Summer 2008: Of Note

Zachary Anderson dressed as a mad scientist

SINISTER Plot: Zach Anderson invented Mad Scientist U, in which players use unstable elements to complete assignments.

Kay Hinton

The Dean of Mad Scientist University

Board game tests the limits of evil genius

By Mary J. Loftus

Zachary Anderson 01C, information analyst at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, has an active alter ego: he has been making and altering board games for as long as he can remember. “I would add extra spaces to Monopoly,” he says. A year after graduating from Emory with a degree in computer science, he hit upon a devious gaming idea—Mad Scientist University, complete with evil genius teaching assistants (TAs) and lawn gnomes.

“This is the first game that I have done commercially,” he says. “I brought it to parties, and people told me I should try to sell it.”

Anderson tested the game on friends and made changes based on their recommendations. After about three years of fine-tuning—including simplifying the rules and the amount of information players had to keep track of—he pitched it to a game company. They said no. So he decided to produce it himself, and started printing copies and taking it to gaming conventions such as the 2004 Origins Game Fair, an international expo in Columbus, Ohio.

In 2007, Atlas Games agreed to produce Mad Scientist University and features the game on its website with this description: “Polish up your laser gun, get your maniacal laugh ready. You’re about to enroll in Mad Scientist University! Whichever student devises the most evilly ingenious schemes will pass with honors. The rest will be sent home . . . in boxes . . . one piece at a time.” It is also available at game stores, such as Oxford Comics and Games in Atlanta.

Mad Scientist University is a storytelling party game for three to seven people ages eight and older. It involves unstable element cards, such as “lawn gnomes,” “marshmallows,” or “squirrels.” Players must present their plan to achieve the group’s “insane assignment”—win the presidential election, write your name on the moon—using an unstable element. The TA for the round awards the assignment card for the best plan, using whatever “demented, totally unreasonable criteria” they see fit. The player with the most assignment cards wins.

Anderson says more than one thousand copies have sold, and he was recently invited to the I-CON convention in New York as a speaker.

“Mad Scientist University is fundamentally about problem solving—there are real science problems, like splitting the atom; college problems, like finding a date; and mad scientist problems, like taking over the world,” he says. “It’s a great way to find out the different ways your friends’ brains work.”

He has two more games in development, one involving trolls and the other the dating scene. “Some would say they’re the same thing,” he jokes.

Anderson realizes that video games and handheld electronics are rapidly supplanting board games. But he admits to being old school and preferring cardboard boxes, dice, and game pieces. “There’s still something about just holding it in your hand,” he says.

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