Phil Schadt is not a socially awkward guy, but he sometimes plays among those who are on game nights.
Board games, Schadt says, are an ideal dynamic for the shy, retiring and socially ill-at-ease to find a voice, be among friends, and have a good time.
Then again, to be fair, the 36-year-old Schadt is a fan of games for a whole pile of reasons beyond socializing the socially discomfited. There’s the artistry of the board design, the puzzles to solve, the imagination to dive into.
In pretty much every way, he just loves games, which is why he decided to make one. A real one that, if development goes well, could legitimately end up on someone’s coffee table in Topeka as easily as it could end up on his own floor in Lawrence.
“Cheese Quest” (a tabletop game of tactics and sabotage) is a literal game of cat and mouse in which the objective is to bring two cheeses safely back to the nest. It’s played mainly with cards and is Schadt’s first professionally developed game, but far from the first he’s ever come up with himself.
“When I was younger, I would always make up games,” he said. “I’ve always had an overactive imagination.”
This time around, though, Schadt is taking a chance at publishing a fully researched, fully developed tabletop board game, complete with a KickStarter campaign that surpassed its $12,000 goal by more than $1,000. Larger donors can expect a copy of the game in exchange for their faith.
That faith has taken a fair chunk of time to maintain.
“It’s been a three-year process to get this game to where it is now,” he said. A little too much time and effort to bail on it, even if he wanted to.
Three years ago, the game came to him over a weekend, while he was hanging out with some friends. It actually started with an explorers/mummy theme. The sketch-level version of the game involved stick figures and handwritten cards and roles to play.
“The initial play was just fun,” he said. “We played it like four times.”
Schadt’s friends liked the basic idea of the game—to score a bit of treasure and make it out safe—but the mummy angle was off somehow. There was, however, the cat-and-mouse dynamic of the action, which Schadt decided to take literally, and thus the quest for cheese was born.
The first year developing the game was heavy on play-testing, which means having people you don’t know and who’ve never heard of the game give it a go. This, Schadt said, was the time to encourage players to “break” the game; to find and exploit its flaws and imbalances.
They found plenty—imbalances in the cards gave players too much power to get out of a bad situation, for example, and that’s the kind of deus ex machina stuff Schadt wanted nothing to do with.
“There’s a deck of cards that do lots of different things,” he said. “None of them is the most powerful, or the best one to get.”
Players use three actions per turn to move, steal cheese, disarm traps, or acquire new cards. Cards are used to move cats to corner your opponents, place traps, or squeeze through walls. So say, for example, you want to get away from a cat and draw a card that allows you to get through a hole in the wall. Well, that would be great if the other guy at the table didn’t have a card that allowed the cat to move to where you would be. Or if yet another person didn’t have some traps waiting for you.
“That’s where play-testing comes in,” Schadt said. “It’s like the editing process for a game.”
Fortunately, Schadt said, he doesn’t have too much ego to hear what’s wrong with the game. Game makers, he said, are not always so welcoming of such criticism, but a bruised ego is a small price for a working game.
“I’m creating this for other people,” he said. “I want people to enjoy it.”
Schadt is familiar with how ego plays into life as a creative professional anyway. He’s a creative director at a startup in New York City called PayPerks, where he does print and web design. PayPerks is a financial literacy and education website focused on the underserved, including the largest share of customers, people on disability. Schadt helps design features that teach people how to not overspend, how to budget their money, and how to avoid incurring debt through endless fees.
‘I just want people to have fun with it. To gather and have a good time.’
Schadt got the job by a combination of ability and complete happenstance. He had been living in Lawrence for about two weeks when he met his neighbor, an illustrator who’d been offered some work by PayPerks. But the neighbor couldn’t take on the work, and suggested Schadt, who started on a freelance basis. Eventually, the company liked him enough to bring him on fulltime.
Up to that point, Schadt had worked in pharma advertising. He grew up in Maybrook, New York, where his overactive imagination kicked in early. Games made up on the fly, complete with monsters in the trees, were the norm. He followed his creative urge to the Art Institute of Philadelphia for his bachelor’s in animation and computer art, which he earned in 1992.
While in Philadelphia, Schadt met his wife, Jessie, when a friend asked him to hang out and she came along with the group. The Temple University photography grad eventually became a performance artist whose milieu is LED hula hoops. Schadt loves watching her perform, but says his heart stops pretty much every time his wife performs on aerial silks, high above those really hard floors.
“Sometimes I can’t watch,” he said.
Schadt left Philly after eight years and worked in northern New Jersey, growing his résumé in the pharma industry. But though the Princeton region is a major pharma hub, the industry is not what brought Schadt to Lawrence. It was Jessie. The pair decided to split the difference between northern New Jersey and Philadelphia and settled on Mercer County. They’ve been together 13 years and married for six.
The Schadt home is a frequent gathering place for gamers and friends (and friends in the making), he said. He freely admits to enjoying meeting new people, a quality he said he gets from his father, who is, for the record, “the kind of guy who walks into a supermarket and talks to everybody.”
The Schadt home is also a place for the socially awkward to feel welcome.
“One thing I love about board games is, people show their true colors when they play them,” he said. That could mean drawing out someone’s inner competitive nature or just allowing introverts to be among other people who feel weird being around other people too. And one more thing for the record: Jessie is fine with all the game nights and new people in the house all the time.
And for Schadt, of course, there’s a built-in flow of game testers (he credits about 55 people as game testers on his Kickstarter page) who have helped him chip away at the imbalances and tighten Cheese Quest up.
In his review, game tester Derek Funkerhouse of Druid City Games stated: “Cheese Quest is a fun, frantic, and light game. You can make the game as competitive and light and you want. The group dynamic will certainly play a part in how you play.”
That kind of insight is invaluable to Schadt, who knows that getting that kind of understanding of a game takes more than one round playing it.
“A big thing with game developing is replayability,” Schadt said. With Cheese Quest, “the maps change every time you play it. You could play it 20 times and not get the same game.”
Schadt got his favorite feedback from Chris and Suzanne Zinsli, game designers and bloggers who run Cardboard Edison in Middlesex County. Or, more accurately, from the Zinslis and their daughter. The couple loved the game, and then gave it to their daughter and her friends to play. The under-10 set liked it just as much, and for Schadt, the fact that he’s developed a game that adults and kids can play and enjoy is rewarding.
It’s also why he cheekily refers to Cheese Quest as a “dumbed-down version of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ for 9-year-olds.”
There’s a bit more to it than that, but D&D is, in fact, a touchstone for Cheese Quest in a way. It serves as a reference for Schadt on how to market and present his game. Schadt wants to appeal to people who like playing roleplayer games, but not scare off people who don’t want anything to do with the long, complex mechanics involved in games like Dungeons & Dragons.
As for what Schadt plans to do with Cheese Quest once it’s finally ready for sale?
“Maybe sell it on Amazon,” he said. “Maybe get it into a local game store.”
So for all that work, the three (and counting) years of chipping away the problems and making his game spot on, Phil Schadt has zero designs on marketing Cheese Quest in hopes of turning it in into the next big thing. If it works well and is well received, he has a few other ideas he might want to develop into tabletop games. But mostly, this was just something he wanted to do for himself.
“I just want people to have fun with it,” he said. “To gather and have a good time.”