Gamers’ Corner: The Magic Bus: A Story to Whet Your Apetite

December 2, 2014–For all you Gamers out there! You’ll have seen I am hosting a contest encouraging you to give us stories about your favorite game designers. Keep those entries rolling in! Just to give you the flavor of the endeavor, let me tell this one . . .

It was the summer of 1978, coming up on Origins, which that year would be held on the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Game designer Kevin Zucker had started Operational Studies Group (OSG) and was out with his first game, Napoleon At Bay. Naturally he wanted to make the convention with a load of them, where gamers would be anxious to scoop them up. He priced air freight. Too much. Post Office–too slow. Uncertain to boot.

Kevin had the idea of driving a van. He had a friend–another former SPI-er named Terry Hardy–now an official with Avis.  Terry had run office operations for SPI, that was his kind of thing. He was good at it. Same with Avis. Terry used his employee discounts and contacts to get Kevin a sweetheart deal on a van.

Van in hand, Zucker enlisted his OSG sidekick Jay Nelson to go along, but figured he needed one more person to share the driving. That’s where I came in. Naturally I myself was looking for passage to Ann Arbor. In those days you could go to the airport, sit standby, then pay for instant cheap tickets on half-filled planes to your destination. Better than that you could do it in the moment–no advance bookings, no impedimenta, just like that. My plan was to head for LaGuardia, fly into Detroit, and find some shuttle bus to Ann Arbor. Then the phone rang and it was Kevin.

Today (full disclosure) Kevin Zucker and I are good friends. In those days we were friendly but nothing like now. I suppose The Magic Bus triggered the change. I’d known Kevin from SPI, where he worked as an editor, assistant to Redmond Simonsen, and game designer too–a jack of all trades. I was past his door frequently since I was close to Redmond, who had the corner office in the Art Department and Kevin the next one over. I always made sure to stop and hang out a bit with Red whenever I was at SPI. So when Kevin left SPI we were on good terms–and indeed I subsequently published a game of my own with Kevin’s OSG. Anyway, when Kevin called and wanted another driver for the van that was fine with me. Kevin and Jay drove by my apartment and picked me up and off we went. It was less than a day until Origins was scheduled to kick off and time was of the essence.

Zucker was right that he needed another driver. With getting the van, loading the OSG games and booth materials, and picking up Jay and me, he was exhausted. We left New York down I-95 to the Jersey Turnpike and somewhere around the Delaware Water Gap Kevin started falling asleep. Jay was already out. We had started out before sunrise. I took over the driving.

There’s something about long-distance driving. I don’t know if it’s the Spell of the Interstate or Romance Behind the Wheel, but every time I get out on the road like that I always think of America on the go. Anyway we were driving along and it seemed only a minute later when Kevin woke up.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Half past Ohio,” I replied (indeed we were somewhere between Cleveland and Toledo).

Kevin and I talked it over and agreed only a minute had passed since the Delaware Gap. That’s when we decided we had a Magic Bus. Jay took over for the last lap into Ann Arbor, where we arrived in time for the OSG guys to set up and still have dinner before dark. And the rest of that Origins trip was splendid . . .

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