It all began in a sinking ship in Alaska.
If you ask Dominic Crapuchettes how he created his highly successful company, North Star Games, he’ll tell you an exciting tale.
Crapuchettes spent 12 seasons working as a captain of a commercial fishing vessel in Alaska. During the winters, he went to school and worked on endless game designs. During the summers, he tested them out with crew members while he dreamed about starting his own business.
One stormy night, his boat became submerged. All of the electronics died, and he was forced to guide his boat home by the North Star.
“I’ve had a couple of near-death experiences, but this was crazier than most,” he says. “We took on so much water that it covered our batteries down in the engine room and cut off all of our electronics. So we had no navigation, no windshield wipers and no bilge pumps. If the water had gotten up above our air filter, our engine would have died. I had to go up on the flying bridge to be guided by the stars because we had no radio to get back to safety. I looked to the North Star to guide me.”
While that experience caused his career pivot and the creation of North Star Games, Crapuchettes had been harboring aspirations of becoming a game designer before his time spent at sea.
As a middle schooler, Crapuchettes designed Kabloogi, which was banned from 8th grade because his classmates were caught playing it during class. In high school, he designed a trivia game called Conceptual Pursuit, which was later turned into the wildly popular Wits & Wagers. And, during college, he won more than $30,000 playing on the pro tour of a card game called Magic: The Gathering.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Crapuchettes decided to go to business school so he could finally start his dream company. Upon graduating in 2003 from the MBA program at the University of Maryland, he founded North Star Games. Their front runner, Wits & Wagers, has gone on to win more awards than any party game in history and has sold more than two million copies worldwide.
Game lovers can find his products lining the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart, including hits like Oceans, a card game with more than 100 unique cards and pieces of art, and Evolution, a strategy game reaching more than 1.6 million people worldwide.
“Evolution simulates a dynamic ecosystem. You create species that have to adapt to the changing environment. You win if you have the species that propagate the most throughout the game. It’s actually being used right now in the evolutionary biology department at the University of Oxford,” Crapuchettes says.
So what is the key to his success? One factor is that Crapuchettes won’t release a lot of material at one time. And he works to ensure a lot of testing before each release.
“I usually try to get about 1,000 people to play before I release a game,” Crapuchettes says. “Oceans had 1,300 people who signed up. We made a total of three different prototypes, and they played them a total of 15 times each. So I usually have several thousand games worth of data logged, and I use that data to help balance the game and help make the game more fun.”
Speaking of fun, North Star Games also created Happy Salmon, an ultra-fast card game “packed to the gills with high-fivin’, fin-flappin’ fun.”
“It takes 30 seconds to teach, and it’s a high energy one. People are high fiving, fist bumping, laughing, switching places with each other and doing something called the ‘Happy Salmon.’ It’s kind of like a flappy handshake,” says Crapuchettes. “It’s a frantic race, it’s loud and hilarious to watch and a really fun way to mix people up. Think of it like a one minute shot of adrenaline.”
Currently, Crapuchettes lives with his wife and kids in Bethesda. When he’s not hanging with family, playing soccer or rock climbing at Earth Treks in Rockville, he enjoys browsing the hundreds of games at one of his favorite hangout spots, the Board and Brew café in College Park.
“This is a place I love to go to. They have about 500 games on the shelves and you can take them out and someone will teach you how to play it, so I love that,” he says.