For our inaugural Toy Industry Insider Of The Month feature, we’ve got James Staley. The Barrie, Ontario board game designer started as a kid creating variants for Monopoly, Risk and The Game Of Life and has now turned game development into a full-fledged career. He’s launched several board games through his Tin Robot Games company and also hosts the Board Game Binge podcast.
We sent James a few questions so we could get to know him, his company and his games.
Who are you and where are you from?
My name is James Staley, and I am the owner of Tin Robot Games. I grew up in what was the small city of Barrie, Ontario, Canada, in the ‘80s. Later in life, I moved back to the much larger city of Barrie to raise my family there.
When did you start designing games?
Ever since I was a kid, I would tweak games like Risk, Monopoly & The Game of Life to create our own house rules and break the monotony of playing the same game hundreds of times. I took a stab at designing my own game from scratch in my first year of university, utilizing clipart and supplies I could round up.
What kind of games do you make? Tell us a bit about the process.
While I love many game genres, my focus with Tin Robot Games is on the casual game segment, also known as “gateway games.” They target people who want to socialize more during gameplay and benefit from shorter learn times and setup. Most people have games in their collection to introduce others to the hobby. That is the sandbox I want to play in with our games.
There is no specific process to our initial game ideas — many have come about while working on other games, stemming from off-shoot ideas. Others, like Nutty Squirrels of the Oakwood Forest, started with me going down the YouTube rabbit hole one day and finding a funny video showing that some squirrels like to steal acorns from the den of others rather than forage for their own. That seemed like a great game theme to me!
Sometimes the theme comes first, as it did with that game. In other cases, the key mechanics of the game come first. The process is very fluid.
What were your favourite toys growing up? How did they influence your own designs?
I grew up in the Atari 2600 years for video games, Lego for creations, and He-man and Star Wars for fantasy toys where I would create my own stories. I think Lego has stood the test of time and is still good for kids to harness their creativity today. The Atari 2600 was a big influence for me, especially for our Tanks, But No Thanks! game.
The idea of simplifying a tank battalion scrimmage into an easy-to-teach game that finishes in 40 minutes was very appealing to me. I created the first draft of that game over 25 years ago on a cookie sheet with magnets and tacks.
What’s the appeal for you with making/collecting toys and games?
I love making and publishing games mainly for the high of my creations bringing joy to others in different countries across the globe. It’s awesome, and it’s addictive. I used to collect Star Wars toys and keep them in pristine condition for their value.
After The Force Awakens, my daughter got into playing with my old Star Wars collection from when I was a kid. I enjoyed seeing her joy so much that I dumped all my packaged games on her lap and let her have at them. I know most collectors would cringe to hear that, but that memory is worth more to me than anything.
Lately, I have focused my collection on board games. I love Kickstarter as a platform. It gives you the chance to own an amazing game that is not widely published. Many publishers will only launch on that platform with no intention of ever going to retail. There are so many indie publishers launching on Kickstarter now that dozens of new games launch each week. Some introduce new mechanics, while others build on the ones that came before them. It’s a cool time to be in the hobby.
Where does the name of your company come from?
I was in the art deco bar in New York City a few years ago. They had a shelf of these little tin robots behind the bar that caught my eye. I loved the callback to when entertainment was tactile. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for the board games that kept me entertained when I was growing up. The web address and social media handles were available for tinrobotgames, so that became our identity.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
We are launching a co-development project on Kickstarter with the talented James Freeman. It’s a push-your-luck tile flipping game called Hamsters vs. Hippos.
It’s super cute and a great gateway game for people looking to kick off game night. It plays 2-6 players with a solo mode included. If people want to be notified when we go live, they can sign up to our Kickstarter notification page here.
Anything else we should know about you?
Yes! I am the host of the Board Game Binge weekly podcast. Each week I do a 30-minute interview with various professionals from the industry.
If you want to learn more about the hobby, whether it be from artists, developers, publishers, marketers, etc., join us live on our YouTube channel or check out our audio podcast wherever you download your favourite podcast from by searching for Board Game Binge.
Interested in being featured as a Toy Industry Insider? Send an introduction to support[at]goodfindtoys.com