The Game Maker
by Allison Kristen Sampité
Grow up. These are two words that have never offended Hillcrest resident Jack Degnan. In fact, he is proud of his passion for playing and designing board games, and at age 48 he has more than three dozen games in his personal collection.
“I never grew out of my desire to play games,” Degnan said. As a child, he played games including Battleship, Scrabble, Monopoly and Risk with his family and neighborhood friends. Little did he know that his enthusiasm for this hobby would grow into a part-time job.
“He is like a little kid,” Degnan’s sister, Jill said. She has become one of her brother’s guinea pigs for game testing. “I am not as good of a sport as he is. He used to let me win at games (in order) to avoid the aftermath of when I lost,” she said. “Although he doesn’t let me win anymore.”
Despite the recognition he has received for designing games, Degnan still works a 9 to 5 job to pay the bills. He received his master’s degree in public health at San Diego State University and began working in the Antiviral Research Center at UC San Diego 11 years ago to create awareness in the community on the topic of HIV. After his full-time job is done, Degnan spends hours each week working on games. It takes him about three years from conception to producing a finished product.
Degnan entered into game inventing in 2005, when he took a game design class from instructor Keith Meyers at an art college in Los Angeles. “Out of all the students I have taught, maybe 10 to 12 have had the drive, determination and follow-through to complete a prototype of their game and get it into the hands of game companies for review,” Meyers said.
Today, Degnan has published three games: Funny Business, It Fits and Word on the Street. Funny Business, was recently published by Massachusetts-based Gamewright. In this game, players randomly select two different business cards and then try to come up with a clever name for the merger. The player with the most votes for their business name wins.
The concept for Funny Business was born out of a family interaction Degnan witnessed. Degnan saw a young boy taking a picture of his family, and the boy was told by his father repeatedly to “zoom in.” Observing this, Degnan then thought if a camera shop and motel merged, Zoom Inn would be a great name for the business.
Meyers said that being a game designer requires a mixed skill set where the creator must be part artist, engineer, mathematician, marketing analyst and salesperson to be successful.
“Out of the three games that have been published, Word on the Street really covers some new and creative ground, and I think that is key to its success thus far,” Meyers said. “No one has looked at words quite in the way that he did with this game. And traditionally word games are won by the player(s) with the biggest vocabulary, but Word on the Street rewards players for their creativity and strategy.”
In Word on the Street, put out by Out of the Box Publishing, the game board looks like a four-lane highway. Teams of players race to spell out words that fit best into a random category on a game card — categories include “something used by scuba divers” and “a word that describes a car crash.”
“You have got to put enough good ideas out there for something to catch hold. And the fact that Jack has three published games already in a fairly short time shows that he is tossing out some pretty good ideas,” Meyers said.
Sometimes Degnan tests his new board games on co-workers, including clinical research nurse Edward Seefried. Aside from visiting with nephews during family gatherings, Seefried does not play board games often, but enjoys the camaraderie it brings. On occasion, during lunch breaks or after hours in someone’s home, a small group of employees will test Degnan’s latest prototype. Seefried said those gatherings have created new relationships among the co-workers that wouldn’t have otherwise formed. “Jack often seeks input and constructive feedback from others, both to confirm that he is on target and to explore other options that might work better,” Seefried said.
Laureen Copfer met Degnan in 2002 when she began working at the Antiviral Research Center as an administrative assistant. “Jack was always generous with his time, even on the busiest days,” she said. Copfer recalled an affection for playing board games a child, but said she didn’t play much as an adult until she met Degnan. When he began sending his games to publishers, he asked Copfer to review and edit the rules, which was often her first exposure to one of Jack’s new games.
“Jack has given myself and others the rare opportunity to test a new creation, give feedback, and then see how the game evolves into a final version,” Copfer said.
On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Degnan will hold a free seminar from 7-8:30 p.m. at the San Diego LGBT Center, 3909 Centre St. in Hillcrest, during the monthly Guys, Games & Grub gathering: Board Game Design — How to do it. How to get paid for it. To attend, RSVP to Jeff Wergeles at firstname.lastname@example.org.