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WomanOf The Month 4-09: Eileen Thournir
by Kristy Lantz Astry

Transitioning from technical writer and software designer to board-game entrepreneur may seem like an unusual career path for some, but not for Eileen Thournir of Lakewood. She’s drawing on her life experiences to create unique children’s games that encourage fun, meaningful interaction with peers and adults. She hopes children apply ideas they learn through playing her games to life – establishing their place in society, helping others, even sustaining the planet. Thournir founded her company, Enlightened Play!, to produce a series of theme-based games to fulfill a niche that she believes has just been waiting for her to discover.

Reinventing herself as a small-business owner and board-game creator hasn’t been easy. Thournir, 54, left her Riverside, California, home after high school to pursue a degree in Education at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. After graduating with her Bachelor of Arts in 1976, she moved back to California only to find no job openings for teachers. For the next four years, she worked as an electronics assembler and apprentice electrician in the Bay Area. She moved to Denver in 1980 and spent the next 27 years pursuing diverse careers, working as journeyman electrician, Public Service Company dispatcher, technical writer, and software designer.

Although she enjoyed designing software, Thournir was frustrated and saddened by events that occurred in late 2006 and early 2007. Her sister-in-law found she had uterine cancer. The release of her software product was delayed due to corporate issues. “At that time I was struggling with my role in society, and [in] determining my purpose in life…was I giving back? Have I done what I need to do here? My resounding conclusion was No,apostrophe Thournir said.

In early 2007, she left her job to write a mystery novel set in Blacksburg, Virginia. At the same time she was researching lodging in Blacksburg on the Internet, the Virginia Tech massacre was occurring. “I’m looking for a place to stay, and here comes this story about Virginia Tech. At first I thought I was looking at a historic piece but then I realized it was live…Suddenly there’s this incredibly powerful drama happening at that moment that completely superseded anything I’d been writing. I was appalled, I was deeply affected, and I couldn’t write any longer,apostrophe Thournir said.

Not long after the Virginia Tech shootings, she witnessed her 11-year-old nephew playing a free Internet video game on his computer. “The ones that he played were very mild compared to what-all is out there, but he was yelling ‘I’m going to get you, I’m going to kill you’ at the game…My nephew is a sweet boy, but he was getting involved in this violence. That’s when I decided I was going to do what I could do to bring something into the world that was fun for kids but at the same time educated them.

“I wanted to create games that were non-violent, non-gender specific, that had good social values, that families could play together, and that teachers could bring into classrooms,apostrophe Thournir said. She nixed the idea of creating a video game because of financial constraints. And she didn’t like the isolation aspect of video game play. “I’d rather see families and friends playing a board game where they could talk over issues because I think there’s so much more that we get out of that kind of direct interaction,apostrophe she said.

One night, she dreamed about the game she was to create. “I woke up with the strategy for this game in my mind,apostrophe Thournir said. She founded her company, Enlightened Play! on April 23, 2007, the day after Earth Day, and began developing the game she called EcoRanch.

The game is set on a ranch that rehabilitates neglected and abused animals. Representing ranch volunteers, players adopt an animal and collect food, shelter, water, and veterinary-care tokens for it, donate their surplus supplies to other players, and help herd the rest of the animals to foster pens. To move about the game board, players must make choices based on their answers to true-and-false, question-and-answer, and “inner-awarenessapostrophe and “social-awarenessapostrophe questions. While the first two question types have correct answers, the inner- and social-awareness questions do not. Instead, they’re meant to spark discussions about players’ thoughts and feelings and how to address critical issues facing the global community. Acknowledging the game’s sophistication, Thournir decided the audience best suited for her game was children aged 12 and older.

“I am so thrilled to see kids who care about others, and certainly [about] animals. I think that’s one reason why I wanted to use a ranch as a metaphor for sustainability of our planet, because kids relate to animals in a more open way. What I’m trying to show is that [when] you care for one living being, you’re working with others to help all living beings on that ranch,apostrophe she explained.
EcoRanch went through about 19 iterations before its final production, Thournir said. She started with more than the six currently adoptable animals (horse, pig, cow, llama, sheep, and goat), and wanted to allow up to 10 players, but reduced the number of animals and players for expediency. She worked with friends to determine the look and feel of the game while taking it from broad sketches to final product. “We sat down and played. We tried to break things, just like in software testing. The analogies between game development and software development are very similar,apostrophe Thournir said.

She hired a Chicago artist to illustrate the board game. “Even though my artist had never done a board game before, she had great ideas. The board appeals to teenagers and adults. It’s supposed to be whimsical,apostrophe she said. The EcoRanch logo features the leaping cow from the game board, looking over her shoulder at a pair of laughing birds on her back. The pigs wear spectacles and read books, contented goats and sheep sample flowers, and the horse and llama strike poses with sidelong glances.

When trying to decide who would produce EcoRanch, she evaluated six game-manufacturing companies. “Two [companies] manufactured games overseas, and even though I was feeling pressured to make the [profit] margin larger between costs of manufacturing and the retail price, I just said forget it. I could not be confident that I’d get the quality, and that the people that worked at the factory were being treated and paid fairly,apostrophe she said. She chose DeLano Services from Allegan, Michigan, to manufacture her game. She spent $57,000 to produce 5,000 games in 2008, and conceded her games could have been manufactured overseas for half of that price. “But I wanted to be absolutely guaranteed of the quality, and the eco-friendly nature of its manufacture. This is made with soy-based inks; it uses 20% post-consumer waste (recycled paper). Plus, it’s made in the U.S.A.,apostrophe she said.

When asked what was hardest about bringing EcoRanch to market, Thournir said, “For me, it’s been the day-to-day business decisions: which vendor to go with, which shipping company to use, what marketing should I do; which publications should I advertise in. Getting the game created, manufactured – those were the easy parts,apostrophe she said, laughing. “Using my software experience helped me make those decisions.apostrophe

She wants to sell most of her games through toy retailers who sell “greenapostrophe products and unique products not found in large stores. “I’m only in two stores in the Denver metro area: Timbuk Toys and PlayFair Toys in Boulder. I’m in a wonderful toy store in Colorado Springs called Little Richard’s Toy Store…You can buy my game from 90210 Organics (90210organics.com),apostrophe she said.
EcoRanch made its debut at Toy Fair 2008, a large toy-industry convention in New York, in February 2008. “I introduced it [at Toy Fair 2008], but I first offered it for sale at the Seattle Green Festival, which took place April 12th and 13th. I sold 23 games in two days to direct customers, and also sold games to two toy stores in Seattle, Izilla Toys and Blue Highway Games. It’s very difficult when you start out in the industry, especially in this economy. They [the toy stores] try not to take on new inventory, and often the last thing they want is to take on is a toy or game that they consider unproven,apostrophe she said. When asked why these toy stores took a chance on EcoRanch, Thournir answered, “Because of me. I went