An Interview With Looney Labs

Dee Chapleau Publisher Spotlight

Who are the creative geniuses who brought us favorites like Fluxx and Pyramid Arcade? Why it’s Looney Labs, of course! The small team at Looney Labs brings a unique and valuable perspective to the board game industry. Their games have a low barrier to entry and provide a delightful experience every time. We were lucky enough to interview Kristin and Andrew Looney to find out more about what makes Looney Labs so special.

Looney Labs staff: Kristin Looney (CEO, President, and Business Czar), Andrew Looney (Chief Creative Officer), Laurie Menke (Executive Assistant, Sales & Marketing), Kristen Greer (Operations Manager), Alison Frane (Head Factorum and Customer Service Manager), Morgan Nakroshis (Graphic Design and Product Development)

(Mox) Part of your mission is to bring social experiences to gaming. Can you talk more about the importance of this?

(Kristin Looney) I love the way games bring people together… and I LOVE hearing about how our games have brought joy into people’s lives. When we set up in public to play, and a crowd is giggling and swapping stories at the table while they play, it forms a connection between people that can be life-altering. Something about the mix of luck and strategy in our games makes them both accessible and non-threatening. You can’t always win, since there is so much luck, so the playing field is leveled a bit and it becomes about the fun of hanging out together. We have seen how games can bring people together, and hope that our offerings will contribute to peace by helping all ages, races, cultures, genders, sizes, ability levels, religions, political leanings, relationship configurations, and more find common ground and have a good time together.

(Mox) Looney Labs has such a fascinating history. What was it like to transition from licensing your ideas to other companies to becoming a publisher yourselves?

(Andy) Wow, that was so long ago now! Yes, we did try licensing Fluxx to another company for awhile during our earliest years, but as soon as we got what we thought was our dream deal, we started to regret it. I describe it as being like choosing to get into the back seat of the car when we had a chance to be the driver. We wanted more control, so as soon as we had a chance to get the rights back, we did so, and jumped fully into becoming our own publishing company.

(Kristin) We were really lucky that we got the rights to Fluxx back when we did, but also lucky that we did originally license it to Iron Crown back in the late 90’s. If we had not had that experience, to know how much we wanted to keep it and do this ourselves, we might not have been so careful with the other contract deals that came along over the years. It’s also lucky that we didn’t choose one of the other two offers we had back when we chose Iron Crown, if we had licensed the game to Steve Jackson, who had also made us an excellent offer, we would likely have never become Looney Labs, and who knows if Munchkin would have happened when it did or taken the path that it took if Steve was focused on Fluxx.

(Mox) Does your experience of working at NASA influence your game design?

(Andy) NASA influences everything I do, it looms very large in my life. Not only did I work there for almost a decade, I was actually following in my father’s footsteps — he was one of the engineers who helped start the Goddard Space Flight Center in the late 1950s. If it weren’t for NASA I’d never have met my wife Kristin, nor my life-long buddy (and designer of Homeworlds), John Cooper. I first encountered [John] at meetings of the science-focused Explorer Post 1275, which met on-center. There are many other connections, too many to list. I compare every new challenge we tackle with a moon-landing analogy. Even though it’s been decades since I had the privilege of working there, it’s still very much a part of my way of thinking. This is why I think of game rules as being like a piece of software, designed to run computers made out of meat, i.e. humans. And humans are trickier to program than computers, because humans have this annoying tendency to merely skim the “program” and then complain when it “crashes” because they failed to properly execute a crucial “subroutine” in the rules. As for specific NASA influences in our games, I’d say the most obvious is Astronomy Fluxx, which is basically a love letter to the exploration of space.

(Kristin) Back in 1986, as a 20 year old college student, I landed a co-op position at NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, because I met the director of Code 520 on a Saturday afternoon when I was getting a tour of this big blue room sized computer called the MPP (Massively Parallel Processor) that my father was using to factor big numbers. I had an amazing 10 year career at our space agency designing high speed VLSI computer chips for telemetry systems and, most importantly, meeting my husband Andy.  More than a decade later, which is now a decade ago, we happened upon that big blue computer in the Air and Space Museum – and had a chance to say “thank you” for bringing us together. And now today, because the internet is like this, I found this to share: The Mystery of the Massively Parallel Processor  

(Mox) Over the last years, Looney Labs has published more and more educational versions of their games. Have you noticed any differences in how they are received versus licensed property versions?

(Kristin) The new educational titles have opened up completely new markets for us! We have long been told by teachers (and parents and homeschoolers) that they love using our games in their classrooms, but pitching something like Fluxx to a school district administrator was always a dead end. Fluxx was not designed to be educational, and it is not packaged like an educational game, so it was a hard sell even though teachers told us how great it was. But now, having multiple titles with specific educational themes, we have gotten so many more educators on board using them, as well as educational stores and catalogs selling them. They also sell great in game, toy, and book stores!

(Mox) What is a theme you would love to have in one of your games but haven’t had the chance to explore yet?

(Andy) First, we have to set aside two of my games that we haven’t been able to publish ourselves, even though they were released overseas, those being Star Wars Fluxx (only available in Russia) and Rick & Morty Fluxx (only available in Poland.) The next obvious answer is Harry Potter. I have a complete design for that ready to go, and we’ve spent a great deal of time and effort on trying to make it happen. We got painfully close, too, before it all suddenly fell through. And that was basically the last straw for us on doing more licensed themes, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s just so much easier to focus on public domain and parody-style themes, and I think the parody versions tend to be more fun, anyway. For example, Star Fluxx continues to be a big hit for us, even after we went deep on the real IPs referenced therein, including Star Trek, Dr. Who, Firefly, and (if you live in Russia) Star Wars. Indeed, Star Fluxx is better than each of the things it pokes fun at precisely because it includes ALL of them. Which brings me to Fantasy Fluxx, our brand-new mashup of all things fantastic and wizardly, which we wouldn’t have made (not yet, at least) if we’d gotten to make Harry Potter Fluxx, and I think Fantasy Fluxx is actually a lot more exciting.

(Mox) Looney Pyramids is a hugely diverse game system not only loved for the number of different ways to play but also for the pyramid-shaped components that fans have used to aid in their own game design. It offers a depth of experiences, from quick casual games to more complex experiences. What is your favorite way to play with Pyramids?

(Andy) Thank you, I’m very proud of the pyramids. Fluxx is by far my biggest hit, but I still believe the pyramids will ultimately be seen as my greatest invention. They’re just so useful and beautiful! As for my favorite game, it’s Homeworlds. The amazing interstellar space conquest game which is a 4×4 game in abstract form. It’s my favorite game, full stop. If you can beat me in a game of Homeworlds, I will give you a medal. Yes, I’m serious.

(Kristin) Hard question, there are so many Pyramid games I love to play! I guess I would have to say my favorite is Hijinks. It uses only 9 pyramids, all the same color; and although it is simple, it has a surprising amount of strategy. Andy designed it for me on spec – as I had a large number of Pink pyramids that we needed to repurpose – so I asked him if he could make a game that used 15 pyramids, all of the same color. And so, Pink Hijinks was born!  He only used 9 pyramids, which actually made the repurposing quite a bit harder, but oh well – at least all those pink pyramids did not go into a landfill. I also love this game because it is part of my “deal” when we are out and about at conventions…  I always have a copy hanging from my belt, so I can challenge strangers to a game. If you beat me at Pink Hijinks, I will give you the copy of the game we played with!

(Mox) Fluxx is a true classic that’s been around since the 90’s. Every version of Fluxx has a special twist or variant on the core of the game. Some of these variants even making it into new updated versions of Fluxx, which is now in its 5.0 edition. What are one or two of those variants that were the most impactful to the game?

(Andy) I’d say the biggest change to “the game that changes” was the introduction of Creepers. It’s the idea that made Zombie Fluxx possible, which was one of the earliest themed editions and one which really set the stage for making each version different, including making changes to the engine itself. Adding other new card types, like Surprises (introduced in Pirate Fluxx) and Dangers (new for Jumanji Fluxx), has shaken things up as well, but not as much as that first big leap. Zombie Fluxx also introduced the idea of putting fine print onto Keeper cards which has certainly been, shall we say, a game-changer.

(Kristin) The new Danger cards are amazing – you can get eliminated from the game! But never fear, this is Fluxx, so you can jump back in when it comes around to you again. It’s dangerous in the jungle…  and this game REALLY feels like you are in the jungles of Jumanji. I particularly love the New Rule: The Sound of the Drums, which says you get to do the special action twice if you have been quietly drumming on the table since your last turn. NOTE: If you play Jumanji Fluxx with only two players, check out this FAQ for something we wish we had said in the rules. 

(Mox) You’ve been publishing games for almost 25 years. What is the most significant change you’ve seen in the tabletop gaming industry over the years?

(Andy) From an overall industry standpoint, I might say something about how online sales have impacted game stores, but from a publisher’s perspective, it’s Kickstarter. The crowd-funding revolution has allowed SO many new entrepreneurs to throw their hats into the game publishing ring as to cause a tremendous overload. There are so many new games being released every week now that no one can keep up with everything and it’s very difficult to get attention for your own new releases. We are lucky because we have an established brand that people love, but when it’s not a new Fluxx, people often don’t even notice it. And the Kickstarter model is so different from the classic mentality. I’m all about trying to create future classics: games that will become “evergreens” and remain in print for years to come. But a lot of these Kickstarter newcomers are happy enough just to see the print run sell through. And since the market is now so saturated, even that can be a challenge.

(Kristin) On the other hand, as much as Kickstarter has made things harder for established publishers like ourselves, and the current glut of new games really is a problem for the industry, it has also allowed a lot of amazing people to make a lot of amazing games that would never have existed before. The nature of crowdfunding (the fact that you don’t need to have the working capitol to get a game published, and you have the reach of the internet to find people interested in your project) has opened up the game design world to so many underrepresented groups, and I am very happy with that aspect of Kickstarter. 

(Mox) Congratulations on your Silver Jubilee this year! Can you tell us more about how Looney Labs will be celebrating and how people can join in?

(Andy) Thank you! We are really proud of this milestone. We are celebrating in a whole bunch of different ways…  We are giving away thousands of copies of Tiny Fluxx (a tiny version of Fluxx about tiny things using miniature playing cards), and we’re raffling off numerous old artifacts, out of print games, and other treasures from our attic. You can’t buy raffle tickets, you earn them with scavenger hunt-type social media activities. But the coolest thing we are doing is hosting a year-long series of online events. We had been planning to run another little in-person convention like our LooneyCon from 5 years ago, but of course, due to the pandemic, we had to think of something different. But we’ve all been honing our skills at every form of online interaction, and we’re using cool new tools to create the virtual equivalent of a long running, low-key convention. The Silver Jubilee tickets cost only $25 each, and are good for any event all year long, with preferred seating going to those who’ve attended fewer events so far. We’re 2 months into it now and it’s going really well — please come join in the fun!

(Kristin) We are also excited to offer a free one-time pass to MOX customers to try an event, spend some time with us, and see whether they’d like to buy the full ticket! 

(Mox) What is your favorite food to eat while gaming?

(Andy) I traditionally make a batch of fudge (using the recipe I learned at age 8) at the start of our weekly game nights (oh, how I miss hosting those!) and I always eat a lot of that myself. Lately I’ve taken to putting in cashews. Yum! 

(Kristin) Andy’s fudge. Yum! 

Mox will be offering 10% off all Looney Labs product throughout the month of April. Come pick up the perfect version of Fluxx for your game group, and don’t forget our knowledgeable staff is always there to answer any questions you may have. Limited in-store dining is now available in a few of our Mox locations, so enjoy a bite and/or cocktail while you play.

-See you at Mox!