Fall Winter 07

The Core


Summer in the City

In Fermi’s Footsteps

Seeds of Change


Editor's Note

Vox Populi

Science Beyond Boundaries

Supporting Students as They Are

Summer Stock

Head of the Class

Geeking Out

Goin' West

Go Ask Alumni

Beyond the Quads

Geeking Out

Success was in the cards for Chez Geek, a send-up of the lives of College students living off campus.

Inspiration sometimes comes from unexpected places. Just ask Jon Darbro, AB’97, creator of the award-winning card game Chez Geek. Darbro and two roommates were sipping Shiraz in their 53rd and Woodlawn apartment when it struck them that their communal life could make for a fun card game. “The next day I went to Osco at Kimbark Plaza,” Darbro recalls, “bought a black marker and a pack of index cards, and put together the Chez Geek prototype.”

Luck would have it that one of the friends involved in the original brainstorming session, Megan Dawson, U-High’93, was the sister of Alain Dawson, U-High’85, then managing editor at Steve Jackson Games. After the Dawsons got Jackson to sit down for a few rounds of the game, he decided to market it. “Alain was basically the person who made it happen,” Darbro says. “Aside from bureaucratic hurdles, Alain did some playtesting, designed a few cards, and came up with some of the flavor text as well.”

The resulting game won the Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game of 1999, the year of its release, and has since spawned six sequels, although Darbro was not involved in their development. His original Chez Geek is a satiric take on college life that pits players against one another to see who can meet their “Slack Goal” first. Each player earns a certain amount of Income and Free Time based on his or her Job (Waitshe staff, Drummer, and Corporate Drone are among the offerings), which can be spent on Activities like Sleep and Nookie, or Shopping for items such as Ramen Noodles, Beer, and Action Figures. In addition to facing limits on Income and Free Time, players must overcome the challenges posed by cards such as Car Alarm, which cancels Sleep, and unwanted guests like Hungry Girl, who negates food-related cards.

Although some modifications were made to the final product, Darbro says, “The original game, on index cards, was 100% based on real people and events” at the University of Chicago. In his prototype, the colorful characters on the Person cards even shared the names of the real people who inspired them, although they were later replaced with less identifiable titles like Clumsy Drunk and Mr. Enthusiastic. “Some of the Job cards also changed,” Darbro notes. “The Job card that represented my laboratory job at the time, Dissector of Fly Testes, was removed from the final version, much to my chagrin.” All of the cards feature whimsical illustrations by John Kovalic, the author of the comic Dork Tower, a send-up of gaming and other aspects of “geek” culture.

Chez Geek was not the first foray into entertainment for Darbro, who concentrated in Biological Sciences at the College: he was also a member of the improvisational comedy group Off Off Campus. However, Darbro credits his academic background over his comedy-writing experience for preparing him for the work of creating Chez Geek. “The emphasis on clarity and brevity for writing a rules sheet discourages a lot of the whimsy that I enjoyed in comedy writing,” he says, “and was actually more comparable to writing scientific articles.”

Science has continued to occupy most of Darbro’s time, despite the success of Chez Geek. After graduating from the College, he worked as a laboratory technician in the University’s Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and then completed master’s degree and PhD programs in entomology at the University of California, Riverside, and Cornell University, respectively. Darbro is currently engaged in postdoctoral work at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Entomology in Canberra, Australia. “We’re investigating novel methods of reducing malaria by killing mosquitoes with insect-specific fungi,” he explains. “Hopefully this research will result in something useful, although probably not a new card game. Then again, you never know.”—C.R.