Sold out?!? A Q&A as Tom Deschenes has another 'YES!' moment

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Back in 2011, Lewiston native Tom Deschenes made a New Year’s resolution, vowing to create his very own board game.

Talk about follow through. Not only did Deschenes, who now lives in Portland, create a game, but it’s flying off the shelves faster than retailers can keep up with demand. “Quest for the Antidote” has proven a hit with old people, young people, lifelong gamers and noobs alike.

We caught up with Deschenes recently and asked how the board game came to be. He told us that story and shared some insights as to why “Quest for the Antidote” has become the must-have game of the holiday season.

Name: Tom Deschenes

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Age: 35

What games did you play growing up?

Growing up, I played a lot of games with my family. My mom and dad were elementary school teachers in Lewiston, and being raised by two educators, my sister and I were often doing something that would stimulate our minds or creativity. I have great childhood memories of playing classic board games with them like “Monopoly,” “Clue,” “Mouse Trap”, “Operation” and “Sorry.” As we got a bit older, we advanced to word games like “Taboo,” “Scattergories” and “Scrabble,” and then later to games like “Balderdash” and “Cranium.” To this day, we still get together as a family and play games — mostly modern trivia games — like “Wits & Wagers,” “Smarty Party” and “Bezzerwizzer.” Those three games are a lot of laughs. If you’ve never played them, you should!

With that being said, I wouldn’t have necessarily categorized myself as a “gamer” growing up — it was just part of the panoply of activities that I think every child of the ’80s grew up with. And while I may have played board games a bit more than the average child, they were still mostly reserved for lazy Saturday nights, rainy afternoons or summer nights at the camp. I didn’t get bitten by the gaming bug until 2008 when I played my first game of “Dominion.” I had a group of college friends during my undergrad program at Stonehill College (2000-2004) who were into games that were really strategic — much more than the luck-based “roll-the-dice” games I grew up with. After graduating, we all lived and worked in the Boston area, and we would get together regularly to play games, and one night they introduced me to “Dominion.” That was my “gateway” game — the game that made me really fall in love with board games and started me down this whole path.

That game became our poker. We’d get together on weekends, order pizza, put on a football game or a UFC pay-per-view in the background and we’d play “Dominion” for hours. “Dominion” then led me to other games like “Settlers of Catan,” ‘Ticket to Ride,” “Pandemic” and “Munchkin.” These are games that the average person has likely never heard of, yet each has sold millions of copies around the world and they are all wildly popular in the somewhat underground world of board-gaming. My personal collection of games has now swelled to about 200, but, believe it or not, that’s really modest when compared to most gamers. Now, it’s exciting to see my game, “Quest for the Antidote,” on the shelf next to “Dominion” and those other games. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment, and it is exciting to think that maybe one day “Quest for the Antidote” will be a “gateway” game that inspires future game designers to create their own games.

How did you come up with the idea for “Quest for the Antidote” and how do people play?

I’m someone who always enjoys having a new challenge to look forward to, and I like to push myself to do new things every year. Back on New Year’s Day in 2011, I decided to create a list of 10 goals for the year, and one of the goals was to create my own board game. At first, it started off as a fun project, and I really only set out to create a game that I could play with my friends, not necessarily something that would one day be available for sale at Walmart and Amazon. Maybe if I created something fun I’d try to find a small publisher and do a limited print run through Kickstarter, but I never imagined that “Quest for the Antidote” would become what it is today — a game that was recently designated an “Amazon’s Choice” item on Amazon.com, and a game that’s on store shelves across the country and in places like France, England, Germany and Australia.

So, I knew I wanted to create my own game, but I had no idea what the mechanics or the theme would be. It all struck me one day while I was reading “Dracula” for grad school. In the book, the heroes were creeping through a graveyard in the dark of night searching for a vampire, racing to find the monster before sunrise, and not sure what they would encounter around each corner. It was like one of those “AHA!” moments that you see in cartoons where a light bulb appears above someone’s head. I snapped my book shut and just started sketching a board and a whole story came into my mind. The players in my game – like the heroes in “Dracula” – would be racing against the clock to find something in a spooky environment. Why are they running around, and what are they looking for? Maybe they’re sick? No, they’re poisoned! And what does someone seek out when they’re poisoned? An antidote!

I spent that entire weekend crafting the basics of the game, bought a bunch of posterboard at Staples on Lisbon Street and printed out clip-art cards at FedEx/Kinko’s in Auburn. I populated the world I was creating with lots of wizards and dragons and monsters that players would encounter along the way — some characters would help you in your quest and others would try to stop you. 

In “Quest for the Antidote,” you have been poisoned by King Mithridates and have just escaped his castle dungeon. Now you must venture across a vast and dangerous landscape to collect the items you need for your unique antidote, and the first player to get all of their antidote ingredients to the apothecary in the center of the board wins the game. But, it’s not THAT simple. Along the way, players will have to battle a bevvy of monsters that range from silly, low-level monsters like a Grumpy Shrub and an Elderly Panther to high-level monsters like King Mithridates and The Dragophant (a three-headed, fire-breathing dragon with the massive body of an elephant). . . . It is a fun game that is great for kids, casual gamers, families, and strategy gamers. It’s really easy to learn, has a lot of laughs, balances strategy and luck and usually ends in dramatic fashion. As the designer, I’ve played “Quest for the Antidote” hundreds of times and I still enjoy it every time I play.

It took six years from concept to shelves — what kept your fire lit to keep going?

There were a few things that kept me motivated. First, when I set my mind to something, I usually work hard to achieve it, so I have a good deal of persistence in me. Second, my desire to make my family and friends proud kept me going. When I decided to create a game, I told all of my friends and family about it, and any time I pitched it to a company, they got so excited for me. My ego took a bit of a bruising with each rejection, but that just made me want to get my game published even more — not just for me, but for all of the people who had been cheering me on along the way. Honestly, though, the thing that kept me motivated the most was seeing the reactions of strangers when they got to play my prototype. I could tell that I had something special on my hands. I had only shared my prototype with family and friends for the first two years as I was creating and balancing the game, but then I decided to bring my rough version of “Quest for the Antidote” to Snow Con, a gaming convention in Bangor, in 2013. It was such a gratifying feeling to see strangers playing “Quest for the Antidote” and laughing and having fun, and kids’ reactions in particular reinforced my belief in my game and that it could one day be a hit.

After years of pitching the game and getting one rejection after the other, I had pretty much given up in early 2016 and took solace in the fact that I had at least tried my hardest. I boxed up my prototype and put it in my closet, where it quite possibly could have remained for the rest of my life. I had pitched “Quest for the Antidote” to Hasbro twice, and while they really liked the game and theme and characters, it was a little too complex for their portfolio of games like “Operation,” “Pie Face” and “Jenga.” On the other end of the spectrum, though, my game was a little too simple and kid-friendly for some of the companies that publish heavy-duty strategy games, so I wasn’t sure where to turn next. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of Upper Deck sooner. Everyone knows Upper Deck is a world leader in sports memorabilia and trading cards, but a lot of people don’t know they are also a major publisher of popular board games for companies like Marvel, Disney and 20th Century Fox. In February of 2016, I was playing one of my favorite games, “Marvel: Legendary,” which is published by Upper Deck, and I realized that I had never pitched “Quest for the Antidote” to them. It also dawned on me that Upper Deck publishes games like “Quest for the Antidote” that are kind of in the middle of the gaming spectrum: games that are challenging, but not too difficult, strategic, but accessible, kid-friendly but not simplistic. I dug my prototype out of the closet and was able to work some magic to arrange a pitch with them, and the rest was history. I’m glad I never gave up!

Biggest challenge faced?

Each rejection got a bit more disheartening, but looking back at the entire journey, I think the biggest challenge was figuring out how to navigate the gaming world. When I started, I didn’t know any game designers personally. I had no connections at toy companies. I had no idea how to get my prototype in front of companies like Upper Deck or Hasbro. Also, I was still quite a novice about the game and toy industry when I started this endeavor, so it required a lot of research to figure out who the movers and shakers were, what games were hot, why they were hot, who to connect with, who to avoid, etc. . . . I made about every mistake possible while pitching “Quest for the Antidote” — that’s why it took me years to get it published. But I learned from each of those mistakes, and my next attempt at publishing a board game should be a breeze in comparison. Also, the gaming industry, though it’s a billion-dollar industry, is a rather welcoming and encouraging one, so many of the companies I pitched to would give me generous advice along the way, and the game designers and game reviewers that I met shared a lot of helpful tips, too. That was an unexpected but pleasant revelation.

First moment you got to shout “YES!”?

When I got that call from the brand manager at Upper Deck Entertainment telling me that they wanted to publish my game — that was the most amazing feeling. He called on a Friday just as I was walking out of work after a long week, and I actually missed the call and it went to voicemail. I still have that message from April of 2016. “Hello, Tom. It’s Upper Deck. We just wanted to call you in regard to “Quest for the Antidote.” We’ve been quite swamped with submissions lately, so we hadn’t had a chance to play the game until this week . . .” I was expecting another rejection, so I was only half listening to the message and opening mail when I heard him say, “. . . and we REALLY like your game. It’s just perfect. It hits on everything just right. We loved it, and we want to publish it.” I couldn’t believe what I had heard, and I had to replay the message a few times to make sure it was real. I definitely shouted “YES!” after that. I’ve had a number of “YES!” moments since then, too. Seeing my game launched at Origins Game Fair, one of the largest game fairs in the world — “YES!” Having “Quest for the Antidote” at San Diego Comic Con this past year — “YES!” Walking into Bull Moose in Bangor and Portland and Scarborough and seeing a bunch of copies of “Quest for the Antidote” on the shelf — “YES!” It’s still quite surreal. Next up, I get to go on a board-gaming cruise in December to promote the game. “YES!”

Your monsters have pretty fabulous names. Have a personal fav?

I had so much fun coming up with all the characters, but this is where we really need to take a moment to recognize Scott Sherman, the artist of the game. Scott is from Bangor, and he created every stitch of art for “Quest for the Antidote” by hand. When it came to creating the characters, I would give him the name of a character and a few sentences describing who the character is and where the character came from. Then, a few days later, Scott would send me a sketch, and he always took my ideas and vividly brought them into reality — and he often came up with little touches that took the characters to whole different levels. To this day, I’m still finding little details in his art in “Quest for the Antidote” that I had never noticed before. He is an incredibly talented and inventive fantasy artist, and he totally got the vibe of “Quest for the Antidote.” The artwork is beautiful, the silly characters are extra ridiculous, and the big bad guys look like formidable enemies — it’s a wonderfully fun, cartoon-y fantasy world that he truly brought to life.

I have a lot of characters that I love, but my favorite one has to be “The Dandy Lion.” He’s a low-level monster in the game, and whenever he pops up, he’s good for a laugh. He’s a lion that is a bit of a dandy, which is an old Victorian term meaning “a man that is very stylish and fashionable.” So, naturally, Scott drew the Dandy Lion with a coiffed mane, a top hat, a monocle, a bow tie and French cuffs. It was a perfect rendering! Be careful, though — the Dandy Lion is known to disarm people with his ferocious charm! King Mithridates is another favorite. A lot of the lore and mythology in the game stems from him, and all of the characters are entwined in his back story in some way, so he is quite integral to the brand and adds a flavor to “Quest for the Antidote” that would be sorely missed without him.

What’s next for you in the game or inventing world? Assuming the Vile Kitten doesn’t do you in . . .

Well, that mustachioed Vile Kitten is quite the formidable feline! But, if the Vile Kitten doesn’t do me in, the plan is to focus on growing the “Quest for the Antidote” brand. One of the reasons Upper Deck wanted to publish my game was because they were looking for their own home-grown property that they could build from the ground up and possibly make the next “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” or “Pokemon.” If the game sells well, I can see the company releasing several expansions/sequels for “Quest for the Antidote,” and I already have the next four games in the “Quest for the Antidote” series sketched out if/when Upper Deck wants to do another one. Also, there are talks going on now about ways to take “Quest for the Antidote” beyond board games to other media. Perhaps there will one day be a “Quest for the Antidote” video game? Or a “Quest for the Antidote” comic book? Or a “Quest for the Antidote” TV show? I can’t get into too much detail, but it is quite exciting to think how far we might be able to go with the world that’s been created in “Quest for the Antidote!”

“Quest for the Antidote” creator Tom Deschenes. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Where to find ‘Quest for the Antidote’

Looking to pick up “Quest for the Antidote?”

You’ll have your own quest on your hands.

Creator Tom Deschenes said it’s repeatedly sold out at Amazon.com.

“They did get a big shipment earlier this week and they sold out instantly and are out of stock again,” he said late last week.

Ditto for game sites like CoolStuffInc and FunAgainGames. Bull Moose told Deschenes that his game has been its top board game seller since “Quest’s” September debut. Call ahead and you might find it at one of their Maine stores.

The best place to find it consistently in stock, Deschenes said, is directly from publisher Upper Deck’s web store at upperdeckstore.com/quest-for-the-antidote

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