An Exclusive Interview with Game Master, Sid Sackson
By Stephen Glenn
This interview was conducted over the phone near midnight on a Monday night. It appears that Mr. Sackson is quite the night owl, as the time was per his request. I am, frankly, quite honored and overwhelmingly pleased that Sid Sackson offered his time to participate in this interview, and to him I would like to again say, Thank You! Now, enjoy the interview.
Sid Sackson, after such a long, successful and prolific career in game development, can you tell us about the first original game that you designed?
When I was in kindergarten, or first grade, my teacher gave us each a page ripped from a magazine and told us to circle all the words we knew. What I did was to circle those words and then try to connect them with lines from one end of the page to the other. I made a very simple game out of that. And another game...are you familiar with the game, Uncle Wiggly?
I added things to that, fighting in different places. I ended up with a completely different game. Another one was a two-handed bridge game which was syndicated in the Herald Tribune papers. Another was a game called High Spirits, which Milton Bradley subesquently ruined. They made the characters similar to Amos and Andy. It didn't last.
I can see why. Of the games you have invented, which do you feel to be the best, if not necessarily the most successful?
I think that the most successful, and one of the best, was Acquire. Another one called Focus was one of my favorites.
Explain Focus to us.
The object was to get rid of all your opponent's pieces. You moved on a checkerboard-type of playing field. It's rather difficult to explain, you'd have to see it someday.
What initially inspires you to design a game? What's the process?
Simply enough, I just build on something that I find interesting. Uncle Wiggly is a good example of that.
Why do people like to play games?
It's not just one thing. For instance, one reason is the same reason people like to exercise. Your body feels good after you exercise, similarly your brain feels good after a mental workout. Also, it's fun to show how smart you are. At one time I was an honorary member of Mensa. I went to one of their meetings and they had a difficult time with a game if they couldn't somehow compare it to chess. Because chess, to them, was the height of mental exercise. Also, people play games for companionship, or even to combat loneliness. For awhile my father was looking for a job, during the Depression, and we would move around alot. I would make new friends and lose them just as fast, so I had to find different ways to entertain myself. During that time I invented a war game where different empires moves across the map capturing, and I played that alot by myself until Finland captured all of Europe. At that point I figured it was time to retire that game. It was actually the beginning of Acquire.
What's your favorite game that you didn't invent?
If there was only one game that I could play for the rest of my life, I would choose Bridge. It appeals to me because you have to do more than play your cards properly. You have to bid properly, etc. You also learn more about it as you continue to play it. That's what I like about many games: that you can play them over and over again, especially the ones with simple rules. It seems the more you play them, the more strategies become obvious to you.
Let's talk about computer games. I know you don't even own a computer. Do you think the explosion of computer games threatens to make the table top game obsolete?
I don't know about obsolete, but it certainly has cut down on the sales of them. One thing I don't like about computer games is that there is no human face across the table.
I agree. It's not as much fun beating a computer as a person.
Well, it's not so much a question of beating a computer or person. It has to do with companionship.
As far as your playing prowess, do you feel that you are as good a player as you are a designer?
Probably not. However, one game at which I did excel considerably was Focus. The only person who ever beat me at that was the editor of Games magazine. He beat me the first time he played it.
How would you describe yourself as a player?
I always play to win, but once the game is over I don't particularly care whether I won or not. It's only important that the game was interesting. The one who beat me obviously deserved to win.
Getting back to game design, do you have an advice for young game designers?
Basically just play the game, and if you and your friends enjoy it, it's a good game. You don't have to have fancy equipment for it. You have to have playable equipment. But you don't have to make a big production out of it.
How do you find suitable game-testers, outside of family and friends?
I've always used family and friends. It's never bothered me if they lied to make me feel good. I usually can tell.
What kind of lengths do you suggest young inventors go to seek protection for their ideas?
Only one time did I ever seek protection of a game idea before-the-fact. That was a game called Winning Ticket from Ideal. They would only offer me royalties if it was protected, so I went out and obtained a patent for it. Unfortunately, that game died long before its time.
Those patents can be quite expensive.
Yes. Quite frankly, I've rarely had any problem with game companies in that regard.
What sort of problems have you survived?
A company in Germany that distributed a game of mine went bankrupt once. I didn't lose as much money from the company as I did from the lawyer I hired who didn't do much more than collect his fees.
Also, I found out one year that one of my games, Focus, won the game of the year in Poland. I was never notified officially. I found out from a magazine article. But as far as American companies, I've never had or heard about problems of stolen ideas. The biggest problem is getting somebody to look at an idea. At one time there were so many lawyers who were fighting companies over stolen game ideas, that most companies stopped looking beyond their own hired teams of inventors.
Before we conclude, I'd like to mention that I've heard that you are an exceptional dancer. What can you tell us about that?
I love dancing. My wife and I go out dancing at least once or twice a week. It's good exercise and it's fun.
Well, it sounds like fun is as important to you as it is to us. Here's to fun, and here's to you, Sid Sackson. Thank you for your time and insights.
Now it's time to say goodbye...