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Loma resident thinks outside the box to design game masterpieces

September 28, 2018

Lester Smith may be retired, but he doesn’t act like it.

Inside his home-office is a wall of board games nearly reaching the ceiling. Trinkets and other pop-culture memorabilia decorate the room. A rooster can be heard crowing outside in the backyard of his house in Butler County’s Loma. Spider-man themed curtains drape the window and a bed with matching Spider-man themed sheets lies adjacent.

This is the workspace of an award-winning game designer.

Smith, 62, grew up in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and attended Illinois State University. While originally setting out to study pre-med, he said a writing class on British Romantic Period Literature changed his life.

“Just fell in love with it and thought, ‘this is it, I’ve got to find some way of making a living writing because this is obviously what I was meant to do,’” he said.

So he switched majors and started taking on part-time writing jobs. Smith said he took on any writing gig he could find, one of which was copy editing for Game Designers’ Workshop. The company specialized in creating tabletop RPGs, or role-playing games, that you play on flat surfaces like tables. An example of this is the best-selling and world-famous game “Dungeons & Dragons.”

Smith was hired on as a part-time proofreader for the company. Because of his science background, Smith said he was able to correct medical inaccuracies within the game’s stories. GDW liked his writing so much that in 1985, the company offered him a full-time position. He worked on many of its projects, writing stories, crafting gameplay mechanics and designing many titles, such as “Temple of the Beastmen” and “Minion Hunter.”

In 1991, Smith went to work for TSR Inc., the creators of “Dungeons & Dragons.”

“TSR was the big company in all of hobby gaming because of “Dungeons and Dragons,” he said. “So there were a lot of little companies like GDW who were doing little things around the edges and building up some fans. But TSR, they were the big guys.”

TSR was the dominant force in the industry when Smith started working there, but that all changed a few years later. Because in 1993, Wizards of the Coast released the collectible card game “Magic: The Gathering” and took the gaming world by storm.

“People just went crazy over it,” he said about the game. “And the next thing TSR knew, they were the second-largest (company) within the industry.”

Now facing tough competition from WotC, Smith said TSR scrambled to come up with a collectible game of its own.

When the idea of a collectible dice game was thrown around, Smith drafted up a memo of how to approach creating one. He soon was tasked with the project. Thus, the game Dragon Dice was born. It’s a strategy game with two or more players constructing armies using a point build system and subsequently attempting to either outmaneuver each other and capture the eighth face of two eight-sided dice representing the terrain of the world or eliminate all units in opposing armies.

One of the first places the game was shown off at was Gen Con 1995, the largest annual tabletop gaming convention series in North America.

When Dragon Dice was first released, Smith said he had no idea how successful the game would be. At the convention, he noticed two teenage boys sitting on the floor down a hallway. He saw the two had just opened up and started playing Dragon Dice, unknowingly in front of the man who created it.

“They were excited, and they were having a great time. And I thought, that’s what it’s all about,” Smith said about game designing. “Man, it’s a hard old world, so if you can help some people have some fun and maybe forget their stress for a few minutes, I think that’s a pretty blessed occupation.”

Dragon Dice went on to win an Origin Award for Best Fantasy or Science-Fiction Board Game from the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design. Smith equated this to winning an Oscar or Emmy in the world of game designers.

Smith said the game went on to make TSR $20 million in the first year alone.

“No false modesty, it was just a good game design,” he said. “The crunchy parts worked. The mechanics held up with play and it yet it had the right feeling to it.”

Although Dragon Dice was a success and is still made and sold to this day, the indebted TSR was bought out by WotC in 1997 and is now defunct.

In 2015, Smith moved to Loma to live closer to family and be in a more quiet setting. Smith said he can’t live in more populated and stress-inducing cities due to health concerns. That’s why he now calls the unincorporated town, which as of the 2000 U.S Census had 54 residents, home.

Even though retired, he continues creating games and writing stories and poetry.

“I’m not somebody to sit and watch TV. I have to have a project or I start thinking about life too much. Projects are really engaging. You’re trying to figure out how to make something work,” he said. “ And hold together in a way that other people are gonna wanna play.”

Since 2011, he has created 13 successful campaigns on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to help with the creation of various games and books he’s crafted. His most recent campaign in Jan. 2018 raised over $9,000 from 250 people to fund the creation of a game called D13 RPG.

Whether it’s card games or RPGs, Smith said he enjoys creating games for the love of problem solving and storytelling.

“I think the thing about game design, for me,” he said, “is you have to have this mechanic structure that works and then you build the story, the magic, the experience on top of that.”

Smith’s wife and daughters said they enjoy his games and are proud of what he has accomplished.

“I’m very proud of what he’s done,” said his wife, Jennifer Smith.

One of his four daughters, Katheryn Smith, shared a similar perspective.

“I love my Dad’s games, I think they’re amazing and so much fun to play,” she said.

Even though he’s retired, Smith doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. And for that, he has his fans to thank.

“Writing keeps me sane, and you (the fans) keep me writing. I could never thank you enough for that.”

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net.

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