30 March 2021
Decrypting the publisher behind the masqué, we speak to Christian Lemay about bridging the gap between gamers, and growing the company to become leaders in family and party games
Words by Charlie Pettit Interview by Christopher John Eggett
It’s hard to believe that Scorpion Masqué only moved out of the basement of one of its founders’ homes a mere two and a bit years ago, when you consider just how many of theirs games are so popular – from Decrypto to Zombie Kidz Evolution to Master Word and more. Sitting in the space occupied by a mixture of party and communication games, as well as children’s games, this Canadian company was founded in 2006 by Christian Lemay, who we caught up with to find out a little more about how the ‘Masked Scorpion’ came to offer games in 45 countries.
“It’s a classic story,” says Lemay, of the very beginnings of Scorpion Masqué, “you know the one: the passionate gamer who would like to work in the industry, but there isn’t really a ‘making boardgames’ job anywhere in the entire province of Quebec, so he creates his own company to do what he loves… that one.” And with a little prompting from his girlfriend to put his plans into action, Scorpion Masqué began.
As with many things, it was naming the company that took a lot of thought, “Scorpion Masqué means Masked Scorpion,” Lemay explains, before adding “well, it doesn’t sound quite as great in English, but it works very well in French!” After hours of brainstorming, it simply came down to what was cool.
“We knew we wanted a kind of character... inspired by an insect... Not a spider (man)... maybe a scorpion? Scorpions are cool, but a little bit disgusting and frightening. So, we wanted to add an adjective. Superheroes wear masks... and The Masked Scorpion (Scorpion Masqué) sounded really cool to us.”
Describing himself as “not a businessman”, Lemay began as a French Literature teacher with a masters degree in poetry, and under the newly found name, initially planned to publish a weighty two player abstract game.
“It would have cost around $70 retail,” he explains, planning originally for the game to need an impressive 172 thick wooden discs included, “at that time, you could almost buy Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition for that price. I knew I was going to make a lot of mistakes, so I wanted to make them on a $12-$15 game, not on a $70 game. So, I designed J’te gage que with the constraint that the game should fit in one deck of cards.”
It was humble beginning though, as often is the case. “I remember the first print run of our first game: 2000 units. The game was made up of a deck of 50 cards… but the printer didn’t deliver 2000 decks of 50 cards, he delivered 50 decks of 2000 cards! We had to assemble every single deck by taking one card from each of the 50 decks, all done on my kitchen table. To save costs, we also folded the boxes ourselves. The 2000 tops and 2000 bottoms were printed on thin cardboard with a die cut that would hold together if folded properly.”
Far from making a lot of mistakes, that first game J’te gage que (also known as Bluff Party) instead sold 450,000 copies, offering the chance a mere two years later for Lemay to quit his job in 2008 to publish games full time. From there though, Lemay realised he had a good ‘nose’ for party games, which used far less components than the game he had first designed.
“Since everything was manufactured in Québec where there is no game specialized manufacturers like in China or Europe, we had to use as little material as possible – simply a deck of cards – to be able to offer it for a decent price. And once we had published a few successful party games in quick succession, Scorpion Masqué rapidly became known in game stores for good party games”, which has gone on to include games like Stay Cool, and Decrypto amongst others. Though Lemay comments on being ‘pigeonholed,’ into this market, it certainly wasn’t a negative, as he comments further that party games often stay on the market for longer, but also reach a bigger audience.
Indeed, doing so seems to have triggered an ethos that has transferred across seemingly all of the games published by Scorpion Masqué. “I like games that create bridges,” Lemay explains, “bridges between all kinds of gamers. Occasional and passionate gamers. Young and old. From everywhere on the globe. Decrypto is a game that ‘real’ gamers really enjoy, yet which is also playable with your reluctant-to-game uncle. Zombie Kidz Evolution is a game designed for kids, but it doesn’t bore their parents. I know many families where the parents actually bought a second copy of the game to play while the kids were sleeping.”
Much like discovering a sense for party games, it was a discovery that led Lemay to the children’s genre, and eventually the games that now includes a series of Zombie Kidz group of games. This was the first legacy game for children specifically, but features bright cartoon zombies from which the players will seek to evade. However, it started much earlier, “in 2007, I was working on a game designed by Bruno Faidutti, Pony Express. At some point, Bruno added a co-designer. A new guy, totally unknown, but ‘very promising,’ according to Bruno. This young man was none other than Antoine Bauza.”
Bauza is known of course, for games such as 7 Wonders, Ghost Stories, Conan and more. “Antoine had a small blog in those days, where he would put games of his out there, hoping to catch the attention of a publisher. Imagine... Takenoko, Hanabi, and an array of others sitting there, waiting to be picked up. I was interested in a small cooperative memory game based on monsters coming out from under your bed that you had to frighten with your toys. We published it under “La chasse aux monstres” (Monster Chase) and it became an instant hit on the French speaking markets of Québec and France. For the past 10 years, sales have continuously grown. I think we reached 300,000 copies sold, which makes that game one of Antoine’s best sellers, despite being almost completely unknown in the ‘gamer’ community.” As family games go though, it sits at a comfortable 82 on the BGG children’s games charts – which would be cause enough for celebration for many, except it’s the 2018 Zombie Kidz Evolution from Scorpion Masqué which occupies the top spot with the highest rating.
TAKING THE STING FROM THE TAIL
There’s something we’ve found in chatting to Christian Lemay that gives us the impression of a social group of people. Rather than being referred to as the founder of Scorpion Masqué, Lemay labels himself the ‘Grand Poobah’ a humorous way to refer to someone in charge. The same vibe runs through their fun games, pulling gamers in from all corners of the hobby and as Lemay described, bridging that gap. There’s a wider social impact in that, not least in creating and prompting environments for people to game together that may not have done so, but Lemay is further conscious of an environmental impact.
“We plant trees,” he tells us, “well, we pay Canada Trees to plant enough trees to replace those which were cut down to produce our games. This isn’t a perfect solution, of course. There is still transport, plastic, to take into account, but we are coming up to 15,000 trees planted since the beginning of our program, in 2010.”
As for right now, it’s their latest release that represents where Scorpion Masqué feels it is now, with Master Word. The fun word guessing game plays reminiscent of the old Mastermind game, where players may make three guesses towards a hidden word, finding out how many of those clues are accurate, but not which of them it is. There’s a delightful back and forth of discussion and debate as to how the language is used and what to do next, and will undoubtedly sit comfortably amid other party games, and embodying Lemay’s earlier description of being in the business of communication games.
“This game takes something everyone knows and turns it upside down, to create something new,” Lemay confirms, “it’s a clever cooperative game. We really enjoy team games. And finally, it has a distinctive retro visual design that I love.”
And in considering which games represent the future: “Zombie Teenz Evolution.” Lemay says immediately. “We want to expand this line (Zombie Kidz / Teenz). We want more games with these characters, and to develop this universe. Hopefully we’ll be able to work with other designers, and other types of games. As a matter of fact, we’re currently working on... Turbo Kidz! But shhh, don’t tell anyone! I also strongly believe in evolutive games. I believe that players should be guided in their discovery of a game; not through a tutorial (tutorials are usually boring in board games), but as an ongoing experience.”
Of course, it’s almost impossible not to tell anyone about a shiny new game in the works, so Lemay gives us some exciting new details, “Turbo Kidz is a team-based racing game where the pilot is blindfolded!! Not as dangerous as it sounds, but just as much fun”, and will be part of the Zombie Kidz extended universe. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s more planned, with “a super-clever deduction game coming in 2022. It will be a deduction game like nothing we have seen, with a strong table-presence, thanks to a really unique component that is a bit like a computer that can actually answer your questions. So you’re not asking questions to the other players, but to the game itself! This will be a game where instead of finding a code, you decipher the rules that lead you to the code. This is mindblowing. Really.”
Five of our Favourite Scorpion Masqué Games
Master Word (2020, £20)
Master Word is the most recent release, a word game attempting to uncover a single word held by one of the players. The others will attempt to guess the word using clues with a yes or no response – so we might have a word such as Dragon, or a sport such as basketball. The players first three guesses might be ‘animal’ ‘fluffy’ and ‘person’, gaining two yeses. Except then, is it a person who is fluffy, or a fluffy animal? Or an animal of a person? You’ll have to narrow down your clues, deducing as much as possible each round, until you find can make a guess to uncover the answer. It’s a conversation encouraging mixture of 20 questions, and mastermind.
Zombie Kidz: Evolution (2018, £20)
The young players are at school when Zombies begin their attack, and they’ll need to ensure the school doesn’t become overrun, by locking each of the four entryways. As the game goes on, and the players get better and more confident, there are additional missions and envelopes, plus a trophy sticker system. It’s a legacy game for a younger audience, keeping kids and adults alike on their toes and making use of those highly sought after brains.
Decrypto (2018, £17)
Another deduction game, but this time based around coded messages. Decrypto sees you trying to provide a coded message to your team mate that links closely enough to the words demonstrated for it to prompt the correct code. Except of course, you need to try to do so in such a way that the other team doesn’t pick up the words first.
Quebec (2011, £33)
Quebec is “the first and only Eurogame we ever published,” according to Lemay and is notably different from its fellow games on the Scorpion Masqué shelf. Co-published with Ystari and internationally distributed in 2011, it sees you the head of a rich family wanting to leave their name on history by building a Quebec city. There’ll be numerous buildings to complete, influence to acquire, all while considering religion, politics, commerce, culture, and more.
Stay Cool (2019, £25)
Stay Cool is a panic inducing party game, where you’re answering two questions at the same time – verbally, in response to the questions on your left, and written, in response to questions on your right, for two minutes. However, in true ‘pat-your-head-and-rub-your-tummy’ style, the fact that it sounds simple doesn’t always translate into being so, and not only are you doing two things at once, but the written answer has to be completed by spelling out each answer as you go using the seven lettered dice. As the round goes on, the game gets harder, and now you’ll have to have a feeling for the time that’s passed too – and it sure does go quickly!
Monster Chase (2009, £15)
The aforementioned Antoine Bauza game for the younger audience, Monster Chase sees suits the much younger audience, where you’re playing a memory game to chase the monsters from under the bed back to where they came, by finding the toy that scares off that specific monster. However, more monsters creep out at the sign of too many mistakes, making it even trickier.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to watch Lemay's video from Virtual Tabletop Gaming Live 2020 talking about the importance of intent, which you can see below!
This feature originally appeared in Issue 52 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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