Monday, July 11, 2011


When most people hear about my enjoyment of a hobby they think is best reserved for young children, they often shake their heads with a smile and call me a “child at heart.”

I’m sure the same thing happens regularly for Tim Walsh, but the 20-year veteran of the toy and game industry doesn’t shy away from that label. Born on Christmas Day, 1964 – the ultimate toy-giving holiday – he has proudly worn the badge “kid at heart” well into adulthood.

I met Tim a few years ago when he visited our youth ministry in Berlin as part of a small church group. Tall and athletic with an endearing smile, he wasn’t afraid to jump right in and participate with the German teens in the various activities. He even borrowed some shorts and shoes to practice with my basketball team.

Then he saw my game collection, and we learned that we had something else in common. I discovered that Tim had been a successful game designer, self-publisher, and developer over the course of his career, in addition to writing and speaking about the game and toy industry.

During my travels, I was finally able to visit his family in Sarasota, Florida, and like children at summer camp, we stayed up much too late talking about games. It was also fascinating to hear his story and experiences in the many different roles he’s played.

The “game designer within” was first awakened in college at Colgate University in 1984. At that time, Tim said, traditional board games were reportedly losing popularity to computer games and would soon be obsolete. Then Trivial Pursuit sold 20 million copies, proving the “experts” wrong. Two of the creators of the game were Colgate graduates, and Tim and his college buddies dreamed of following in their footsteps. “The phenomenal success of their game – and their reported lives as golf course owners in Canada – got us thinking, ‘Hey maybe we should invent a game,’” Tim laughed.

Good game ideas eluded them during college, but the dream resurfaced a few years after graduation when another game, Pictionary, stormed the market. Seeing that the resurgence of board games wasn’t a one-hit fluke, the college friends, now scattered around the country, decided to give game design a more earnest try, Tim said.

The inspiration for their game, TriBond, came from partner Ed Muccini, who “worked in a pet store part-time and listened to a radio station every day that played three songs and asked the listeners to guess what they had in common,” according to Tim. But Ed saw a broader game and expanded the idea to finding the common ground between all sorts of things.
“It was a twist on trivia, but it was still trivia.” Tim explained. There was an element missing from the game, and they discovered it while driving a rental car in Sarasota. “Someone asked how long it would take us to drive to the Florida Keys, and the light bulb went off,” Tim said. “‘Hey, what else has keys besides Florida?’ I asked. That became our first riddle clue: Florida, a locksmith, a piano.”

The deductive aspect of the riddle questions allowed players to “figure out an answer” rather than rely solely on memory, Tim said. “That was the moment when the game really became something fun.”

Of course, TriBond was still just an unpublished prototype, and Tim was pursuing other career paths at the time as well, one of which was baseball. “I guess ‘playing for a living’ was always a big pull for me,” he smiled. Growing up with five brothers and sisters who were all athletes, Tim played football for Colgate and pitched for the baseball team. After graduation, he decided to give professional sports a try.

“I didn’t want to be stuck in another job wondering ‘what if?’” he said. After a season pitching for a team in Mexico and a summer with “the last barnstorming baseball team in America,” he had unsuccessful try-outs with several Major League Baseball teams in their western Florida training camps. “I didn’t make the teams, but I fell in love with the area, so I stayed,” he said.

After settling in, Tim pursued a career in sports medicine as a physical therapist and took a job at a local clinic. The job turned out to be the perfect testing grounds for the new game idea that Tim and his friends were now developing. “I would try the clues out on patients who were very much a captive audience,” Tim joked. “You've got 15 minutes in the whirlpool? I’ll quiz you with these three-clue riddles. Have to ride a stationery bike for 20 minutes? I’ll quiz you with these three-clue riddles.”

The encouragement of patients and other friends motivated the partners to enlist investors, and they hired Patch Products to produce 2,500 copies. When that sold out, they ran a second printing of 5,000 copies, then 10,000 more were self-published. “Of course, we were selling them from the trunks of our cars that whole time, too.” Tim explained. “That took two-and-a-half years of really hard work and struggle.”

Even though TriBond was into its third print run, the partners were running out of money after paying the investors, who had contributed $80,000 to launch the game. Having given up his job at the clinic, Tim was desperate for work and begged Patch Products for a job. “You know how to make it and I know how to market it,” he told them. “License TriBond, give me a job and you won’t regret it.”

For nine years, Tim held the dual titles of Corporate VP of Product Development and Marketing. During his time there, he increased sales from aproximately $3 million to over $25 million. “We sold a lot of TriBond games,” he said. Still, there was a lot of pressure because his job was mostly dependent on the success of that one game. Instead of focusing on factors outside of his control, however, he learned to simply focus on giving his best effort. He was encouraged by a Bible passage that said, “Let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” Tim’s translation: “It’s all good, just work hard. So I did and God blessed it.”

Designer and Developer
In addition to the TriBond success, Tim also co-developed Mad Gab, now owned by toy giant Mattel, and designed the party game Blurt!, both originally published by Patch Products.

The inspiration for Blurt! also came before he took the job at Patch Products. Tim was dating a teacher and volunteered to help out with her second grade class, entertaining some of the students while she helped others with year-end projects. As he was paging through a children’s dictionary, he read aloud one of the definitions, “the nut of an oak tree.” A nearby 7-year-old mumbled “oaknut,” although Tim wasn’t expecting a response. “No it’s an acorn,” he said, smiling, “but that’s funny!”

Soon, Tim was reading other definitions aloud, and kids started to gather around, trying to be the first to blurt out the correct answer. “They were laughing and learning, and I asked my girlfriend if I could borrow the children’s dictionary,” Tim said. Soon he had a prototype for a new party game, and after being rejected for licensing consideration by Tyco, Mattel, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, he finally licensed the game to Patch Products – but that’s not the real success story. “The best part,” says Tim, “is that the teacher is now my wife of 16 years.”

Eventually, Tim decided to leave Patch Products, based in Wisconsin, to return to Florida and fulfill another dream: to become a book author. During the time Tim had spent promoting his games, he was often asked to speak about the history of the pastime, which led him to research it further. The stories of the various inventors of America’s most beloved toys and games intrigued Tim. “I found that virtually every hit toy or game was designed by people tinkering in their basements or garages,” he said. Tim thought that their stories deserved more attention. “The inventors are so unappreciated. These people have touched countless lives through their creations, yet very few others know who they are. I thought the book could help change that.”

Along with expanding his research for the project, Tim became a collector, scouring E-Bay for the antique originals of such classic toys and games as Lincoln Logs and Scrabble. Although he had to re-sell many of these after having them photographed for his book, some of the artifacts continue to be displayed in his guest room, making it into a delightful museum for the “kid at heart.” During our overnight visit, my wife and I slept under shelves filled with vintage Monopoly sets, plastic Silly Putty eggs, and cardboard Tinker Toy tubes. There was even a perfume bottle on the dresser, filled with the carefully-guarded secret-formula scent of Play-doh.

After being turned down by outside publishers, Tim self-published The Playmakers, a beautiful, full-color coffee-table book filled with the success stories of those everyday inventors. In fact, it’s the toy industry “underdogs” that make the book so fascinating. “It’s the quintessential dream of so many – to make a living on something you created,” Tim said. “They have so much invested emotionally in their ‘baby’ that it makes for very compelling story-telling.” The book has since been licensed to publishing giant Andrews McMeel-Universal, which released it as Timeless Toys, and a documentary film on toy inventors, called Toyland, for which Tim was a creative consultant and even makes an appearance, was released in 2010.
The research into the Wham-O company for the sections on the Super-Ball and Frisbee toys opened up a door for another book. “I knew that their sixtieth anniversary was approaching, so I sought them out and they agreed to open up their archives to me,” Tim said. After getting one of the company’s founders, Rich Knerr, on board, he successfully pitched the project to Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and although Knerr died before the completion of the book, Tim said that the two of them had fun reliving the early years of Wham-O together. “They were just fearless and fun in their approach to toy making.” Tim said. The book was released in 2008.
Although he’s now had success as an author, Tim hasn’t left game design behind. Both Blurt! and TriBond are planned for re-release with some updates to the rules and cards. There are new game ideas to be explored as well, and Tim’s books and personal experience testify that there is always room for another board game hit to stun the “experts.”

That said, the current climate of the industry in America is certainly more difficult for designers. “It’s tough, especially with the consolidation of the industry and the proliferation of media outlets,” he sighed. “Having said that, there still seems to be a breakout toy or game every few years like Apples to Apples that fuels the creativity of the next wave of inventors.”

And although self-publishing helped establish him early in the industry, Tim is cautious about encouraging others to follow that same path. “It’s a fun industry and alluring in that regard, but it’s also a $22 billion industry and the professionals in it take their fun very seriously,” he warned. “People go bankrupt for real, and they don’t lose Monopoly money.”

Still, Tim’s “toy story” is as compelling as any of the underdogs he’s written about, and it’s not surprising he could relate to many of them, having received his share of rejection letters. “I think the energy and struggle of creating is much more interesting and rewarding then the selling,” he reflected. “Sooner or later, though, you have to sell your idea to someone who’s willing to pay you.” And although the destination may not be as exhilarating as the journey, it’s comforting to know that another individual has succeeded in the corporate toy industry with hard work and perseverance…
…and by simply refusing to grow up.

Editor's note: this is an updated version of an article that originally ran on the now-defunct

Photos of game box covers and book covers courtesy Tim Walsh.

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