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James St. Laurent Talks About Crude Beginnings & a Second Strike

W. Eric Martin
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This interview (and introduction) first appeared in the April 2011 newsletter from Stronghold Games. Thanks to Stronghold's Stephen M. Buonocore for giving permission to reprint the interview!

We are so grateful to be able to work with James St. Laurent for our upcoming rerelease of his classic game: Crude: The Oil Game also known to some as McMulti.

At the request of our customers, we took the time to ask James a few questions and we're pleased to share that interview with you here.

Stronghold Games: Jim, thank you so much for taking time out for this interview! The fans of your great game, Crude: The Oil Game, will be very happy to hear from you after so much time. Let's start with your background. Can you tell us some things about yourself, such as where you were born and raised, where did you go to school, what you are doing and/or have done for a living, etc? Whatever details that you'd like to provide...

James St. Laurent: I was brought up in a small town in Michigan. I was always interested in numbers, especially chance and probabilities. This led to a degree from Michigan State in Mathematical Statistics. Later, I got an MBA and did post graduate courses mostly in quantitative methods in the evenings at Santa Clara University. I was employed as a Research Director for a large financial company for 31 years, first in Chicago and then later in California.

SG: This question is very McCarthy-like, but... Are you now or have you ever been a gamer?

Jim: Well, I certainly do not qualify as a geek but I have always really enjoyed playing board games. I do enjoy the competiveness of strategy games, but I think I am even more interested in the mechanics of a game – I guess I would say how a designer can get things done the most cleverly. My wife and I have played games with some friends who have a son who is a gamer. He is our "feeder", recommending new games and first playing many new games with his parents. This is great because we don't have to read the rules and he is a pretty good judge of the games we would like to play. These friends date way back – in fact, they were game testers when Crude was in development.

SG: When and how did you decide to get into board game design?

Jim: I really didn't decide. It was something I just started doing, back when I was a teenager.

SG: Have you created any game designs besides Crude: The Oil Game? Any others published?

Jim: Not really. I've created many other board games but no others were ever published. I used to do mostly sports games and later moved on to war games and then later into what you might call business and economic simulation games.

SG: Stronghold Games was very excited to have found you. As we mentioned to you when we first spoke, most of the board game community thought you were either in seclusion and did not want to be found, or that you had passed. Obviously, the rumors of your demise were greatly exaggerated, but how about the rumors of your seclusion? Were you at any time trying to stay away from the board game community? There have been other board game designers that have chosen this path, so you would not be alone in this, if this were the case.

Jim: Actually, I was excited to have found Stronghold Games too. I was interested in republishing the game but being out of the mainstream for so long found it difficult to know where to begin.

But, to answer your question, after publishing Crude, my priorities just changed and I moved on to other things. The demands of my job were increasing and I wanted to devote more time enjoying and bringing up my young family. I was not hiding. Actually, I'm not too sure how hard anyone really wanted to find me. I left some clues. For example, on the last page of the Crude rulebook there was my address with a post office box in Los Altos. The post office box was closed several years later but the Los Altos city would seem to provide a pretty good clue to someone really looking for me. I still live in Los Altos and have a listed telephone number.

SG: Tell us a little about the origins of Crude: The Oil Game. Is the oil business something of which you had much knowledge or is it a great interest of yours? Was there any other inspiration behind the creation of this great game?

Jim: I was always working on games. I was trying to invent a game that involved interactions between several economic sectors. I remember that I was using Wassily Leonteif's input-output matrix. I was trying to try to find a group of about five industries that would work as a group to form an "economy". I was not having a lot of success when the oil industry just seemed to shake out on the table.

I realized that the oil industry had enough stages in the production process and as a self-contained industry could be modeled quite well. After that it took only a few days to get a basic model working. I went to a Saturday meeting at work. While waiting for the meeting to begin with three or four colleagues I said something like: Hey, I invented a game last night. I sketched it out on my blackboard and we simulated the play. That was the first time the game was played and one of the players suggested that I ought to name the game Crude. That was Saturday February 8, 1974 so the birth date of the game was Friday, February 7, 1974.

SG: Crude: The Oil Game was published by St. Laurent Games, which indicates that it was self-financed/self-published. Did you decide to self-publish from the beginning or did you first search for a publisher for this game?

Jim: I did look for a publisher at first but could not find one. I finally found a local box maker that was interested in the project and found a graphics artist that would work on a royalty basis and the company was in business. The box maker produced everything except the dice and the picture on the back of the box. Our living room became the assembly line. Every game was put together by my wife and I in our living room.

Dealing with the box maker became an ordeal. After his initial delivery of components the relationship with the box maker tanked. There were long delays in getting the parts, there were shortages of some parts and there was a drop-off in the quality of the game parts. We salvaged what we could and that became the total production of Crude. Originally, we had scheduled a production run of 3,000 units. The final output was substantially less, so if you have one of the originals you are very lucky. On the other hand, if you weren't around to pick up your copy in the 1970's, you'll have a chance to try the game with the re-print.

After the nightmare I went through with the original manufacturer and all the effort I had expended to find a supplier I just couldn't get motivated to go through the process again.

SG: Of course, the $64,000 question is around how McMulti was published and your thoughts on this. It was reported widely that Hexagames published McMulti, giving you full credit for the design, but completely without your knowledge. Is this correct?

Jim: That's correct. I even heard that they had set aside royalty money for me in case they ever found me. Too bad they didn't see the mailing address on the last page of the rules that were copied verbatim.

SG: When did you find out that McMulti was published? Was it before or after Hexagames was out of business? Did you attempt to contact Hexagames at any time?

Jim: I did try to contact Hexagames, but by the time I had become aware of McMulti, Hexagames was out of business.

In retrospect, Hexagames probably did me a favor. There were not enough Crude copies in circulation to create that critical mass to keep game awareness alive for 35 years. Without McMulti, the game would probably have faded away. Without McMulti, there probably would not have been that telephone call from Stronghold Games that led to the Crude reprint that is underway.

SG: Now that Stronghold Games and you have agreed to do a republication of this great game, are there any updates to the game that you are interested in seeing included?

Jim: Whenever I complete a project I can always think of ways it could have been done better. In the case of Crude I have had 37 years to think about it. I have also looked at all of the comments on BGG to get ideas.

There are several ways that I think the game can be updated and improved. There is some tweaking that I think will improve the play of the game and a couple of additions that I think can improve the game significantly.

My intention is to suggest changes that improve the quality of play but do not change the character of the original game. To that end I am recommending very few changes that will be hard-wired into the new game and more options that players can employ to adjust, for example, their personal risk tolerance or luck tolerance.

I am recommending some changes that will significantly reduce the possibility of stagnation in the economy. I am also suggesting some new Wildcat Journal Cards that will make the game more in line with current events. There are other suggestions that will improve catch-up mechanisms a bit, put more oomph in other strategic options, and make the game more user friendly and easier to play.

SG: Thank you Jim!

Interview (c) 2011 Stronghold Games LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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