Marcella Meyer spent a lot of hours playing board games with her three children when they were young.
“After you’ve played ‘Life’ 20 million times, you start thinking about how you might change it up,” she said. “We’d find ways to modify it and make it more interesting.”
An electrical engineer by profession, Meyer began fantasizing about using her design skills to create a new game of her own someday.
And more than two decades later, after retiring from engineering, spending years as a tournament tennis player, and diving into the pickleball craze, Meyer has designed her first game.
“My dad passed away in 2019,” Meyer said. “He was an artist, and his passing made me think more about my own creativity. As an engineer, I’d always been so focused on A equals B. I felt like it was time to explore a little bit more.”
Meyer, 57, of Carlisle, joined the pickleball craze after moving from Texas to Massachusetts. While walking her dog past the town courts in West Concord, she glimpsed people playing a game she’d never seen before. “They were very welcoming and said they’d teach me. I fell in love with it,” she recalled.
Once she learned the game, she found herself frequently trying to explain the arcane rules and vocabulary to novices. When a shoulder injury — “not related to pickleball,” she hastened to explain — kept her off the courts, she had an insight. Why not use the time she was rehabilitating from surgery to create a game around everyone’s new favorite sport?
“Pickleball is quirky,” Meyer said. “I thought it would be neat to have a card game to teach people the rules, the slang, the court strategy.”
Like the actual sport of pickleball, the game, entitled Pickleball Slam, appeals to a range of abilities. “When people first come to my game, they pick it up quickly and start to get excited about it,” Meyer said. “As they get deeper into it, they realize that there’s a lot to learn. The card game evolved much like the sport in that you can pick it up and start learning to play without knowing a lot about it, but as you continue, you’ll gain more strategy.”
Meyer enlisted friends, family, and fellow pickleball and tennis players to play-test the game, refining it based on their critique. A big breakthrough came when a series of chance encounters led to a meeting with Phil Jackson, a retired executive from Mattapoisett with 30 years of experience in the toy industry, most recently running the games division for Hasbro.
“Everybody has ideas for games,” Jackson said. “I can tell pretty quickly if they’re serious, particularly once I lay out what’s ahead of them in terms of the challenges, the time commitment, and sometimes the financial expenditure as well. I gave Marcella a checklist of items to think about, which included determining marketability, understanding the competition, and searching various names and characters with the US trademark office to be sure what she was working on hadn’t already been claimed.”
Jackson was impressed when Meyer called him back two weeks later having completed the checklist, and agreed to continue mentoring her, though without any financial interest. “I have a personal interest in helping someone who shows this much commitment,” he said.
After envisioning her pickle-themed characters — including two chefs, since key to the sport of pickleball is a zone on the court called the “kitchen,” as well as a ballerina who takes soft shots and a knight in armor who blocks — Meyer needed to bring in some artistry. She knew just whom she wanted for the job — her son’s childhood friend from Austin, Texas, Scott Schoenike. Even as a little boy, Schoenike had shown artistic talent; he’d since gone on to study art and illustration at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla.
“Marcella brought me on to this project a year before I graduated from college,” Schoenike said. “It was my first big commissioned project, and very exciting for me to put my skills to test in an actual professional setting.”
Not a pickleball player himself, Schoenike, 24, watched videos to familiarize himself with the moves. “I’d watch footage of pros playing until I saw just the move I wanted to depict, whether it was the perfect backhand, overhead, or spike. I’d look at where the player’s feet were, where their center of mass was, how their head was positioned. And then I’d have fun illustrating those movements in very exaggerated ways for our pickle characters.”
As Jackson, the retired toy executive, sees it, Pickleball Slam is itself something of a slam-dunk, tapping as it does into a huge existing market full of pickleball enthusiasts. “Sometimes when you’re creating a game, you have to start by explaining why it would be worthwhile,” Jackson said. “In this case, all you have to say is ‘Pickleball’ and I get it already. Also, it’s designed for ages 12 and up, which is the biggest audience in the game-playing market.”
Among the friends Meyer recruited to test-play the game was Mary-Lynne Bohn, a fellow member of her Acton-based tennis team. Bohn took the game home to her family to try out and also offered her services as a graphic designer, helping Meyer design the packaging, create branding, and set up a website. For Bohn, it was a welcome change from her usual projects. “I’d never worked on a game before,” she said. “So much of what I do is digital. It was fun to do something tactile for a change. Cards, boxes: items you can hold in your hand.”
Pickleball Slam, now available for pre-order at pballgoods.com for $22.50, will soon be offered through Amazon and at local shops and fitness centers. Meyer hopes it will be a popular stocking-stuffer this holiday season — for pickleball players and nonplayers alike. Those with experience in the sport might even recognize themselves in some of the characters.
“It really captures some of the quirkiness of pickleball enthusiasts,” Jackson said. “For a kid, the characters might just be funny, but adults who play the sport will be saying, ‘I know a guy just like that.’”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.