Chickapig magnate: People of all ages are flocking to the newest game in town

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Brian Calhoun created Chickapig after a night spent playing a board game so boring he can’t even remember its name. He refers to Chickapig as “farmer’s chess.” Photo by Eze Amos Brian Calhoun created Chickapig after a night spent playing a board game so boring he can’t even remember its name. He refers to Chickapig as “farmer’s chess.” Photo by Eze Amos

One night last February, Charlottesville luthier Brian Calhoun and his good friend, musician Dave Matthews, walked into Kardinal Hall with a massive handmade Chickapig board. Calhoun had measured the back of his car and made the board as big as he could while still fitting it into his trunk. They played a few games over beers, and decided to go back the following week, which started a tradition: Chickapig Tuesdays at Kardinal Hall have been a thing ever since. In the early days, as many as 100 people would show up to play in a night, and Calhoun used the evenings as an opportunity to crowdsource the idea he’d come up with in 2014.

It’s not unusual for our best ideas to occur when we’re running, driving or showering. In fact, it’s a phenomenon so universal that psychologists coined a term to describe it: incubation. Research shows that when you’re performing a mindless task, your brain switches to autopilot mode, freeing up your subconscious to work on something else. This was the case for Calhoun.

Brian Calhoun, owner of Rockbridge Guitar Company, launched Chickapig with a Kickstarter campaign, and has produced 2,500 first edition games. Photo by Eze Amos
Brian Calhoun, owner of Rockbridge Guitar Company, launched Chickapig with a Kickstarter campaign, and has produced 2,500 first edition games. Photo by Eze Amos

After a night spent playing a board game so boring he can’t even remember its name, the owner of Rockbridge Guitar Company decided to try his hand at creating something other than guitars—a board game for him and his friends to enjoy. Enter Chickapig, a strategic game in which four players move their red, yellow, green or blue hybrid animal pieces across the board into their designated goal, bouncing off of hay bales and avoiding obstacles like cow poop. Calhoun came up with the rules and premise of what he has dubbed “farmer’s chess” during states of meditative distraction.

“When I was driving or when I was going to sleep, I’d think about how pieces could work together to do something: to get across a board or escape through a goal,” Calhoun says. “Then one day it just sort of literally popped into my head how the two pieces, which ended up being the chickapigs and the hay bales, could work together.”

After that creative epiphany, he went home and made little cardboard pieces and placed them on a chess board.

“Quickly it was too many pieces, not enough squares. And then I made a cardboard board and it was too many squares, not enough pieces,” he says. “It was a day of that before I narrowed it down to the number of squares and the number of pieces, and then it was about a week of just kind of messing around with those parts before I had what ended up being 90 percent of what Chickapig is today.”

After he figured out the game’s basic premise, he made a handful of wooden boards and chickapig tokens out of a Play-Doh-like mold called Model Magic.

“I gave them to 10 of my friends and I thought that was going to be all that Chickapig ever was,” he says. “And then I would realize that they were playing when I wasn’t there and I was always so surprised. And then I would find out that their kids were playing on their own or with their friends. And my friends were playing with their friends that I didn’t know. And more and more I would have people be like, ‘Hey, I played that game.’”

At that point, Calhoun knew he was onto something. He began studying board game design and started tweaking details.

“There are essentially dials that you can turn to make [the game] tilt more toward a game of luck or a game of skill. Like what the cards say has a big impact on the outcome of the game and what the different rolls of the dice do and that type of thing,” Calhoun says. “What I wanted was a game where you could learn it pretty quickly but you could also get really good at it.”

Rules of the game

Four players select their color of six chickapigs, and sit opposite one another. The aim is to move your entire flock through the goal on the opposite end of the board, but your opponents do their best to stop you by putting their hay bales, chickapigs or the cow in your path. A chickapig moves in a straight line—forward, backward or sideways—
until it encounters a stationary object: another pig, the cow, the perimeter of the board, etc., which counts as one move.

When a player rolls a 1 for the first time in the game, he has the option of freeing the cow from its fence in the middle of the board and putting it on any space. When the next player rolls a 1, she can move the cow to another space, but a piece of poop is left behind. When a chickapig slides through a poop square, that player must pick up a poop card (“all of the poop cards are bad because no one wants to step on poop” the Chickapig website states). Alternatively, when a 2 is rolled, that player picks up a daisy card (all are good). The first player with all six pigs through their goal wins.

Chickapig nights at Kardinal Hall have become so popular that they’ve even added a Chickapig sandwich to the menu, and Kardinal Hall staffers still receive Chickapig orders from people living as far away as Seattle (the Preston Avenue restaurant was the main seller of Calhoun’s prototypes).

“It gave me a chance to go talk to people—that’s when I had Chickapig 95 percent figured out—but I talked to people about everything: What do you think of this card? What do you think about the dice? What do you think about this piece?” he says. “I just asked questions to strangers, which was great because your friends are either too nice or too mean, and I just got a tremendous amount of feedback. And also, we were able to see, ‘Oh in this situation, such and such doesn’t work, so I need to change this role.’ After doing that for six months or so, which is a lot of games of Chickapig, it got to the point of confidently saying, ‘There’s no scenario that can happen that I don’t have an answer for, which was a cool place to be.’”

One of the attendees of Chickapig Tuesdays was board game publisher and Charlottesville resident Pete Fenlon. He’s published games for more than 35 years, and his credits include the popular German board game Settlers of Catan. He’s now the CEO of Catan Studios, and he says that he and his chief development partner, Coleman Charlton, were charmed by Chickapig.

“We really liked the game, which is rare, because you know we run into a lot of games and a lot of people who think they have a good game, but in reality have something less than a great experience,” Fenlon says. “And you know, something that might be fun for them but really is not something that is ready for others, much less ready for commercial development.”

Fenlon thought Calhoun was ready, and he and Charlton offered to help him with any development questions he had. Calhoun even incorporated one of their suggestions into his current design, changing one last rule in the final hour before launching.

“A great game often is a game where there isn’t an age limit, it’s just a matter of having rules that are easy to learn and difficult to master,” Fenlon says. “Chickapig has all the elements of a great game. …It’s fun and it’s got great replay value. In other words, it’s something you want to continue to play even after you’ve played it once or a few times. …So we thought it had legs and we still do.”

But launching a game and navigating all the nuances of design, development and marketing isn’t easy—1,000 new games will be released this year.

“Gaming as a whole is no longer considered just a nerdy niche thing. If anything, it’s becoming more and more part of the mainstream storytelling and social entertainment culture,” says Fenlon. “That’s all great and that’s positive and makes it easier to market games. But at the same time, just the sheer volume of the content coming out makes it harder to find your way through the white noise, and this is a big challenge for Brian and Chickapig. And he’s got a good weapon because he’s got good content and I think he’s got the nucleus of a great community. So we’re thinking he’s gonna make it.”

When Brian Calhoun was in the early developmental stages of Chickapig, he and his friend, Dave Matthews, took the prototype to Kardinal Hall to play on a Tuesday night. They brought the game back the following week, and interest quickly spread: Chickapig Night at Kardinal Hall was born. Photo by Tom McGovern
When Brian Calhoun was in the early developmental stages of Chickapig, he and his friend, Dave Matthews, took the prototype to Kardinal Hall to play on a Tuesday night. They brought the game back the following week, and interest quickly spread: Chickapig Night at Kardinal Hall was born. Photo by Tom McGovern

In the wake of feedback he received at Kardinal Hall, Calhoun churned out 1,000 games with the help of jigs he made at his guitar studio. Word spread fairly quickly once he began selling the sets at events like FleaVILLE, and he started researching what it would take to manufacture Chickapig on a larger scale. At that point, Matthews came on board officially, along with friends Fenton Williams and Mark Rebein as business partners to help promote Chickapig. They launched a presale of the game on Kickstarter, which has a large gaming community.

“The games were the exact same prices then as they are now…it was just a ‘buy it ahead of time’ and it was to reach this community of people that we weren’t associated with,” Calhoun says.

Going the Kickstarter route also allowed him to retain financial control of the endeavor.

“Just because my friends might be successful in the other things they do, they wanted me to control this company and to own this. I don’t want a hand out,” he says. “We’re doing this the right way and so that let me keep the equity by raising the money to make the next round, which was, ‘Let’s buy 5,000 of these things.’”

The strategy paid off: Chickapig passed its Kickstarter goal of $30,000 within 12 hours, with a final tally of $86,414.

By the numbers

1,500 Chickapig prototypes

$86,414 amount raised by the Kickstarter campaign

55 Chickapig Tuesdays at Kardinal Hall to date

2,500 first edition games

4 versions of Chickapig

1 pooping cow per game

There are four different types of Chickapig sets, and local business Cardboard Safari manufactures the standard version. For the version with 3-D tokens, Calhoun’s mom makes the cows and friend Kelly Falk helps make the chickapigs out of Model Magic.

“There’s four different colors and six of each color for each game,” Falk says. “I usually make the chickapigs and then they sit for about 24 hours before I use a fine-point marker to draw on the wings and the legs. And then after that, they go in little baggies with the cows for each game.”

When Calhoun first showed Falk how to make the chicken/pig hybrids, he emphasized that they didn’t have to be perfect.

“He was like, different sizes are fine, you know, the ears, the eyes, the noses, they’re all going to be a little bit different and that’s what makes it really special is that they’re handmade and each game is going to be unique,” Falk recalls. “And I just thought that was really cool and I was excited to be a part of the process.”

Chicka-what?

Chickapig creator Brian Calhoun was destined to be the mastermind behind “farmer’s chess.” Growing up on a farm in Lexington, Virginia, Calhoun loved cows and was always out in the pasture chasing them around. So when it came time to create characters for his game, incorporating cows into the mix was a no-brainer.

As for the chickapig game pieces—a hybrid chicken/pig animal—that’s just where his mind wanders when he starts doodling. “If I get stuck on a long phone call and I have a pencil and a piece of paper in front of me and I’m mindlessly listening to somebody talk, I will often end up with all kinds of animal hybrids,” he says.

Calhoun’s approach to designing and promoting Chickapig stems from the same homegrown entrepreneurial spirit that helped make Rockbridge Guitar Company a success. Calhoun grew up playing guitar and started building instruments in high school, taking after his guitar teacher.

“He was in a neighborhood of white picket fences, and he lived in the house with bamboo and glass orbs hanging and concrete sculptures that he made, and he [would be] in his yard with long hair and blue pants with moons on them,” Calhoun says. “He built all these weird instruments as a hobby and I just thought it was awesome.”

Calhoun built a mandolin to fulfill an independent study requirement in high school, and his interest took off from there.

“I was lucky enough in Rockbridge County, where I grew up, to have an unofficial apprenticeship with a mandolin builder and a violin builder and that’s where I sort of honed woodworking skills and developed an understanding of how wood could be manipulated to make sound,” Calhoun says.

After building a few instruments with fellow luthier Randall Ray, he suggested they form a business together.

“[Randall] always says I was too young and stupid to know that nobody could do that. But I believed we could,” Calhoun says. “I had this great guitar that my parents had given me as a high school graduation present and when Randall and I made a guitar, I was like, ‘I like this more than my other guitar, and I think other people will too.’”

He began taking his guitars to music festivals and steadily building a clientele—he’s doing the same with Chickapig.

“We’re building people that believe in it one person at a time,” Calhoun says. “Sort of the way you grow a band organically.”

Bars, breweries and tailgates were all fair game for marketing, too. Because he was already well-connected in the music industry, the game took off with artists (the table in Matthews’ tour bus is a Chickapig board), and he even threw in a Chickapig freebie with custom guitar orders. But when an unexpectedly large crowd showed up at the Chickapig tent at Nelson County music festival The Festy Experience, Calhoun shifted focus.

“Where I thought people would come in and drink, by the end of the first day, there were like 60 kids in there playing, just packed,” he says. “And then the second and third day the same thing, just filled with kids. …Around that time, I was getting more and more people telling me that they were playing at home with their kids. I was thinking back to the early days when my friends’ kids were playing it and I was like, ‘What are we doing? We should be seeing how this goes with kids.’”

Calhoun turned to Michael Riley, principal of Charlottesville Catholic School and a frequent attendee of Chickapig Tuesdays, and the two brainstormed ways to introduce Chickapig into local schools. Riley invited Calhoun to come to CCS to demo the game for faculty and students. He also coordinated with a committee of Charlottesville independent schools to institute Chickapig clubs.

“Each of the other private schools in town, we’re all creating our own little Chickapig leagues at our schools,” Riley says. He and another teacher sponsor an after-school club that will host small tournaments over the next few weeks. The best players will advance to an intra-school tournament in April.

“Brian wants to create a Chickapig trophy that’ll travel from school to school, whoever wins the tournament,” Riley says. “So I think he’s going to put an actual giant chickapig on top of a trophy. …The idea of tying the schools together in town was something that I talked with Brian about and he’s very passionate about getting this in the hands of kids.”

Another school participating in the league is Mountaintop Montessori. Teacher Judah Brownstein is a close friend of Calhoun’s. A former U.S. Chess champion, Brownstein plays Chickapig regularly and is also helping Calhoun develop a two-player version of the game. He says it’s a great game for children because it teaches chess-like concepts in a fun, interactive way.

“The advantage of Chickapig is that the four-person dynamic adds the social element, which requires people to interact with one another, lobby for placement of certain pieces, try to convince people to do certain things and work together in some sense,” Brownstein says. “It ends up creating this fun game—four people interacting and strategizing but also having to work together through certain issues.”

After noticing that children were especially interested in playing Chickapig, creator Brian Calhoun decided to partner with local private schools to bring boards into classrooms. He recently surprised the Southwood Boys & Girls Club (above) with boards designed with a custom logo. Photo by Eze Amos
After noticing that children were especially interested in playing Chickapig, creator Brian Calhoun decided to partner with local private schools to bring boards into classrooms. He recently surprised the Southwood Boys & Girls Club (above) with boards designed with a custom logo. Photo by Eze Amos

Calhoun continues to stay involved in the community, demonstrating Chickapig to students and teachers around town with the hope of increasing child engagement. He recently surprised each independent school with a custom Chickapig board complete with their logos, and he did the same for the Southwood Boys & Girls Club and the Virginia Institute of Autism.

“Brian and Fenton came to our classroom back in December to introduce the game and strategies to our students. After watching an introductory video and no more than 20 minutes of supervised play, the students had started moving cow poop and collecting chickapigs as if they had created the game themselves,” says Jake Frazier of the Virginia Institute of Autism. “The game has become an instant favorite in the classroom; they choose it over our Nintendo Wii U for breaks. When’s the last time you saw preteens choose a board game over electronics?”

Frazier says Chickapig has reinforced a variety of crucial social skills, from teamwork to problem-solving to sportsmanship. The Virginia Institute of Autism even has Calhoun booked to discuss being an inventor for a career-oriented social skills class.

“The fact that this thing that I came up with that was just supposed to be fun for me and my friends might actually be this helpful tool within teaching and with kids. It makes me feel way more proud of it,” Calhoun says.

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