For nearly 15 years, Brian Calhoun has been known as a founder and principal craftsman of custom-made Rockbridge guitars.
More recently, the Charlottesville luthier has been linked to a board game that features a pooping cow and a few dozen critters that are a cross between pigs and chickens. The unusual hybrids give the game its name: Chickapig.
“I wish I had an amazing answer for how I got the idea for Chickapig,” Calhoun said with a smile as he recently set up the game board for the umpteenth time. “Essentially, about three years ago, I was playing a board game at a friend’s house during the holidays, and I thought the game was so boring.
“It was taking hours to play, and I wanted to be done with it. I was fidgeting around and started to read the side of the box, and learned that millions of copies of this game had been sold.
“I half-jokingly said, ‘This is insane. I’m going to make a board game.’
“I get obsessed when I get a new hobby, and I started thinking about the board game when I’d be driving down the road or walking around. One day, it came to me how these pieces could move and work together to get across the board.”
After countless hours of dreaming up the concept — and then making it work — Calhoun recently started a Kickstarter campaign for Chickapig to take the game to the next level of commerce. Like the game itself, the inventor has put a new twist on an established format.
“In this case, we’re using Kickstarter to sell the game before it’s available in stores,” Calhoun said. “This has kept me from having to raise seed money.
“Kickstarter has this great community of board game lovers, so it’s a good way to expose the game to them. If you look at the statistics, almost half the money it has ever raised has gone to games of some sort.
“Right now, we’re selling the first-edition game for a pledge of $50, a deluxe game for $130 and a giant magnetic game for $500. We wanted our first edition to be high-end, so we’ve gone with wooden game pieces. Down the road, we definitely will release a more typical board game in the $30 price range.”
With just days to go in the Kickstarter campaign, more than 800 backers have pledged in excess of $70,000. Not bad, considering the goal was $30,000.
Dave Matthews also has been helping to give the fledgling game traction in a competitive market. Calhoun and the frontman for the Dave Matthews Band became friends after Matthews purchased a Rockbridge guitar.
“Dave was one of the friends I played a lot of Chickapig with in the early years,” Calhoun said. “He’s a big fan of the game, and he wanted to help me out because he believes in it.
“Dave and two other friends, Mark Rebein and Fenton Williams, helped me with some of the early costs. All three of them wanted me to own Chickapig, which is why I did Kickstarter rather than asking them for an investment.
“Dave has been a massive help in getting the game noticed. He has made these silly videos with me to help promote the game, and he tells people about it.”
Last year, Matthews and Calhoun were enjoying a beer together in a pub in Dublin, Ireland, when they decided to bring their favorite game to the public. Matthews recently commented on the game via email.
“Through my relationship with Rockbridge guitars, I’ve gotten to know Brian pretty well,” Matthews wrote. “We’ve played Chickapig many, many times with many, many different people.
“It’s a great game, and I wanted to spread the word. It’s Brian’s baby, and I’m like a second cousin.”
Up to four players can play Chickapig, with the goal of getting their flock of six Chickapigs across the board and through the goal at the opposite side. The barnyard theme includes tiny hay bales that can be used to block or assist advancing hybrids.
The game is propelled by the roll of a die, and when a one comes up, it unleashes the cow. The cow will deposit a pile of manure on the square it lands on. If a Chickapig passes over the patty, the player has to take a Poop Card, which is always bad news.
There are also Daisy Cards, which one gets if a two is rolled. These are always the bearers of good news and can be used right away — or at any time during the game.
“When I explain the game, especially when we’re not about to play, it sounds complicated,” Calhoun said. “But the feedback I’ve gotten is that you can pick up this game really fast and you can get good at it.
“When I was designing it, I didn’t want it so that somebody was going to dominate. To me, a good game is one that I would want to play again because I either won or almost won.
“I believe my game is designed so everybody has a chance to win. Because there’s a die, there’s an element of chance, so you can catch up — or three players can team up against the player who is winning.
“I say the game is for ages 7 and up, but all our marketing has been toward adults in bars and that sort of thing. But we have gotten great feedback from parents who say their kids love playing it.”
One of the game’s most ardent fans is 10-year-old Samantha Holt. Although the youngster from Alexandria was enjoying time at summer camp, she made the effort to talk about the game via email.
“It’s easy to learn and also easy to teach other people how to play,” Samantha said about Chickapig. “If you play with people who are good at it, then you can make the game long, because everyone is really thinking about their moves.
“But if you play with people who just started, then the game will be short and easy but still really fun. There are so many different moves you can make that you never play the same game twice. Plus, the Chickapig pieces themselves are really cute.
“I learned to play the game from my Auntie Erin. She gave it to me as a gift last March and taught me how to play. I have been hooked ever since.”
Although the game can accommodate up to four players, it also can be played by a lone individual. This is a feature that Samantha particularly likes.
“I play almost every weekend,” Samantha wrote. “I like to play with my family, especially when we go on vacations, because then we play over and over again.
“I also like to play alone, too, like solitaire. That way, I can practice moves — plus, I win every time. Everyone should play Chickapig. It’s the best game ever invented.”
Calhoun quickly discovered that inventing a strategy game can be maddeningly difficult. He started with a board grid similar to chess, but that turned out to be too small.
Adding more squares helped, but that added complications as well. Fortunately, the inventor found that he greatly enjoyed finding the solutions to problems.
“When I said I was going to make a board game, I had no ambition to make a game that I would sell,” Calhoun said. “I just wanted to make a game I could play with friends.
“When I started with the early designs of the layout, it just didn’t work. You would get a few turns in, and it would be too congested or something didn’t work. That’s when I got really interested in the game and started testing it by playing against myself.
“There’s so many scenarios that can come up, and I became obsessed with figuring out an answer for every scenario that would make the game a bust. The pooping-cow idea just came into my head, and it became a big element of the game. It makes the game humorous, and the cow is also a very effective defensive weapon.”
Calhoun has made a strong effort to ensure that, as much as possible, the game will be produced locally. Gropen Signs in Charlottesville helped with making the game boards, and locally based Cardboard Safari is making the wooden game pieces.
Calhoun’s mother has cornered the market on creating the cow pieces. She is currently painting, by hand, each of the cows, which are featured on wooden discs about the size of a checker.
One of the proving grounds for Chickapig has been Kardinal Hall on Preston Avenue in Charlottesville. Calhoun started Chickapig Night there on Tuesday evenings in January. It wasn’t long before he said 50 to 90 people were showing up to play the game.
“I’m gearing Chickapig toward anybody who likes a good game,” Calhoun said. “One of the great things about this game is that it’s interactive. If I was to watch four people play Chickapig, and they never said a word, that’s not what I want to see.
“I think it’s a game where you talk trash and interact. It has been really popular in bars because it provides a fun thing to do.
“Everybody is making subtle little poop jokes and teaming up with one another as they try to win. If you sit down with three strangers to play, you’re going to be laughing and getting to know them by the end of the game.”
Calhoun is still best known for making custom guitars for musicians like Matthews, Keith Urban, Jason Mraz, Richie Sambora and Mike Campbell. Board game inventor is a title that he’s still getting used to.
“I’m a guitar builder, and I have that reputation,” Calhoun said. “All of a sudden I find myself going around saying, ‘Hey, check out this game I made that has a pooping cow.’
“It’s easy to feel self-conscious and like a big moron. That’s still hard to get over.
“But at this point, there have been enough people who have had fun playing the game that I’m starting to feel proud of it.”
David A. Maurer is a features writer for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.