A Valley Gamemaker


This time of year, for many of us, we are still trying to work through our Christmas gift lists. Each year we vow to cut back, but that challenge is rarely met. The children on our lists, with the multitude of electronic gadgets available, is often the hardest group to buy for. Well, we just may have the perfect answer for you this Christmas.

Deep in the Ottawa Valley, in the Perth area, to be exact, there is a truly Canadian company, whose passion for decades is to supply hand-created games with a twist that separates them by far from the usual games you find in retail outlets.
Family Pastime Games is probably the one game company of its kind in Canada, but we’ll let Jim Deacove, whose idea it was a few decades ago, to come with a game that is truly different, tell us about it.

Jim & Ruth-Mary Cooke ArticleWhat makes your games different from the general run-of-mill games we find in toy shops and department stores?
My games differ because they are all based on co-operation rather than competition. In my games we play together, not against each other. In fact, my rule of thumb when designing games is that I don’t have people being against people. The object of a game is working toward a common goal, not wiping out the other player.

Why did you think it was important to create non-competitive games?
First, note that I call my games co-operative, which is a positive image, rather than the negative, non-competitive term. The latter sounds like I have removed something from a game, when instead I have added a new dimension to game playing. Why important? Because competition is ruining our planet as humans fight one another for practically everything. We need to learn how to share and collaborate to solve our problems as well as enjoy each other’s company. We need more experiences of sharing and caring. We have more than enough of the other experiences of killing, maiming and destroying, which is the basis of most other games.

Who did you try them out on at the outset to see if they would be accepted?
My first games were variations of active games such as Hide and Seek. Then came the variations of popular board games such as Scrabble. These are described in a collection of co-op games in my GAMES MANUAL. After wonderful reactions for these among the neighbours, I went to regular toy and game stores and asked for games that reinforced the kind of family values that Ruth and I were instilling in our girls. The stores had not a single game of the kind we were looking for. So I made a few original ones, took them to birthday parties and people began asking where they could buy some. This was the seed for the little business we have today.

Tell us about the very first board game you made.
The first one was HARVEST TIME, which we still make today, over forty years later. The inspiration came from the way we helped each other with our individual family gardens, shared any veggie that we had extras of, sort of like the gang harvesting of wheat that I experienced as a little boy growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan. The object of the game was to help each other gather our vegetables in before winter comes.

Was it immediately accepted, or did you have to really sell people on the idea of non-competitive games?
I was happy being a teacher and had no intention of being a game inventor. The hand of destiny doesn’t take kindly to being denied. Anyway, off I went with my HARVEST TIME game to Toronto where many major game manufacturers were located. I remember well my first appointment with a company head, who liked the idea but said it needed more edge, some conflict to appeal to the market. He suggested that if one of the neighbours was getting ahead of you in harvesting their veggies that a player should introduce something like a groundhog into that neighbour’s garden to slow him/her down. I was shocked. He was serious, folks. I tried to talk him into reality, pointing out that if I did that to my neighbour’s garden, why, he would come after me with a shotgun. The company head just didn’t get it.
I did have to work hard to sell that game and then several others for different age groups and about different themes. Roadside stands. Conferences of all kinds. Craft shows. Wherever I could set up a table, there I would be with about 6 co-operative games.
Once folks were able to try them out, they understood the concept and gradually the games caught on.

How do you come up with fresh ideas, so that there is no duplication?
Life is full of inspiration. For example, I go mountain climbing with some friends in B.C. and I note how we share equipment, climb as a team, even being tied to one another….ergo, a co-operative mountain climbing game. As in real life, if someone wants to be king or queen of the mountain and rush ahead of the rest of the team, we leave this clown back at base camp, because our very lives are at risk here.
There is co-operation happening everywhere. Note how when the world’s economies are in jeopardy, the world leaders meet to discuss how they can co-operate to save themselves. Unfortunately, as soon as the economies stabilize, they go back to dog-eat-dog strategies. Sad, but as G.B.Shaw once said, The only thing we learn from history is that we never learn anything.
Fortunately, there is enough co-operation happening in society, so that we can live more or less happily. If there was any more competition, we would be doomed and some folks think that we are heading down that razor blade of life already without much hope of redemption.
The culture of competition is well embedded, but here and there there are rays of hope, signs of consciousness-raising and you either add to the hope or…

How popular are the games?
I have over 100 games on the market now and some are more popular than others. I find that the games are more popular in Europe than in North America. There is more of a tradition in Europe of families sitting together a playing a board game than there is in North America. The electronic games that tend toward solitary activity are the common culture here. My games are now available in Europe in six different languages and are found in hundreds of stores.
But we have a niche market in North America that keeps bread and butter on the table. Schools are good customers. Family therapists are good customers. This is a new market and in some ways is rather sad, because my games are designed to be challenging and fun for ordinary family play, but increasingly the games are being used as tools for therapy, for people repair. Never my original intention, but I am so glad that the games are finding purpose in this way.

How do you feel about other competitive games, such as hockey and soccer?
I feel like a visitor from another planet in respect to these sports. I can’t identify with the action. I don’t understand how thousands of people can work themselves into a frenzy about a soccer game or how humans can beat up on each other in a hockey match. It is similar to when I quit smoking many, many years ago and when I now see a person blowing smoke out of their heads, it seems like a very strange activity. Same goes for when I observe the crowd reactions to such sports as hockey and soccer. Strange behaviour.
But when I see on TV how the latest NASA landing of a vehicle on Mars is greeted by the control center of scientists when the landing is a success and all that collaboration results in success, and I see those folks hi fiving each other and hugging and dancing together, this is excitement that makes sense to me. By the way, this led to my new game, MOON MISSION.
Truth be told, I get more excited, uplifted and inspired at a Mennonite barn raising than I do at a sporting event.

Would it be safe to say, in all of your games, there are no losers? And if so, why is that a good thing.
My games are outside of the usual win/lose paradigm. There is usually an objective to be realized, but I don’t specify that if you achieve the objective, then you all win and if you don’t achieve the objective, then you all lose. What I do state is that at the end of the game, you determine how far along you got.
How many vegetables did you store away before winter set in? How far up the mountain did you get before you had to return home? Thus, there is always a measure of success to celebrate. This is more like real life and out of the box of rewards and punishments. I recommend studying the work of the psychologist, Alfie Kohn, who makes clear why being realistic is a good thing.
I also design games that are purely co-operative, in which the players are engaged in a process with no particular objective to work towards. Examples of these are such titles as PERSONAL PORTRAITS and FIRST IMPRESSIONS.

What materials do you use to make your games.
Just the usual stuff – cardboard, waterproof papers, waterbased glues and inks, wood items, all of which have been tested for safety in Canada, the USA, and in Paris labs to be able to export to European countries

Tell me about your workplace, and what is the full name of your company?
We began in our livingroom and garage, moved to a cottage, and then, as business increased, we converted the old farm house into a shop that we added to as necessity dictated. We have a modest little factory now with several cottages for woodworking and box storage. We changed from a partnership of Ruth and I into a corporation with the full name of FAMILY PASTIMES LIMITED.
I was able to handle the financial records when a partnership, but trying to keep up with the changing rules for a corporation was beyond my ken and now we are in the merciful hands of accountants.

Do you have a different name for each game?
Each game has its own title, so you can see on our information site that all 105 games are shown with images and descriptions of each and to help customers make purchasing decisions, we have organized the titles according to age ranges, so you will find games such as HARVEST TIME in the category of games for the young, and MOUNTAINEERING for those in between ages of 7 to 12, and then for older players up to adult age and then some games designed for group play and then some books of co-operative games for schools and other institutions.

The phrase, A CO-OPERATIVE GAME™ is our trademark that has been filed with international trademark offices and is held exclusively by FAMILY PASTIMES

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