We all know that beauty hides in the most unlikely places—the unexpected yellow of a newly painted curb on a rain-washed-out gray day; a rosy-ribbed rock hiding among the brown pebbles at the bottom of a streambed; or a street performer coaxing the soul out of a tired violin. Beauty can be found just by opening our eyes and ears to the world around us. But many people forget that fun sometimes hides in plain sight, as well. After all, play consists of taking the world as it is and making it into a game. After all, if there’s such thing as an urban garden, and even an urban jungle, why shouldn’t there be an urban playground?
One such recognizer of potential playgrounds is James Lomuscio, an entrepreneur and award-winning game designer from Pittsburgh, PA. Born in Connecticut, James moved to Pennsylvania in 2007 to study neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. Early last year, James released the yard game “7 Birds”, which has since been picked up by local toy stores and novelty shops, as well as being shipped to avid gamers around the U.S. With his signature Music Man style straw hat, James has become a standard feature at craft fairs and creative play exhibitions in the Pittsburgh area, along with his wife and children.
In a world where designers invent in order to sell-out, James takes a more hands-on approach, blending Distributism into his business model to bring fair and satisfying practices to the workplace. The result is an excited workforce of employee/owners who enjoy bringing this new yard game to the urban (and suburban) playground.
GD: Tell me about the yard game, 7 Birds, that’s been popping up at parties and picnics nation-wide. How did you come up with the concept?
JL: 7 Birds is a strategic lawn game that I created in 2015. The game has similarities to both Bocce and the lesser known Kubb, a game popular in Europe. Along with two partners I took the game to market this spring, and have since sold over 150 sets across 18 states. Each set is manufactured by hand in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
I’ve created dozens of new games, purely for fun, since just before my graduation from high school in 2007. Most of the games I’ve created have been new sports, but many have been card or board games. None had been brought to market quite like 7 Birds, however. This is the first time in my career as an entrepreneur that I’ve sold a physical product. The experience is remarkably different from selling software licenses, or providing a service; manufacturing and distributing a physical product is much, much more difficult.
The most popular lawn game today is Cornhole. You’ll find Cornhole at picnics, most backyard barbecues, and almost every single tailgate across the country. Cornhole is a straightforward game: all it involves is throwing a bag into a hole or, if you’re bad at that, onto a board. It’s so straightforward as to be quite boring to me after a few minutes, and that was the main motivation to challenge myself to create a substitute.
The seed of the idea for 7 Birds came to me in the shower one morning last winter. The idea is that two players, or two teams, take turns throwing the Stone (a 6″ long dowel) in an attempt to knock over any or all of the Birds (also 6″ long dowels, these ones painted one end blue, and one end red). Any Birds a team knocks over are stood back upright, wherever they landed, so that the team that knocked them down have their color on top. Teams have 1 point for each Bird standing up with their color on top. The opposing team can then, on their turn, steal their opponent’s Birds by knocking them over once again, and standing them back up with their own color on top. The game ends when each Bird has been knocked over at least once, and the team with the most Birds claimed is the winner.
The key strategic element of the game is the decision on each turn to either attack your opponent’s Birds to steal their points, or to try to claim the neutral Birds, thereby advancing the game. Knocking down the last neutral Bird scores you a point, but it also ends the game; you could score and lose in the same turn. It’s usually quite dramatic! Most games of 7 Birds end with someone demanding a rematch. I’m proud of that.
GD: When you recruit employees for 7 Birds, you emphasize that anyone who joins you can become a co-owner of the business. Can you tell me about that?
JL: Absolutely. In addition to being what I consider a great, fun game, 7 Birds was founded as an experiment in cooperative entrepreneurship; it’s an implementation of an equity and profit sharing model that I’ve been interchangeably referring to as “Laborization” or “Infinite Vesting”. The names refer to the right for anyone who contributes to the project—that is, anyone who helps us assemble sets, conducts direct sales, or sweep the floor—to forego any portion of their wage compensation and instead own an equivalent share of the business. Often you’ll hear of a business referred to as “undercapitalized”, or that an entrepreneur is working to “capitalize” the business. In both cases the issue is cash. For many businesses, especially service business, the bulk of this cash is used to purchase labor. What these businesses are lacking then isn’t ultimately capital, it’s labor. With this frame of mind, it becomes silly to look only to traditional cash investors for help when a firm’s employees could readily add to the firm exactly what is required: productive capacity.
In this sense we let our workers “Laborize” the company as it needs, and as they’re able. Put another way, we’ve decided to favor the contributions of labor over contributions of outside capital. In practical terms, if our company needed, say, $1,000 worth of cutting, sanding and painting work, we would allow our co-workers to contribute in-kind services worth $1,000 before we’d take $1,000 from a cash investor and pay our co-workers the full amount in cash. Although we’re a startup, and still discovering the best long-term, sustainable business model, this “Laborization” method is not a temporary cash-saving scheme; we intend it to be a permanent part of our company. This is the core of what makes 7 Birds a Distributist business.
GD: So, is creating 7 Birds games your full-time job? How do you make ends meet?
JL: Designing new games is, for now, still an avocation for me. By day I work another job, also as an entrepreneur. I run a company called Hability which organizes automated patient follow-up for outpatient medical practices, primarily physical therapy clinics. It’s much more of a “traditional” tech startup, one which was founded in 2013 and built for “high growth”, venture capital, and the like. Even in this environment I was able to implement at least one quasi-distributist program that didn’t set off the alarms with our legal counsel: we amended our operating agreement (effectively the “constitution” of the company) to allow for “profits units” in addition to standard units (what would be called shares, if Hability was a corporation instead of an LLC) and further amended it to ensure that profits units could vote. Member votes are exceedingly rare, but it was very important to me to ensure that everyone who owned the business also had a say in how their investment operated.
GD: What first attracted you to Distributism?
JL: In fact it was the issues surrounding equity, specifically a company founder’s equity and its apportionment, along with my exposure to the body of law that governs investment in new ventures. The whole system seemed a bit stale, honestly—like a game I wouldn’t want to play. The lion’s share of equity in a new startup belongs to founders, almost without exception. Is this an accurate reflection of the relative value that they’ve contributed, or even will contribute, to the company? Sometimes, yes. Most other times, no, not even close. Many “late founders” or early employees have their contributions to the company recognized with only minuscule positions on the company’s cap table. The whole set-up gave me the feeling that I’d never want to “play the startup game”, as the saying goes, in the role of an “early hire”.
If there’s ever a game I don’t want to play, my instinct is to change the rules and make it more interesting. That’s the genesis of both Infinite Vesting at 7 Birds and voting profits units at Hability. It also created the perfect opening for Distributism to click for me. As an economic philosophy, Distributism acknowledges the critical role that capital incentives serve an economy, while not losing sight of its purpose, or what I might call the point of the game. We don’t play games because of a deep longing to score points, we play games because they’re fun! Likewise, we ought not to work just to “make money” (which is another form of score-keeping), but we ought to work because work is good, it’s edifying and, properly conducted, it can even be a method of our sanctification.
As a game designer, I’m conditioned to consider whole systems instead of distinct parts or details; one small rule change can ripple through a game in remarkable ways, some with the effect of destroying the whole thing. Likewise, even small changes to the rules governing an economy (minimum wages, tax rates, etc.) have the same capacity to change the whole system. One part of the draw of Distributism was the philosophy’s profound appreciation of these principles, a respect I believe greater than that of even ardent Capitalists. Whereas the financial industry that girds the capital markets often paints with a broad brush—this interest rate, these bond prices, that share price target—Distributists recognize the folly of a one-size-fits-all economic policy, and defer as often as possible to subsidiary bodies to self-regulate—guided by the same core principles and ethics.
In a similar way, bad games often have thick rule-books that try to cover every possible scenario with step-by-step instructions. Because these rule-books are often too long and too complicated, no one reads them all the way through. Invariably, cheating, intentional or not, becomes pervasive, and players are tacitly encouraged to dig into the rulebook hoping to find a wrinkle that will nullify their opponents move. Acrimony reigns over these bad games. I see the United States tax code, especially when it comes to “accredited investors” and the need for “83(b) Elections”, to be a bad game.
On the other hand, experienced game designers craft simple, intuitive mechanics which build on one another in such a way that the edge-cases can be understood in terms of the simple principles. Good games make intuitive sense, both procedurally and morally, and provide guidance in the simplest ways possible. I’ll give one example from the games world to illustrate the difference: everyone understands how a “Triple Play” works in baseball, but you won’t find any reference to it in the rules of the game. A force-out always works the way a force-out works and that seems to be good enough for everyone.
GD: What influence did G.K. Chesterton have on you in your views about Distributism?
JL: I read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy during college and, cliché as it might sound, it changed my life. Looking back I might have come across as quite obnoxious for some time because I’d find a way to incorporate what I’d gleaned from Orthodoxy into almost any conversation I’d have. Practically speaking, Orthodoxy was what led me to the rest of Chesterton’s work and to Distributism, but more than that, it provided the first satisfying rebuttal to Modernism’s attacks on tradition, patriotism, and the family that I’d ever read. Reading Chesterton was like going through a common sense boot camp, or a de-brainwashing session. I felt as if I’d been inoculated to Modernism after reading Orthodoxy. It was rejuvenating. The task of reorienting our entire economy to provide for the real needs of all families, for the common good, seems much less daunting—exciting, in fact!—in light of Chesterton’s work. I don’t think the task would have quite the same allure were it not for him. It certainly wouldn’t have been as romantic as I see it now.
GD: What is your plan for 7 Birds moving forward? Would you like to go global, if possible? If that happened, how would you keep the company distributist?
JL: The team we’ve assembled to get the ball rolling with 7 Birds and bring it to market isn’t the one we’d need to get it to scale and “go big”. Just how we could do this is being actively worked out right now. Do we license the game to an existing game or toy company? Do we find efficient sources for pre-cut dowels or pre-made crates and limit our work to the final assembly? Do we invest in the tools and people we’d need to do the whole thing on our own? It’s unclear which way forward would be best for us.
As our team is currently composed, we’re good at a few key things: imagining, testing, and improving new games, turning them into physical products, and “proving the market” by generating the first solid batch of sales. If we can find other toy manufacturers to bring the games we’ve published to a larger audience, and if that enables us to continue as a distributist game design company, that would be a fine path forward for us. Should we be able to partner with another distributist manufacturer (co-op, ESOP, family or locally focused business), that would be ideal.