Birth of a board game

With luck, Fire Tower will be the next hot new game.


You may not know that there has been a resurgence in the popularity of board games in every age range. According to Sam Bryant of West Tisbury and Brooklyn, “For many, games are the real passion of their lives, to play and collect games, to interact with other gamers, and to attend game conventions all across the country.”

Sam is one of those passionate game aficionados. He and his partner in life and game design, Gwen Ruelle, have formed an independent game design company called Runaway Parade Games. On April 24, they will begin a monthlong Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the production of their first offering, Fire Tower.

Sam, a 2005 graduate of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, grew up playing board games, not only the familiar ones we all played as children, but games he and his cousin, Robin Bryant, would make up and design themselves during afternoons at their grandfather Nelson Bryant’s house. Nelson’s partner is Ruth Kirchmeier, an imaginative artist who encouraged the children’s creativity and helped them realize their ideas by painting game boards with and for them. Sam said that Ruth showed him that his ideas could become real.

Gwen grew up loving games, as well. She made up and designed games for herself and her friends, using all manner of art supplies and natural materials at hand. Sam and Gwen met at Sarah Lawrence, and both graduated in 2009. Besides many an evening spent playing one board game or another, they began thinking about designing and marketing one of their own. The new generation of games “has moved beyond Monopoly to games using more control and strategy,” said Sam. He and Gwen worked out the mechanics of their game, its “foundation,” that would allow players to pit their skills against “the personality of the game” as well as against the other players. They wanted it to be fast-paced, competitive rather than cooperative, to have enough depth for serious gamers, but to be intuitive and fun for two to four players of any age.

Beyond those parameters they had no visual image of what the game would look like, no theme. During a Thanksgiving visit to the Vineyard, a walk through the State Forest elicited the perfect theme: a forest fire. Now they had an image, which inspired the game board’s art — roaring flames at the center of a densely treed forest, with fire towers at the four corners representing four firefighting companies. The goal is for each fire department (i.e. each player) to protect their fire tower while pushing the blaze toward an opponent’s tower. Whoever breaches the roof of an opponent’s fire tower wins the game.

There are game pieces, sparkly orange plastic trinkets called “fire gems” that resemble flames as they spread across the board. Purple firebreak tokens block the fire’s movement. There are different cards to determine each player’s turn: wind cards to direct the fire’s movement north, south, east, or west; fire cards to spread the blaze; water and firebreak cards to extinguish or block the fire’s spread. Each card has a grid at the bottom showing a specific pattern in which the fire can be added to or diminished, sort of like how chess pieces each move in a particular way.

Another part of Sam and Gwen’s promotion of Fire Tower involves traveling to game conventions around the country. They recently packed up prototypes of the game for gamers to play at a game convention in New Hampshire, along with the eye-catching banner that Gwen’s father, graphic artist Kevin Ruelle, designed and painted for them.

When I first saw it, I asked Sam if it was the State Forest; it looked and felt so familiar. They have also created a three-dimensional tabletop tableau that depicts fiery, burning trees and a looming fire spotter’s tower. All of this makes an attractive display to entice prospective gamers to give Fire Tower a try.

Island friends and family have been recruited into testing Fire Tower. Marshall Pratt, Gina Patti, Kaya Seiman, Hannah Marlin, Justin Oslyn, and Bill and Lucy Bailey are regular players, as is Sam’s father, Jeff, who, he said, “burned us all down.”


To find out more about Fire Tower, take a look on facebook at Runaway Parade or their website,