Grass Valley couple up for ‘Academy Award’ of toys

Thriving career in board games has been ‘a journey’
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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For a Grass Valley couple who are partners in the board game industry, inspiration can strike at any moment. They’ll take a notepad with them when they go on dates, just in case the next great thing comes to mind.

But one time, Rebecca Bleau couldn’t write it down – note pads don’t hold up well in a shower – so she had to shout it to Nicholas Cravotta, her husband of 20 years.

“She’s saying to me, ‘I’ve got this idea for a game where fish are evolving,’” Cravotta said. “I went out to the living room and pulled out the prototype cards, all ready to go, and I cranked out the first prototype, and she got out of the shower and we started playing it.”

That game is “Fish to Fish,” and it is due out this fall.

That’s just one of the latest creations spawned from their Grass Valley-based design company, BlueMatter Games. They have made a dozen board games, winning numerous awards along the way, and the recognition keeps coming.

Bleau and Cravotta have been nominated for “Rising Star Designer” at what they said is known as the “Academy Awards of the toy industry.” Results for this year’s Toy and Game Inventor of the Year, or TAGIE, awards will be announced Nov. 16 during a ceremony at the Field Museum in Chicago.   

“To be nominated as BlueMatter as a team, as couple, and just really be looked at as kind of equals out there – it has been kind of a journey,” Bleau said.

It began in 2005 with their first game – now sold under the title “Acuity” by Fat Brain Toys.

Though they’ve received honors before, such as Mensa Select and Gold Parents Choice awards, this is the first time Bleau is also at the forefront of the recognition, she said.

When they started making games seven years ago and Cravotta flew to an industry event in New York and pitched ideas, that became the standard practice, but recently Bleau has started going with him – two briefcases packed with game concepts in tow.

“He was the face,” she said. “Now we’re acknowledging us (presenting) as a team is much more valuable than one of us.”

Their varied skill sets complement each other; Bleau is a resident artist at Artists’ Studio in the Foothills specializing in fine art, while Cravotta is a freelance technical writer working for major semiconductor companies and has a math and philosophy background.

“I think the reason we have gone so far so fast is because we have support and balance,” Bleau said. “We have a whole package in our design team, and the ideas come together in a very complete way. I think four of our 12 games have gone all the way to production with the original art we presented it with, which is pretty unheard of in the industry.”

They have two children – Skylar, 13, and Azure, 11 – but having parents who make games apparently might not be as fun as it sounds.

“It seems that if you make games, your children think that is just the most boring job in the world,” Cravotta said. “All we talk about is games.

“They think it’s horrifically boring. Their friends think its fun,” he said, likening it to how, “If your dad is a movie star, you might think his movies (are bad).”

Bleau said she grew up on games such as “Sorry!” and “Yahtzee,” whereas Cravotta said he and his brother enjoyed rewriting the rules – like that time they combined “Risk,” “Careers” and “Monopoly” into one.

“We used all three boards and all the money was mixed up, and the rules were changing depending on what board you’re on,” Cravotta said.

Now, he’s all about keeping it simple.

“One page of rules, and a kid can beat an adult,” Cravotta said of their favorite kind of game.

“Games teach us a great deal of how to interact with each other,” he said. “We teach children how to deal with each other as kids but also (later) as adults in many of the game mechanics that we grow up with.

“So we take a look at game designing from that point of view: How do we teach children how to live in this world?”

Staying true to that vision is part of the reason Cravotta said he and his wife don’t intend to quit their day jobs to make a living solely off their board games.

For example, they developed a cooperative stacking game – unlike “Jenga” where players strategize how to manipulate the tower so their opponent will cause it to crash down – called “Frog Wobble.”

“Most stacking games, if you’ve played ‘Jenga,’ are all about making someone else topple the tower, and if you topple the tower, there’s a feeling of failure, of you blew it,” he said.

They pitched it to a large gaming company that had wanted to make it competitive, going against BlueMatter’s original vision of a parent and child playing on the same team, Cravotta said.

Cravotta and Bleau took their game elsewhere, and a smaller company picked it up and stayed true to their original idea, he said.

“We have the freedom because we don’t have to make this sale to make our house payment that month,” Cravotta said. “We take the time to find the right home for a game. We want to make a positive difference in the world, and we can do that because we’re not forced to sell it.”


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews