Timbrook Toys: Art in Board Games #54
Editors Note: I’ve long had a fascination with hand made goods. Nottingham my home city, was once the centre of the world as far as the lace industry was concerned, and whenever I travel I like to see local history depicted through a regions items. In a world filled with mass produced goods, it can often feel like we’ve lost that handmade touch, however, the tabletop scene is actually a welcome home for the DIY maker. With a huge print and play scene that is thriving online and of course not forgetting most projects start (and end) life as scraps of paper and cubes in prototype form.
With the above in mind, I wanted to bring to your attention a small company called Timbrook Toys making their own games in Huntsville Alabama. This project struck me for how it made me feel both nostalgic for a bygone era but also feel like there really is space for games like this to exist in the modern era. I hope you enjoy this interview and a small insight into their work.
Hi Dustin/Molly, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Dustin - Thanks for featuring us on your blog, Ross! I’m an artist who has lived in Huntsville, Alabama for a little over a decade now. I’ve worked professionally in a lot of creative fields during that time, including a lot of social media marketing and video production. A big part of what drew me to live in Huntsville is our local arts venue, Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, which is actually the largest privately-owned studio art facility in the US. Being a part of this diverse creative community has been a highlight of my life. Outside of making art, my favorite pastime is probably watching British murder mysteries with Molly and our dogs.
Molly - I've known since I was little that I wanted to write for a living. I'm a technical writer at one of Huntsville's many tech companies; my background in technical writing really informed how we wrote the instructions for Hedge Lord. As an aside, while Huntsville does have a burgeoning arts scene, Huntsville is more commonly known as "the Rocket City" or, sometimes, "the Silicon Valley of the South;" many technologies that got humans into space were developed by NASA in Huntsville and the city has attracted technology companies ever since. In my spare time, in addition to watching too many British procedurals with Dustin, I read, bake, and train our deaf dog, Ernest, who we adopted a few months ago.
Have you always been into games and puzzles?
Dustin - I’ve honestly never been much of a gamer, so it’s surprising to have a game be one of the most popular projects I’ve ever worked on. Molly and I did have a brief phase of being obsessed with the idea of obscure, failed games relegated to thrift store shelves despite being good ideas. The magnet-based game Touche' is one that we found during that time that fits the model. That idea of losing a game to history certainly had some influence on Hedge Lord, which we designed to have the feel of something uncovered from a past era.
Molly - Same. I appreciate a good board game, but I wouldn't have called myself a fan of board games until recently. I like how board games can create a kind of community, whether it's only for the duration of the game play or as a regular occurrence over the course of weeks or months as you play a game regularly with friends or family.
You've created your own game called Hedge Lord! What is it, and where did the seed of the idea come from?
Molly - Dustin and I were on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina in the fall of 2017. On the drive from Alabama to North Carolina, Dustin talked incessantly about gears. How to make them, how to make things with them, and all the endless possibilities afforded by gears. Eventually, this postulation turned into a line of inquiry along the lines of "What would a gear-based board game look like?"
We visited the Biltmore Estate, while in Asheville, a manor built in the late 1800s and the largest privately owned home in the United States. While touring the Biltmore grounds, we noted how inappropriate it was that for all of its grandeur, the Biltmore did not have a hedge maze. A hedge maze just seems like the kind of finishing touch you need for a palatial manor house. (Dustin is also obsessed with hedge mazes, even more obsessed than he is with gears.)
So, these two ideas collided. We started talking about what a gear-based, hedge maze board game might look like. We created a back story, rules, and characters on the drive back home, and while stopped at a bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, I came up with a name for our imaginary game -- Hedge Lord.
We got back into the grind of life when we got back home and I honestly didn't think much about Hedge Lord until I came home to find Dustin fiddling with a paper prototype of the game. From then on, our lives became consumed by developing, testing, and then marketing, selling, and producing Hedge Lord. The gear-based aspect eventually fell by the wayside, but I don't think Hedge Lord is any worse off for it.
Dustin - Like Molly said, I'm just obsessed with hedge mazes. The Jim Henson movie Labyrinth was a huge influence on me as a kid. So was the British stop-motion TV series The Wind in the Willows, which had a great episode where the characters race to solve the hedge maze at Toad Hall. Despite being fascinated by their appearances in TV and movies, I've never actually been in a real hedge maze. If we ever get rich off of this game you can bet we will be establishing one on the grounds of Timbrook Gardens.
It sounds like you got well and truly bitten by the design bug. After that first prototype roughly how long were you playtesting the game and what did you learn?
Molly - I think we spent at least three or four months learning how to play the game with a prototype that Dustin made out of copy paper. The circle "hedge pieces" were attached with little brads and the playing pieces were different color beads that had angry faces, for the beasts, and happy faces, for the lords. We made our friends play constantly. The rules didn't change much from what we had in mind in the early days, we talked about it incessantly on vacation, but we did test different ideas, like if the beast should continue playing after the lord has been devoured and when and how the hedge pieces should be turned.
Our friends were really patient to keep playing through every iteration of the rules. Folks really seemed to enjoy the "entrapment" features intrinsic in moving the hedge and some people were frustrated to discover that "camping" their beast near an exit or guarding their lord with their beast were not full-proof paths to victory.
Every copy of Hedge Lord is handmade. Could you give us an overview of what goes into creating each one?
Dustin - We wanted these early copies of Hedge Lord to genuinely resemble something manufactured in the early 1900's, so using traditional methods like screen printing and woodworking was a must. Each copy of the game requires a painstaking process that involves 13 stages of screen printing and a lot of time at the drill press. Hopefully soon we will do the milling stage of production with a CNC router, but so far we've made over 100 games the old fashioned way.
We still aren't totally sure how long it takes to make each game because we do things in batches and stages rather than making one game at a time. It's safe to say each game takes 2-3 hours total though. I recently quit my day job to make games and toys full time, so I'm the main person in the shop. Molly still has a day job so she focuses on the matter of running our business and lends a hand in the shop a few hours a week.
Molly - It seems like it might take about thirty hours to produce twelve games, so Dustin's math checks out.
What is the appeal of creating handmade products and why do you think it's important that people continue to make things this way?
Dustin - The appeal of handmade products is that each item has special details which reveal the hand that made it. I particularly like screen printing projects on wood because every copy that is produced ends up being unique. No two pieces of wood are going to have the same grain pattern, and working with irregular surfaces results in the kind of printing imperfections that distinguishes handmade art from mass-production.
Most copies of our game have some registration errors and places where the wood surface is scarred. As long as the "flaws" in a print don't interfere with anyone's ability to play the game, we consider it a perfect copy. Your copy of Hedge Lord won't be identical to your neighbor's, and that's a good thing!
With such a DIY project how have you tried to spread the word about Hedgelord?
Molly - We have been very fortunate that our promotion has been largely organic. Folks seem to like Hedge Lord as much as we do and word spread quickly after we first offered Hedge Lord for sale on Dustin's personal Facebook page. We were approached by Alabama Public Television and the Alabama Media Group as a result of word of mouth promotion and both pieces from both organizations brought Hedge Lord even more attention.
We've attended events as exhibitors and we've hosted a tournament at a local brewery. Those promotion avenues weren't successful, in terms of sales, but they've been extremely fulfilling in terms of meeting our audience, getting feedback, and sharing some wild games of Hedge Lord.
Dustin - The great thing about board games is that they are shared experiences. Word of mouth marketing is built directly into the product by the very nature of requiring multiple people to play. Since Hedge Lord is fun and people who play it end up wanting their own copy, the game really kind of sells itself.
What were the goals you set yourselves with this project and how have they changed?
Molly - Hedge Lord is the first of what we hope are many, many board games and toys, but making Hedge Lord takes up most of our time. Our current goal is to find ways to better automate the production of Hedge Lord (right now manufacturing is 95% powered by Dustin) so that we can pursue other ideas, too.
Dustin - In the big picture view we want to develop a whole creative universe around the characters and story of Hedge Lord that takes place outside of the confines of the maze. The business that we hope to build will allow us to focus on design and storytelling through other games, toys, comics, and film. It will be a dream come true to some day hire other artists to help bring our imagined world to life. For the near future though we are buckling down and focusing on making these early edition collectible games.
What are some non-game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
Molly - We watch a lot of murder mystery shows... probably too many. We're enjoying Endeavor (UK) and The Brokenwood Mysteries (NZ) right now. This week, I binge-listened to the podcasts Who the Hell is Hamish and Bear Brook and Dustin has binge-watched Call the Midwife while making games out in the shop.
Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Dustin - We’ve got more fun hand made products designed and ready to sell once we are further caught up with Hedge Lord production. Simple spinning tops, some colorful magnetic sticks for building with, and a really fun wooden watercolor palette.
Those items are fully developed, but we’ve got other games and toys in the works that still need months of design and testing before they are market-ready. These new products are spin-offs of the aesthetic and story we have established so far with Hedge Lord.
All images provided by and copyright of Timbrook toys.