By Melissa Shaw
Roslindale dad and tabletop game creator Andrew Innes has gone from the spark of an idea at age 12, to a homemade cardboard prototype, to a game that has sold nearly 500,000 copies and was recently name-checked by Julia Roberts in People.
"Last night we were playing [the card game Anomia], all of us -- my whole family, my sister and my brother-in-law -- in stitches, tears streaming down our faces, having the best time," Roberts told the magazine in May.
Pretty heady stuff for a first-time game developer who, in the beginning, had 1,500 copies of the game in his attic and no idea what to do next.
Designed for 3 to 6 players, Anomia consists of 100 cards, each bearing a symbol (diamond, equal sign, circle, etc.) and a category (soap brands, pop songs, sports teams, etc.). Players flip cards from a draw pile until the symbols on two players' cards match. Matching players race to give an example of the category on their opponent's card. Whoever blurts out a correct answer first wins their opponent's card, and drawing continues. Wild cards and other in-game twists demand even quicker thinking. When the draw pile runs out, the player with the most cards won wins the game. Games are quick, about 20 to 30 minutes, and can be played with anyone ages 10 and up.
It's simple to learn and an easy concept to grasp, but the fun of Anomia lies in its name.
"It means 'without a name,' and has two other usages," Innes says. "In the Bible, it refers to chaos and lawlessness, and in modern medical usage it's a problem with word finding."
The name is certainly fitting: It's pandemonium when players realize their symbols match and try to give an example of their opponent's category before the other person shouts out theirs. And, in the heat of the moment, it's very common for players to experience anomia and suddenly be unable to name a bird, candy, or TV show. The result is laughing, stuttering, shouting, and some really weird, obscure, or wildly wrong answers (and some correct ones, too).
"It gets people talking, it gets people connecting," he says. "Who cares who wins? It's just hilarious."
BoardGameGeek, the go-to authority for tabletop gaming news and reviews, enthuses: "Anomia is an excellent party game. It plays very quickly, revs up the tension, and makes even the most jaded gamer start to sweat and jump out of their seat with an answer. And since the game requires no 'word' knowledge or 'trivia' reciting, it's simply a battle of which player can spit out the simplest ideas fastest. Anyone can play, it sets up in seconds, and fits easily inside a purse, man-purse, or pocket."
While the award-winning game wasn't commercially produced until 2009, Innes starting developing it at age 12.
"I played this card game called Store; you play with a regular deck of cards. I loved the game. It was kind of like Anomia in that it got everybody worked up," he recalls. "I always thought it could be a better game, and I wondered if I could make it a game with a proprietary deck of cards I could make a business out of. My mom had retail stores, so I was always interested in having my own business."
Throughout college and a career in publishing and digital media, the idea hung on.
"I had that idea for years," he says. "I had fun thinking about it. I imagined it in different ways, but it was all imagination."
The game remained just a thought until Innes, who worked with desktop publishing software, had a realization.
"One day I was, like, Oh, I could make a prototype really easily. That was the moment where everything shifted. I made a prototype."
The first decks were made on "ugly brown cardstock -- I don't know what I was thinking," he laughs. "I started playing with friends."
Playing the game with others led to improving it with changes and edits. Then he would play with a different group of friends for their feedback and experience. This led to writing out the game rules and giving the prototype to others who had never played to see if they could figure it out.
"That started a series of play test parties where, over a five-year period, I was testing and refining," he says. Commuting by train to New York for work, Innes used the hours to write and rewrite the game rules.
Naming the game was "the worst part of the process," he laughs. "There was a lot of angst around the naming. The original name of the game was 'Common Knowledge,' because it was about everyday stuff, but it was already trademarked for another game."
He was left trying to find a new name that was unique, not trademarked, and reflected the game. During a play test session with a friend/novelist, she noted that the game was all about information on the tip of your tongue. Innes began researching "tip of the tongue" and quickly found "anomia."
"'Anomia' is an unusual word; it causes some problems," he says. "People think it's 'ammonia,' or they can't remember the name, which is hilarious. I was in anguish over the final decision for quite a while, Is this really the right name? But I settled on it. When I demo to people I say, 'Anomia means the inability to recall a word.' And most people, especially if they're over 30, say, 'Oh, yeah, like my life.'
Taking the next step
"I had played my game with about 200 people at that point, I had been refining it for five years," he recalls. "I finally finished the game, and there was a new set of problems: What do I do now?"
Today, thanks to the resurgence and popularity of tabletop gaming, hundreds of independent developers attempt to fund their games via Kickstarter, but that wasn't an option in 2009 when Innes wanted to produce his first print run. But experience with Websites, social media, and email lists prompted him to basically launch a proto-Kickstarter and find enough people to pre-purchase the game, raising $20,000 in six weeks -- enough to produce 2,500 copies. (Ironically, Kickstarter would launch one month after Innes's successful campaign.)
The signed and numbered first-run copies arrived in November 2009, and between the pre-purchasing campaign and the holidays, Innes sold 1,000 copies in a short period of time.
"I remember in January  being like, OK, now I have 1,500 games left in my attic and I have no idea what to do," he laughs. "We got into a couple of local stores, but I really didn't know how to proceed."
Innes took one major step by submitting the game to American Mensa for its Mensa Select awards, an annual competition that honors five board games judged to be "original, challenging and well designed."
Anomia was named one of the five Mensa Select games in 2010 -- "that was huge," he remembers. (To this day the Mensa Select seal appears on the box.) That win, and a profile in the Boston Sunday Globe magazine led to getting a local sales rep, which expanded Anomia to 20 stores in New England. A trip to the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association trade show ended with Anomia being named one of the show's Best Toys for Kids 2010 and a presence in 130 stores.
"All this stuff was snowballing," he says.
By the end of 2010, just a year after launch, Anomia had sold 21,000 copies and could be found in 300 stores, including Australia and Canada, all while Innes and his wife were still working full time and raising a toddler and an infant.
"It was a very intense year," he remembers.
Innes originally handled U.S. distribution, but with the game catching fire, he made the decision to license it to distributors to handle worldwide, freeing him up for his original love -- game development. Anomia, which has been translated into 15 languages, can now be found in retail chains like Target and Barnes & Noble, as well as hundreds of independent stores in 18 countries.
Rather than submit the game to a toy company for consideration, Innes says he always wanted to launch it on its own: "We've come pretty much all this way on word of mouth. The cool thing is I got it out there, it did really well with me, and I was able to negotiate a really good royalty arrangement, which I would never have been able to do if I didn't have a proven product."
Since, the game has won awards such as Tillywig Toy Awards Best Family Fun, Dr. Toy Best Vacation Products, and The National Parenting Center Seal of Approval 2011, and is nearing 500,000 copies sold.
"It [the industry] was so far outside of my experience, the whole thing is completely a surprise," Innes admits. "I wake up and I'm like, 'OK, I don't know how this happened, but here I am.'"
Since the 2009 launch of the original two-deck pack, Innes, who now works full time at his own company, Anomia Press, has released Anomia Party, which sports six decks and 425 new categories, and Duple, an Anomia-like word game. The company's latest game, an adults-only Anomia X, debuted this spring, and Anomia Jr., geared for ages 5-10 with no reading required, is on the way.
Innes is also using his time to give back to the community. He's given talks on product development and prototyping to public school students via the New England chapter of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), and also volunteers with 826 Boston, which offers free writing and tutoring programs to underserved Boston youth.
"The [NFTE] talks I'm giving are all about prototyping as part of the product development process, because to me, when I look back, that was the key. It was the moment when things got real -- when I had something I could put in front of you and you could respond to it, even if it looked like crap -- which it did for a long time," he laughs.
His advice for budding entrepreneurs is simple: "Don't get ready, get started."
"The most important thing was making the prototype. There was tons of fear about just doing that. I remember being afraid of indifference: What if people just don't care? Stuff like that can really hold you back. 'I just need this one thing before I make my prototype'. You don't, actually -- just make the prototype: popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, sticky notes, whatever, just make it. As soon as you get out of Idealand -- and I was in Idealand from 12 into my 30s -- as soon as I brought it into the physical world where someone could interact with the idea, it started to take on a life. And now what's happened is the game is out there and it has its own life. I'm just along for the ride now."