Fast friends and music in a card game box

Stace Callaghan (left) and Liv Cosham (right) have an exciting road ahead of them. Photo James Noonan.
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Music theory can be taught as easily as solitaire, and two women are showing how. James Noonan encounters them among participants at an annual games culture festival.

In the midst of the bustling Melbourne Exhibition Centre, two busy women are running a small booth with infectious enthusiasm. The annual weekend-long games culture festival Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) is in full swing, and the vast halls are bursting with promoters promoting, designers pitching, gamers gaming, and hundreds of attendees dressed as their favourite pop culture icons. It’s a cacophony, and this duo somehow earnestly cut through the yearly rabble with their product.

Liv Cosham, 42, and Stace Callaghan, 48, first met at an African drumming, dancing, and singing retreat in Queensland three years ago. Both highly energetic women with a love for the arts and entrepreneurialism, they had an explosive first conversation around a mutual love of music, psychology, neuroscience, and play-based learning.

It was there and then that they became instant best friends, bouncing ideas off one another.

“People the next day were asking ‘how do you know each other? Are you sisters?’” recalls Stace. “And we were like ‘no, we just met yesterday!’ That was three years ago. We’ve done a lot in three years.”

Before embracing the ambitious concept for their musical card game Oom-Pah! Liv and Stace had already gained resumés as eclectic as they come. Liv was studying music and psychology, having worked as a singer and dancer and hoping to break into music therapy. Stace, a professional actor and performer, was a kinesiologist by trade. “It’s essentially a psychologist that uses muscle memory and movement techniques as therapy,” she explains.

They dated for four months early in their relationship, later realising that their connection was meant to be a creative one. “We were trying to figure out if we can still hang out and be friends and realised we couldn’t not be, we had all these amazing ideas,” says Liv. The end of their romance didn’t spell an end of their collaboration.

Before developing the game, which resembles solitaire, using musical notes instead of red and black cards, the two women knew almost nothing about music theory, recognising a great idea despite their lack of knowledge.

“Our key milestone is the Kickstarter,” says Liv. “We know nothing about any of this; we’ve just stumbled on an idea and there’s no turning back. It feels like an idea was waiting to be birthed and the universe pointed at us strangers and said, ‘you guys’ and we went, ‘oh, ok!’

As well as getting their independent card game off the ground, the duo started their own company, The Joy Dispensary, through which they run therapeutic musical workshops at festivals, schools, aged care facilities and everywhere in between, with the goal of inspiring laughter, confidence building, positivity, and creative expression.

Taking a tabletop game from a good idea to a store shelf today almost always involves crowdfunding, most often through the US website Kickstarter. Since its launch in 2009, projects ranging from smart backpacks to avant-garde video games find support on the site. Here, the public pledge money to a concept before it’s finished for a product later, allowing the realisation of ideas that publishers are likely to refuse.

In October 2019, Kickstarter sees USD$1.5 million in funding to projects per day, and has successfully launched nearly 500,000 of them. The most popularly funded project category is music, followed closely by games and film.

Teams showing off their tabletop games – some with prototype boards and cards and others with retail-ready packages – can be found all over at PAX every year.

Forty two-year-old Adam Walker and his small squad of artists, have been developing their fantasy conquest game Reign Absolute as a side project to a digital production studio based in Hobart, Tasmania and founded in 1999.

Adam Walker’s booth set-up is sophisticated and supremely cool. Photo James Noonan.

Their package isn’t yet retail- ready, but Reign has been in development in some form since 2001 and it shows. This year is their fourth exhibiting at PAX and their booth is huge, with the team all wearing Reign Absolute bomber jackets and polos while they run demos.

“Money is the biggest sacrifice; this is completely funded through my business,” says Adam. “We were planning to launch a Kickstarter in time for the German tabletop mega-convention Essen, but I wouldn’t be able to go. After that we’re too close to Christmas, and after Christmas everyone’s poor. We’ll launch our Kickstarter in early March once everyone’s wallets bounce back.”

Adam explains that since moves to Brexit, distribution in Europe is much more costly and logistically complex, where now it’s become more financially feasible to have separate distribution centers in the UK and mainland Europe than having just one.

“You can’t import without huge levies from Europe into the UK, so you’re hit at the distribution center and then again by the EU.”

Money is very tight for musician Jonah Primo and his development team of three. They’re still in the development phase for their post-environment apocalyptic strategy game Tremor, and alongside working day jobs, playing gigs and developing the game they’ve managed to secure AUD$15,000 on Kickstarter and a loyal fan following.

Jules, Chloe and Jonah are on track to get their game onto store shelves. Photo James Noonan.

“Kickstarter doesn’t bring you the market, you have to bring your own fans,” says Jonah, riding the high of new pledges secured at PAX. “We want to hit the $20,000 mark, which would mean we can upgrade all the art, but we don’t have the capital to do it just yet. We want a beautiful version of the game with hand-painted tiles and pieces, but we need massive investment to make it happen.” He says they’re well on track.

Jonah’s team, called Curly Bros Games, have already taken Tremor to several conventions in Australia and New Zealand, and even take it to parties.

Liv and Stace, with their retail-ready Oom-Pah!, are meanwhile scrambling to prepare for an expected demand, selling over 200 copies at PAX at $69 each. It’s been such a hit that each night of the convention security have needed to intervene in the middle of the night and kick out all the music nerds mainlining their game to close the center.

“When we first met, we had the conversation about how great it would be to come up with a million-dollar idea and I think we might have it.”