Interview with game designer Marsha Jean Falco

Written by Meagan Meehan. Posted in Game Interviews, Games

Published on March 14, 2017 with No Comments

Marsha Jean Falco is a game designer and the Founder of Set Enterprises, Inc., a company dedicated to producing card games that are fun for people of all ages. Marsha holds an M.S. in Population Genetics from Michigan State University and a B.S. in Animal Science from Arizona State University and she invented her very first game, SET, in 1974 while she was doing genetic research in Cambridge, England.

The idea for the SET game came when Marsha was trying to understand whether epilepsy in German Shepherds was inherited. To track the individual traits of the dogs, Marsha created file cards with blocks of information for each dog. Because certain blocks of information were the same for many dogs, she drew symbols to represent the information rather than writing out the data each time. Hence, different symbols with different properties represented different traits. While explaining the mathematical properties behind the combinations on the file cards to the veterinarians, Marsha saw the fun in finding the different combinations and SET was born. Over the years, Marsha refined the game by playing with her family and friends.

SET was officially released in 1990 and Marsha continued developing unique games. To date, she has invented Five Crowns, Quiddler, Xactika, Karma, and WordSpiel which is her latest release that challenges players to get rid of ten cards by making words out of other words.

When not designing games, Marsha rides horses, creates bonsais, and volunteers for K9 Search and Rescue organizations. She is an active member of MarK9, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue K-9 Posse, and MC2, the Mountain Canine Corp in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Recently, she spoke about her experiences as a game designer and her hopes for the future:

Meagan Meehan (MM) of Entertainment Vine: How did you get interested in designing games?

DSC_0090-finalbMarsha Jean Falco (MJF): I invented my first game, SET, in 1974 while doing genetic research in Cambridge, England. The idea for the SET game came when I was trying to understand whether epilepsy in German Shepherds was inherited. To track the individual traits of the dogs, I created file cards with blocks of information for each dog. Because certain blocks of information were the same for many dogs, I drew symbols to represent the information rather than writing out the data each time. Different symbols with different properties represented different traits. While explaining the mathematical properties behind the combinations on the file cards to the veterinarians, I saw the fun in finding the different combinations and SET was born. Over the years, I refined the game by playing with my family and friends and SET was finally released in 1990. Twenty-seven years later, SET is sold in over forty countries and my games have won over one-hundred best game awards!

MM: As a child, what were your favorite games?

MJF: I grew up playing games and I always enjoyed them. I especially loved games that involved more skill than luck. I spent a lot of time playing cards like solitaire, spades, euchre, and hearts. I loved games like chess and checkers. Generally, I really liked games that made me think. If I didn’t have to think about how I was playing, I was bored. I made it a goal to create games that are fun first, but also made you think.

MM: How did you come up with the idea for “WordSpiel?”

MJF: It’s hard to say where the germ for a game comes from – an offhand remark by a friend or something in a movie or a chance exchange. Any of these can lay the seed. The fun is in growing the seed and making a complete game from the initial idea. Then you have to prune the plant by zeroing in the rules and components. With WordSpiel, I decided to get rid of letters that were too hard to use, like J and Q. I also wanted to lighten the intensity of the atmosphere and allow the group to social while playing, which is uncommon in word games. I think it is always important to make sure there’s a good balance of fun, strategy, skill, and luck.

MM: How did you decide on the name, WordSpiel?

MJF: In truth, picking a name proved to be both the best and worst part in the making of WordSpiel. As an all women-owned and operated company, Set Enterprises is really driven to get things “right”. For all of us to agree what “right” is often proves to be difficult — we’re a diverse group of women that all share a huge passion for the game and toy industry. Naturally, coming up with a name ended up being a competitive game of its own for us. I had only a few requirements for the game name: it needed to follow the rule of the game, it needed to be a name that all of us (or almost all of us) could agree on and it couldn’t be a name that was already used for another product. Sounds simple, right? So, the game began. Everyone spent night after night fitting word combinations together. We constantly found ourselves knee-deep in thesauruses, dictionaries, and online sources. We had all of our families and friends in on it too. Our monthly game nights at my house often turned into idea swapping while playing the soon-to-be WordSpiel. The start of the name was definitely the easier half. Most of us agreed that starting with WordS was the right direction, since it is a word game after all. The ending of the name was more of a challenge. Many three, four and five letter words were tried, but Spiel won the prize once I revealed the similarity to my maiden name, Spieler, which means player in German. After finding this out, WordSpiel really became the winner for all of us and the absolute “right” name for my newest game.

MM: What has response been like so far?

MJF: Consumers and buyers alike are thrilled. I don’t release games until I’m sure they’re right and ready. So, my fans and the stores that sell my games are always excited for new ones. They easily see how versatile WordSpiel is, how fun it is to play and how easy it is to sell. Everyone I playtested it with truly enjoyed the game – with some becoming fanatic about it instantaneously. I was pleasantly surprised that even people who “didn’t like word games” wanted to play again.

MM: Have you designed any other playthings?

MJF: Currently, I have fifteen games available: SET, SET Junior, SET Dice, Quiddler, Quiddler Junior, Quiddler Deluxe, Five Crowns, Five Crowns Junior, Karma, Xactika, SET Mini Round, Five Crowns Mini Round, Quiddler Mini Round, Karma Mini Round and WordSpiel. I also just released second edition of the The Quiddler SHORT Word Dictionary for individual sale. This is something that fans from all over asked for. Originally, it was only available in the Quiddler Deluxe, but now people can buy just the dictionary, or two, or three…. The second edition of the dictionary also includes words that players submitted to me over the years. What’s different about The Quiddler SHORT Word Dictionary from other dictionaries is that it’s organized the way you play Quiddler — it’s organized alphabetically and by the number of letters per word. It includes over 10,000 two, three, four and five letter words so players can easily find the perfect word. But don’t be fooled, despite its name, it’s a great accessory for any word game and is an essential for all word game enthusiasts!

MM: What have been the most interesting and/or rewarding parts of being a game designer?

MJF: I really love creating games that make people want to get together. Put down the phones, computers, and tablets. Just be together and enjoy it. I still receive multiple letters every week from fans that have enjoyed our games over the years and have made great memories of playing them with their kids, grandkids, parents, grandparents, and friends. I also love to see how my games challenge people and keep their brains active. Recently, I received a letter from a young lady whose grandfather is in a nursing home. He has Alzheimer’s so he doesn’t remember her much of the time, but she still visits him every week and they sit down to play SET. She said that he’s never forgotten how to play and he often has a stronger memory of their times together after they’ve played a game. Those are the stories that make me so glad that I became a game designer. It’s rewarding for multiplicity of reasons, but those are the stories that push me to keep making great games. I enjoy designing and playing with new ideas. It’s great to create — but the lasting fulfillment comes from letters and stories like these.

MM: What are your career aspirations for the next ten years?

MJF: I’m actually “technically” retired, however, I still create the games that Set Enterprises produces and I’m very involved throughout the process. I passed the company down to my daughter, Colette Falco. She’s wonderful at her job — she grew up knowing the process of getting a game from preproduction, to production, to the actual release of the game and beyond. I love that this keeps the company in the family and that I can still be involved (but only when I want to be). During the next ten years, I picture myself still creating games with my daughter and developing them with the team at Set. I also spend much of my time doing Search and Rescue with my Border Collies, Blue & Grace, throughout Arizona and New Mexico.

MM: What advice can give to those who are aspiring to design games?

MJF: Game design is fun, but game licensing and production can be very difficult. You have to have a passion for what you’re doing, and you’ll also want a reliable day job on the side. Game creation and success in the industry is not an overnight process. You have to be willing to go door-to-door — anything to get your game out there. It takes time and patience, but the effort is worth it if you really believe in your creation.

MM: Are you currently working on any projects that you would like to mention?

MJF: I have three other games in the works. They need to be tested, tweaked, and retested many times before release. The time it takes to get the game just right can’t be rushed, but keep your eyes open for more new games!

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To learn more, visit the Set Game website.

About Meagan Meehan

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author, poet, cartoonist and produced playwright. She pens columns for the Great South Bay Magazine, Examiner and AXS. She is also a stop motion animator and an award-winning abstract artist. Meagan holds a Bachelors in English Literature and a Masters of Communication. She is an animal advocate and a fledging toy and game designer.

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