Urbana woman delights in creating children's games; 2 win national acclaim

Urbana woman delights in creating children's games; 2 win national acclaim

URBANA — It's not all fun and games for Gina Manola — even though they make up a large part of her work.

The Urbana woman has developed six children's games — three already on the market and three more to be introduced this summer.

Two of the games — Feed The Woozle and Race to The Treasure — have received the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio's Gold Seal for Best Toys of 2012. The latter game was featured on NBC's "Today" show.

Manola operates Calico, an Urbana-based design, branding and product development firm for the toy, game and gift industry.

Originally from Williamsville, a small town northeast of Springfield, she's an artist by training, with a master's degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Manola said it's too early to tell which of her games will be the most successful, but she expects to know better by year's end.

Race to the Treasure and Feed The Woozle are published by Berkeley, Calif.-based Peaceable Kingdom.

The games, with suggested list prices of $15.99 and $19.99, respectively, are aimed at kids in the early school years.

"Both are cooperative games, meaning the players work together against a common obstacle rather than compete against one another," Manola said.

In Race to The Treasure, players try to reach a treasure chest. They have to collect keys along the way and, at the same time, keep an ogre away from the chest.

Players work together to figure out the best path to the treasure and use snacks to lure the ogre away.

The game involves grids and math concepts, but Manola said she doesn't "overemphasize the educational part."

The game is designed for two to four players, ages 5 and up, and generally takes about 20 minutes to play.

Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, which has been reviewing children's products since 1989, calls it "an easy-to-learn game" that's good for mixed ages.

Feed The Woozle doesn't have anything to do with the wizzles and woozles from the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Manola said.

"When I came up with the name, that wasn't in my mind at all. I thought the word was funny," she said.

"I tried to imagine a funny monster that shows up at your door and demands ridiculous snacks, and you have to perform while you deliver them to him," she added.

Players set up the Woozle on a table and use a spinner to determine how many snacks to put on a spoon. There are three levels of play, depending on how advanced the players are.

Oppenheim notes that at Level 1, a player simply walks to the Woozle and feeds it. At Level 2, the player may have to walk backward, hop or wiggle to the Woozle without spilling the snacks. And at Level 3, the player must do it blindfolded.

"This will make a fun party game," Oppenheim says at its website.

Manola developed her first game, Notable Novelists, in 2009 with her husband, Nick Rudd, and her son, Townes Durbin, now 11.

As a girl, Manola played the Authors card game. When she became a parent, she wanted to introduce it to her son and was surprised it hadn't been updated much.

Manola produced a different game featuring 20th-century authors, with "more diversity in the deck ethnically and also in gender." There are 18 authors — including Flannery O'Connor and Zola Neale Hurston — in the Notable Novelists deck. For each of the writers, players have to collect an "author" card, a "library" card listing three of their literary works and a "biography" card with facts about the author.

Notable Novelists sells for $10.95 and has its own website, http://www.notablenovelists.com.

Manola's newest games are the playPlay line, expected to be released to stores this summer by Millburn, N.J.-based Briarpatch. The games include:

— PaintPlay, in which players make a collaborative artwork, while six "meanies" try to sap the players' creative juices. Manola said the meanies represent voices that get in the way of being creative. The game is for two to four players, 6 years old and up, and takes about 20 minutes.

— StoryPlay, a creative storytelling game that involves drawing word and picture tiles from a box — and drawing pictures as well. Instructions for two alternative games are included. StoryPlay is for two to four players, 7 years old and up, and lasts about 10 minutes.

— ColorPlay, which involves a color wheel puzzle and requires players to find puzzle pieces with particular colors and patterns, such as polka dots, zigzags and checkerboards. Instructions for two alternative games are included. The game is for two to six players, ages 5 and up.

Manola said she has been designing and developing products for children most of her professional career.

She moved to New York after graduate school to pursue a fine arts career and took a job as a receptionist at a design studio. There she ended up getting experience in design and editorial content for textbooks.

Manola later worked as creative and educational director at Galison & Mudpuppy Press in New York, where she created products including notecards and journals for museum stores and specialty children's stores.

She then worked for Chicago-based Quarasan, a company that develops content for educational publishers.

Manola moved to Urbana in 2007. She said both her husband and son "regularly vet my game ideas and play-test the initial concept."

She said she doesn't design games with a specific person in mind but gets ideas for them in different ways.

"It depends on the game," she said. "I think about certain kinds of play patterns I'd like to explore."

In some cases, she said, she gives herself a challenge. For example, can she come up with a skill-and-action game that's fast-paced and demonstratable on TV?

"That's what some toy companies are looking for," she said. "Some won't take a game unless it can show well in a 30-second commercial."

Manola said she has found it easier to license game concepts to manufacturers than to produce games herself.

That way she doesn't have to deal with warehousing and shipping. Plus, it's difficult to distribute games when you have only one product, she said.

Game development probably accounts for about 30 percent of Calico's business, she said. The rest involves design, branding and packaging for other companies.

Manola advised anyone interested in getting into toy and game inventing to attend the Toy and Game Inventor Conference, held annually in Chicago in November.

Going on about the same time is the Chicago Toy and Game Fair, which is open to the public, she said. The fair includes the Young Inventor Challenge, in which youths 6 to 18 invent toys and games. The process involves brainstorming, writing rules, play-testing and thinking in different ways, Manola said.

Despite the popularity of video games, "there's been a real resurgence in board games," she said. Many cafes and coffeehouses keep board games on hand and hold game nights.

"It's just a great way to spend time together, rather than just through social media," she said.