would phase out our colobus collection after the two of them passed or got traded to another zoo. But as these things go, they somehow managed a birth, a little girl named Kianga.

So Kianga and I both started here at pretty much the same time. She's all grown up now, but I always go out and visit her. One of the keepers even let me feed her once. The focus has changed here now, and she's been introduced to a male partner. Hopefully soon we will have a new baby colobus to celebrate.
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2. Board Game: Final Frontier [Average Rating:6.21 Unranked]
Tom Decker
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Foothill Ranch
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One thing I've always liked to do in my games where I can is to break down any social barriers. In Final Frontier, crew members can form "relationships" which each other in various ways, best friends, secret admirers, jealousy, etc., but there are no limitations on male, female, aliens, or even robots. Everything is allowed.

One of my favorite movies from when I was younger was Ladyhawke, which had a woman transformed to a hawk by day and the man to a wolf by night, but they managed to maintain this relationship for years. The female lead in that movie, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, was named Isabeau. So I was very happy when I learned that our Swainson's hawk here at the zoo was named Isabeau, too! Isabeau is a rescued hawk who lost one of her eyes and could no longer survive in the wild. I've gone by after sunset to see if she turns into Michelle Pfeiffer, but so far, no luck there.
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3. Board Game: Disaster on Everest [Average Rating:6.59 Overall Rank:7147]
Tom Decker
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Disaster on Everest, inspired by Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, had an interesting design flaw in my first prototypes. You would actually do better and score more points if you just never sent anyone up the mountain. Although that IS kind of the lesson that the book teaches, it doesn't make for a very fun game. So I had to make some changes in the way the scoring worked.

I guess I don't have a very good transition from that to my story of Dakota, the saki monkey. Dakota was our resident bachelor, who had a huge exhibit all to himself. But that all changed when they transferred in a female, Aaliyah, with him. They now have a very busy habitat with 3 children running around with them. It has also successfully been converted into a multi-species exhibit that they share with golden lion tamarins.
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4. Board Game: Disaster on K2 [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:8788]
Tom Decker
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We had a brief moment at the zoo when our monkey collection dropped under 50. There were some serious discussions with the Prentice family of what would happen to the land. Fortunately our golden lion tamarins came to the rescue with the birth of twins to put us back over 50! Since then, we've had many more golden lion births, usually in twins, so that our collection of golden lion tamarins is one of the largest in the country.

The other K2 game came out right after Disaster on Everest, and I wasn't sure it was a good idea for me to put out a competing K2 game. However, I had always wanted to do all 14 of the 8000m peaks and K2 was up next. Plus it had 2 built in to the name, and it was the sequel, and it introduced the 2-player version of the game. They are very different games, though, and hopefully fans of the genre can enjoy both games, like I do.
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5. Board Game: Assault on Galactus Prime [Average Rating:6.72 Unranked]
Tom Decker
United States
Foothill Ranch
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Assault on Galactus Prime began as a World War 1 trench warfare game, each player sending troops back and forth through no man's land. For some reason, this theme drew little interest from Victory Point Games, and when my son recommended making it a sci-fi theme like the attack runs on the Death Star in Star Wars, it suddenly took off.

Our pygmy marmosets also drew little interest for years. They are very small and they were hard to see in their habitat. They also were having a hard time adjusting to our climate. But when we introduced them as "The World's Smallest Monkeys" and put them into a nice, climate-controlled habitat, suddenly they've become much more popular and are thriving.
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6. Board Game: Disaster on Kangchenjunga [Average Rating:7.49 Unranked]
Tom Decker
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While Disaster on Kangchenjunga has plenty of disasters such as plane crashes, broken ropes, warring secret agents, and freezing temperatures, we've had a bit of a disaster with our pond where our black-necked swans live. Every year it seems some mallards fly in and nest in the swans' pond. We do our best to discourage this, but they are protected under law, so we can't keep them out. In the first years, when the babies were born, the swans would just chase them back to the safety of their nest. That was actually kind of funny to watch. In recent years, it hasn't been so much fun. The swans catch and kill the babies. We hear from horrified guests that their children have been traumatized by seeing the killings. But unfortunately for the baby mallards, it is a part of nature and natural selection…and we can't do anything about it.
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7. Board Game: A.D. 30 [Average Rating:6.69 Overall Rank:5756]
Tom Decker
United States
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California
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A.D. 30 was a personal journey for me that I had never intended to have published. It's not that I'm ashamed of it in any way; I just didn't want to offend anyone with different beliefs or try to push any particular set of beliefs. Now that it's out there, though, I hope it can at least serve as a conversation piece into the subject.

Our camels at the zoo were also not intended to be a permanent part of our collection. Initially they were brought in just to give rides during the summer months. They became an instant hit at the zoo, though. A local Boy Scout even did an Eagle Scout project to build them a shelter. Eventually the rides stopped and the camels left, but they had been such a huge hit that we decided to make Bactrian camels (with 2 humps) a permanent part of our zoo family. These ones don't give rides, though.
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8. Board Game: Skagway [Average Rating:6.31 Unranked]
Tom Decker
United States
Foothill Ranch
California
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Bella the Pig is a more recent addition to our farm, and like most pigs, she's very smart. You can almost see why some people want pigs as pets. Bella knows her name and will come when called…she even grunts back to you, or maybe she's just saying "Bah Ram Ewe." You can usually count on the pigs to be doing something funny and they serve as some of the best sources of inspiration.

Skagway was inspired by a camp game my father organized called Klondike (or Gold Rush). At one time, it was much bigger and heavier, too…like Bella.
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9. Board Game: Abandon Earth [Average Rating:4.44 Unranked]
Tom Decker
United States
Foothill Ranch
California
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Matteo the crested capuchin is my best friend at the zoo these days. The docents insist that he charges up to me because he is threatened by me, but that doesn't explain why he gets very excited when he sees me when I'm at a different exhibit, or why he comes running out when he's in the back and I call to him. He was the first born from parents Romeo and Juliet, but now they have two more children, another boy and a girl. They all seem to get along, but it's only Matteo who comes out to see me. The others aren't very interested.

While Abandon Earth may not pique a lot of interest either, I have always enjoyed working with very limited resources and trying to create something fun within that limited set. For a $10 game, Abandon Earth finally accomplished that goal for me, a deeply thematic game with lots of interesting strategies. I might do another small one like this, but I think I'm probably ready for something bigger.
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10. Board Game: Circus Train (Second edition) [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:3101] [Average Rating:7.16 Unranked]
Tom Decker
United States
Foothill Ranch
California
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I don't have so much of a fun story here other than to thank everyone who helped fuel my creative drive to make games, and I'm always humbled and flattered when someone I don't know likes my games or gives one a good review. On the other hand, you have to develop some thick skin reading ALL the comments and reviews.

And speaking of thick skin, we used to have elephant rides at our zoo. They weren't part of the zoo, but they came from a group called Have Trunk Will Travel. They are an elephant sanctuary that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But a vocal minority of people put an end to our elephant rides citing animal cruelty. I did a lot of research into the matter to form my own opinion, and I finally decided that, to me, these elephants love being around people and that I don't think it's any more wrong for these elephants to give rides than it is to ride a horse. But that's just my opinion…everyone has a right to their own.
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