On a Mission to Create Fun

From UMD to ‘Wunderland,’ computer science alums Kristin and Andy Looney have been on a game-changing journey.

In a big, purple Victorian house not far from the University of Maryland campus, Kristin (B.S. ’88, computer science) and Andrew “Andy” Looney (B.S. ’86, computer science) have spent nearly three decades making a unique kind of magic. Together, through their company Looney Labs, the husband and wife have created a smorgasbord of signature games with names like Icehouse, Fluxx and Volcano, giving gamers of all ages a new way to play.

Kristin and Andy Looney
Kristin and Andy Looney. Photo courtesy of same. Click image to download hi-res version.

"Our mission is to create fun—to create attractive, innovative and, above all, really fun parlor games,” Kristin explained.

Though their business is all about games, it’s no coincidence that both Kristin and Andy started out as computer scientists. For them, the ongoing challenge of creating new games and inventing the rules to play them has more than a subtle connection to the intricacies of computer programming.

“I haven't programmed computers in decades, but I’m still a programmer,” Andy said. “What I program now are human beings, the human computers I program to play these games. There are many similarities between a piece of software and the game rules I prepare for players. Writing the actual rules, that’s the most like coding, but designing game rules certainly includes a lot of programming.”

And for the Looneys, the challenge of creating games comes with its own unique set of rewards.

“It’s extremely fun and very satisfying,” Andy explained. “One of the most rewarding things of my life is when I get a message from a fan who says, ‘Oh my gosh, we had so much fun playing your games, it brought us together,’ or even better, people whose relationships were saved because of playing our games. It's awesome.”

“We have amazing partnerships with people all over the country, retailers and distributors, and all the people that we've been doing business with for decades,” Kristin added. “Without them, we never could have done this.”

Floppy disks, punch cards and Cosmic Wimpout

The Looneys grew up hundreds of miles from each other—Kristin in Illinois and Andy in Maryland. Both had a passion for computers and were taking on the challenges of programming even before they got to high school. But that wasn’t all they had in common. From early on, they both loved games almost as much as floppy disks and punch cards.

“I think the first game I got into was Sorry!, which I have memories of playing with my mom. She told me later that she liked playing games with us because it kept us entertained while also allowing her to get some housework done when it wasn’t her turn,” Andy recalled. “I got into the dice game Cosmic Wimpout in high school. I learned later that Kristin also loved Cosmic Wimpout, and this was a connection point we shared when we first started talking about starting our own game company.”

As a teen, Kristin was a Rubik’s Cube super-solver. At 16 years old, she appeared on the hit ’80s TV show “That’s Incredible,” completing the cube in just 36 seconds to win fifth place in a nationally televised competition—her first big success in the world of puzzles and games.

“My father was a mathematician at NASA, and he used to say it doesn't matter what you want to be in the world, you can do anything you want to, but you should just always strive to be one of the top five in the nation at it,” Kristin recalled. “I like to think that I fulfilled all my father’s expectations with that contest because I placed fifth in the nation.”

In the ’80s, Kristin and Andy took their coding and programming skill sets to the next level as computer science majors at UMD, but the two didn’t meet until they were both assigned to the same department at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center: Kristin as an electronics engineer and Andy as a software developer. Like Kristin, Andy was following in his father’s footsteps.

“My dad worked for NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center for decades,” Andy said. “It was always in the back of my mind that maybe I'd do that too because I love the space program.”

Play-testing a future in fun

In the mid-’90s after a decade at NASA, Kristin joined a NASA spinoff company and Andy was flexing his creative muscles as a programmer and game designer at a startup video game company. In their spare time, they created Icehouse, a game with pyramid-shaped playing pieces and a very specific set of rules that they play-tested in Kristin’s living room.

“My friend John Cooper and I literally put on white lab coats and went to her apartment, and we stood around watching her and her friends play the game, trying not to say anything while we observed them making all kinds of mistakes,” Andy said. “It was very interesting and humbling.”

That play-test led to the Looneys’ first company, Icehouse Games, and their early success inspired them to go even bigger.

“We started thinking, what if we made up other games that worked with these same Pyramid pieces,” Andy recalled. “We realized I hadn’t just created a game, I’d created a game system.”

In 1996, Andy and Kristin launched Looney Labs with a fun, flexible game called Fluxx.

“Fluxx is a game about change, and it changes as you play it,” Andy noted. “We call it the card game of ever-changing rules, and that’s exactly what happens. How you win can change from one turn to the next.”

Finding a game plan that works

That first Fluxx game inspired dozens of other versions of the game, and Looney Labs’ eclectic collection of card games, board games and puzzle games just keeps growing, racking up rave reviews from their fans on Amazon. As chief creative officer and CEO, the Looneys found a game plan that works.

“I'm the idea guy—I sometimes get ideas from other people including Kristin. In fact, she designed Volcano, which is one of the most popular games for Pyramids,” Andy explained. “But by and large she runs the company, and I do all the ideas. Where do these ideas come from? I don't know, things just pop into my head.”

Fluxx Pseudo Code
Fluxx Pseudo Code. Photo courtesy of Andy Looney. Click image to download hi-res version.

Wherever Andy’s ideas take him, he still feels connected to his experience with computers, so much so that he created a pseudo code for Fluxx—rules for playing the game explained as if they were software.

No matter how you explain it, Fluxx is still the Looney Labs’ biggest seller ever.

“Fluxx is the key to our success because Fluxx pays the bills and keeps everything going,” Kristin said. “We have lots of other great games and we've sold a few hundred thousand copies of them, but we’ve sold 4 million copies of Fluxx.”

Even as Looney Labs grew and added game after game, a lot of things about the company haven’t changed much over the years. The couple’s funky purple house, which they call ‘Wunderland,’ is still at the center of it all.

“The house is definitely an important part of our story,” Andy said. “It’s a fixture in the neighborhood—the great big house where some old hippies live—and yes, we still live there and still do much of the company’s business there.”

And every holiday season, they continue a favorite holiday tradition even older than the company itself.

“Before we were a company or even a couple, I said I wanted to become a writer, and for Christmas the first couple of years after I got out of college, I made a bound book of my stories and gave them away to friends, and that started our holiday gift tradition,” Andy explained. “So, every year we make something, and we give it away to our fans.”

The Looneys hope to keep that tradition—and their company—going for many more years to come.

“My hope is that we can grow old being the Looneys and promoting our games,” Kristin reflected, “and we're definitely working towards that goal.”

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.