Before there was Dungeons and Dragons, before there were computer games, before the internet, and even before there were companies named TSR or Games Workshop, there was Rick Loomis and Flying Buffalo Games. The prolific game designer, publisher and gaming industry advocate passed away hours before his 73rd birthday on Friday August 23rd. Loomis had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in early January of this year, but remained upbeat during his treatment, saying that he had been informed that it was “very treatable”.
His most recent update on his company’s website was on May 30th where he thanked his customers and friends, promising to appear at the upcoming Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio to celebrate the upcoming 50th Anniversary of his company, Flying Buffalo.
His situation took a turn for the worse when he was moved to an Intensive Care Unit while receiving specialized care at a rehabilitation facility following treatment. After a few days of being unable to meet with visitors, he was visited by his sisters on the 20th and the outlook was positive until he succumbed on the 23rd.
Ground-Breaking Game Designer
In 1970, Dungeons and Dragons was still four years from inception. Outside of the typical family board and card games by Milton-Bradley, Parker Bros., Hasbro and Mattel, there was a only a niche market of wargames which was served by Avalon Hill and the one-year-old Simulations Publications, Inc. which was better known as SPI. It was a copy of Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg wargame which caught the eye of a young GI stationed in Hawaii in the late 1960s. The concept of wargaming inspired him to create the game Nuclear Destruction in 1970 while he was still in the service.
Rather than publishing the game conventionally and selling it through retail stores, Loomis founded Flying Buffalo and promoted the game in various gaming “magazines” (often a few sheets of mimeographed paper) via Play-by-Mail, more commonly known as PBM. He did not invent the concept as people had been playing Chess and Diplomacy via PBM for years before then. With Play-by-Mail players would mail in their moves on a weekly basis along with a payment, receiving an updated report of the results a few days later after effect of each players’ orders had been determined. For Nuclear Destruction, each turn was 10¢ with eight cents covering the cost of the postcard back to the player. The game was also noteworthy in that it pioneered the use of “hidden movement” where players could not see what the others were doing until the effects were revealed. This breakthrough was soon adopted by other games.
But perhaps the biggest innovation was the use of computers to calculate the events in the game. He first rented time on a computer near the base at which he was stationed. After he left the Army, he bought one of the first personal computers, a Raytheon 704 minicomputer with 4k of memory which could handle the game moderation. At the time he left the military, he had 200 PBM customers.
Building the Buffalo
Loomis became a fixture at the new gaming conventions that were sprouting up around the country, including being invited to the Origins International Game Expo in Columbus Ohio by Avalon Hill Games. Partially in an effort to have something to sell at the conventions, he acquired the rights to a few board and card games. When a friend asked him to take a 40 copies of a “simplified version” of the new Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role-playing game with him to Origins – and they sold out – he became the publisher of Tunnels and Trolls. The most successful product for the company was Nuclear War and it’s follow-on Nuclear Escalation which he acquired the rights for in 1972.
Long time gamers will remember the satirical advertisements promoting the “fast-paced comical card game” in various gaming magazines. The game itself pre-dated Flying Buffalo and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a new version, but with the same dark humor used as players try to annihilate each others’ populations. In fact, the game almost caused a ban on all war-related toys in the UK in 1984 when two Members of Parliament called the game “a nasty twist on the toy industry.” Loomis defended it by replying in an interview for Parliament, that “the game is intended to be humorous… the subject is so serious that you have to laugh about it because otherwise you’d cry.”
Other Flying Buffalo products included pre-generated cities for use with D&D and other fantasy role-playing games, as well as the infamous Grimtooth’s Traps series of books which were full of innovative, destructive and often hilarious (at least for the dungeon master) traps that could be sprung on player characters. He also brought back the Lost Worlds series of illustrated books which allowed two players to pit a creature or character against another by calling out a certain page corresponding to an attack or defense move and comparing the results.
Building the Industry
As the gaming industry grew, some companies began dominating the market, chiefly Dungeons and Dragons publisher, TSR. In 1978, Loomis helped form the Association of Game Manufacturers, which would later change its name to the Game Manufacturers Association, or GAMA. In his role as president of the non-profit – a position he would hold numerous times over the years – Loomis and TSR head Gary Gygax engaged in a very public spat over the future of the gaming industry. The matter was settled in time and GAMA continued to grow as an advocate to promote non-electronic social games such as Board/Tabletop, Miniatures, Role-Playing and Card games and eventually expanding to include Collectable/Tradeable Card Games and Live-Action Role-Playing games. Its membership is made up of game manufacturers, retailers, distributors, and suppliers along with a diverse selection of conventions, clubs, and independent professionals related to the games industry.
An Approachable Legend
Throughout the years since founding Flying Buffalo, Loomis was a regular fixture at conventions big and small, usually manning his booth in the dealers room when he wasn’t on a panel or part of the operations at the GAMA or Origins shows. He helped many a newcomer to the industry get started, even sharing a room with Jolly Blackburn, creator of the Hackmaster role-playing game when attending the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, known as the Essen Game Fair. In a recent editorial, entitled “Flying Buffalos and Old Friends” written a few weeks prior to Loomis’ passing, Blackburn recalled that,
“Rick’s generally a nice guy. When I stepped into the gaming industry he was one of the first people I remember who made me feel genuinely welcomed and part of the fold. A wellspring of knowledge and experience, Rick was all too eager to generously share and help noobs like myself.”Jolly Blackburn, Knights of the Dinner Table #266
In addition to the big conventions, Loomis was a constant presence at nearly any gaming convention within driving distance of his Scottsdale, AZ home and headquarters. He was a regular at both the three yearly Strategicon conventions nearly LAX airport as well as Dundracon in in San Ramon, CA and seemingly every one in between, including the short-lived GenCon West Coast events. Both this writer and SCIFI.radio contributor Thaddeus Howze have spent numerous hours in conversation with him.
Loomis was not only highly respected, but much loved by the gaming community. When word of his spiraling medical bills got out, a GoFundMe campaign raised $20,000 out of the $39,000 goal in just two days with donations coming in from around the world.
As was noted on the fundraisers page this morning, Rick Loomis passed the night before, and posts across the internet are each relaying not only sympathy, but what he meant to the thousands of people for whom he had a lasting positive effect for over nearly half a century.