It’s a kick: Whidbey resident turns tough times into exciting card game
By REBECCA OLSON
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
December 18, 2012 · Updated 1:40 PM
Combine body hurling with cards, talking like a pirate, becoming a donkey and tons of laughter and you’ve got a lively game of Donkey: It’s a Kick!, a game created by Oak Harbor resident Jayne Cleveland-Kolesar.
Donkey features three layers of gameplay and will be easy to master by players of the card game spoons.
“People call this spoons on steroids,” Cleveland-Kolesar said, adding that the game can usually be taught in two or three minutes.
Cards are dealt to three to eight players and the goal is to get four of a kind by passing cards around the circle. The first person to get four of a kind grabs a Donkey Puck off the table. There will always be fewer Pucks than players so “someone’s going to come up short,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
But that’s just layer one. Layer two consists of a deck of Kicker Cards with funny commands.
“You might have the whole table doing the stadium wave … or talking like a pirate with one eye open, one eye closed. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Cleveland-Kolesar laughed, adding that the Kicker Card changes each round.
The third layer of the game turns players into donkeys. Each time a player doesn’t get a Puck, they mark a letter of “donkey” on their scorecard. Once they get all the letters, a player becomes a Donkey — but that doesn’t mean the player is out of the game. Instead, the player “stays in the game and takes the remaining players down with them,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
No one is allowed to speak to Donkeys, but Donkeys can speak to the players.
“That third layer really brings a lot of laughter to this game,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. That’s what earned Donkey the catch phrase: “The game that’s as much fun to lose as it is to win,” she added.
Creative solution to hard times
Donkey combines layers of simple yet hilarious gameplay but it was born during a complicated time in Cleveland-Kolesar’s life. About two years ago, Cleveland-Kolesar and her husband lost their house to foreclosure. Cleveland-Kolesar was working one and one-half jobs at the time.
“I just sat back and thought, ‘Working too much is killing me,’” Cleveland-Kolesar said. She wondered what she could do that would both satisfy her creative side and still get her ahead financially. The answer: create a game.
To get started, Cleveland-Kolesar purchased four books on the subject.
“They come right out and tell you if you’re trying to do this, good luck. There’s a one in 1 million chance,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. “But I was serious. I wanted to do something.”
Her brother, Cleve Cleveland, called Cleveland-Kolesar to tell her he wanted in. Cleveland-Kolesar was reluctant; all of her books said not to take money from family members. But Cleve insisted and donated nearly $50,000 to the cause, which the game has nearly re-generated in revenue in its first year.
Cleveland-Kolesar later invited her only sister, Claudia, to join them and they created their own business, Cleveland Kids, LLC. Claudia’s husband, Jay Shuit, designed the art for the game.
Selling their game was not without hurdles. Cleveland-Kolesar attended several toy shows around the United States. To her surprise, the first vendor who approached her asked for 1,000 games. They usually ask for 144, Cleveland-Kolesar said.
“That’s when we realized we had an excellent game on our hands and that we had a lot to learn,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
From creating game pieces that are too large to fit in an infant’s mouth to testing with every age group and people of differing interests, Cleveland-Kolesar and her siblings invested as much time as they could into the game while still working full-time.
“We’re doing this by the skin of our teeth,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. Regardless, they earned great reviews from the New York Tradeshow, the largest show in the U.S., and the professional reviewer The Toy Man gave Donkey a five-star rating in every category, plus the Editor’s Choice Award.
Donkey is for sale in almost every state and in Canada. Cleveland-Kolesar is hard at work promoting the game locally. If Hasbro owned the game, they would spend $2.1 million on advertising in the first year alone, Cleveland-Kolesar said.
“And we have nothing but word of mouth,” she added.
After doing some homemade YouTube videos, Cleveland-Kolesar decided to ask Skagit Valley College videography staff if they could make a more professional video as a student project. Half an hour after she emailed them, a student from the Mount Vernon campus, Derek Hickman, agreed to do the project. Cleveland-Kolesar is also looking for businesses or restaurants willing to host a Donkey game night.
Donkey is currently for sale at Island Drug in Oak Harbor, Clinton and the drug store in La Conner.
“Considering it’s in its first year and the low budget we had to work with, it’s absolutely amazing what we’ve done,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
And the experience has been a kick for Cleveland-Kolesar.
“I was extremely timid when I started this game and now I find myself at the shows dressed in cowboy boots … and shouting, ‘Step right up, play the game!’ It’s completely different than what I could have imagined myself doing,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
She has befriended the most popular and influential game designers in the country, some of whom are multi-millionaires, yet they’re happy to have dinner with her.
“They’re easy to get to know. It’s a fun industry to work with,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
Foundation of fun
Fun is what Donkey is all about. That fun is a way for Cleveland-Kolesar and her siblings to give back to their mother who did everything to make their childhoods fun.
Their mother, Joan Holmes, had 10 children and was a single mom for most of their childhoods.
“What we lacked for monetarily — and we did — Mom made up for with her creative genius. She’s amazing,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. “She made a game out of everything.”
Whether it was eating their veggies or hanging clothes on the line, “everything was a game, a race … Mom made everything fun,” Cleveland-Kolesar said.
Cleveland-Kolesar said she didn’t even realize until she was an adult that when Holmes pulled the kids around the floor on blankets, she was buffing the floor because it certainly didn’t feel like a chore.
Holmes originally taught her kids to play spoons, but it was a bit bland for them, so Cleveland-Kolesar and her siblings decided to improve on it for Donkey.
Now 80, Holmes “kicks my bottom every time we play this game,” Cleveland-Kolesar laughed, adding that she has never won a game of Donkey.
“Mom has such a wonderful attitude about life,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. “We were rich in that way.”
Despite family members on opposite sides of the political spectrum or with differing ideals, Cleveland-Kolesar said that everyone respects and loves each other. All of her siblings come to the shows and support the game.
“So we say that playing games keeps families together,” she laughed.
Working with Claudia and Cleve wasn’t always easy, Cleveland-Kolesar said. When they began their business, they made a pact that family would come first and business second.
“And I have to tell you, there have been some trying times,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. “We pulled it off! There were times I’m sure none of us wanted to speak to each other.”
Recently, the siblings were at their mom’s house, and amid the laughing and hugging, Cleveland-Kolesar said she realized they’d made it. They had kept their pact and learned how to work together and avoid what caused the others pain.
Cleveland Kids plans to release Donkey Junior for kids soon and they have plans for a handful of other games.
“Those things that you find yourself saying, someday I’m going to do this, someday I’m going to do that, today’s the day to start,” Cleveland-Kolesar said. “There’s nothing like the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you create your own work of art.”
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Rebecca Olson at email@example.com or 360-675-6611 ext. 5052.