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Brunswick game maker hopes big fun comes in small package

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Brunswick game maker hopes big fun comes in small package

BRUNSWICK — Sometimes the brightest ideas come in the dark. 

That certainly was the case for Mark Leaman who, during a power outage last December, finally discovered a way to take a concept from the pages of his little black book of brainstorms and make it real.

The idea is Cabin Fever, a dice game of chance and strategy that comes in a palm-sized plastic cube with four simple parts: Six dice, a plastic cabin, instructions and a pin to show you're a fan.

Leaman, a 42-year-old Web master for Bowdoin College, hopes there will be plenty of the latter. So far, it looks like he's on the right track.

Cabin Fever, which Leaman said will be available on his Web site this week, has already sold out at What's Up, a gift and clothing store in downtown Brunswick. 

The rules of the game can be complex, but Leaman has cleverly given scoring situations easily recognizable monikers. Players begin the game "snowed in." The only way to leave the cabin is to "dig out," or score 100 points. After that the race to 1,000 points is on, and players encounter all sorts of obstacles along the way ("squalls," "thaws," "broken chairlifts").

Leaman's tagline for Cabin Fever is "The game from Maine."

Such vernacular certainly has the potential to appeal to gamers from here and away. After all, it's hard to envision a more quintessential vision of Vacationland than being snowed in or stranded at some remote outpost.

While Cabin Fever wasn't completely borne from that scenario, its origins, and Leaman's passion for creating games, come from a similar place.

Leaman originally envisioned Cabin Fever as a board game, but he determined the costs of producing one were too high. For months he struggled to find a way to break it down to a smaller, less expensive version.

"The challenge was how do you make it fun," Leaman said. "There are a lot of games that are simply a race to the finish line. I wanted to create something different, something that had a social component, that was strategic and competitive."

Leaman struggled to distill his vision until the power went out. The quiet and the darkness did wonders for his focus. 

The power outage didn't produce a eureka moment. That would come later, when his 12-year-old son Brad, gave Cabin Fever a test run with one of his friends.

"He said, 'Dad, this is really fun!' " Leaman said. "That's when I knew."

Then, friends who played the game asked the defining question: "Where do I buy it?"

"Every now and then you come across something that has a life of its own," he said. "This is it."

Leaman is so convinced that he's onto something that he's established Merrymeeting Games, a small company that he hopes will one day turn his longtime passion projects into a flourishing side business. 

In his little black book of ideas are concepts for five games, including an update of his first published game, Surge, a role-playing game he introduced in 1996 at Gen Con, an annual gaming convention. 

Leaman says he has the same feeling about Surge that he does about Cabin Fever, which is to say, people will think it's fun. That, he said, is the main objective. 

"I want people to enjoy playing what I make," Leaman said. "If I can make a little money that's cool. But if I can make people have fun, that's even cooler."

Leaman's technical background would suggest that he's stepping out of his comfort zone by not developing video games. But nothing could be further from the truth. Leaman says he enjoys playing video games, but board games hold special meaning for him.

He grew up in Michigan and moved to Maine at age 5. Throughout his life, whether it was playing games at his grandparents' cabin at a lake in northern Michigan, or playing Dungeons & Dragons after church when he was a teenager, Leaman says he's still drawn to games in which he interacts with real, live people.

Even today, Leaman and his friends can sometimes be spotted playing Settlers of Catan at the Frontier Restaurant in Brunswick. 

"I'm not adverse to computer games," he said. "But there's just something about getting together more social and fun to sit down with some people and play a board game."

Especially if you're stranded in a cabin. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net