Building a Better Backyard Game

Let’s Roll Bocce meets horseshoes in Rollors — a handcrafted wooden game of skill and chance. Photos by Scott Holstein
Building a Better Backyard GameMilitary man by day, toy soldier by night, one local U.S. Air Force major is putting a new spin on outdoor fun By Zandra Wolfgram

Today, Matt Butler is a major in the U.S. Air Force. He works as an air battle manager at Hurlburt Field, testing surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, systems and aircraft. But around seven years ago, while seated in a Boeing 707 flying 35,000 feet over Iraq and Afghanistan, he became an inventor as well.

Aiming for a fun game that would be simple enough for young players, yet challenging enough for adults, Butler landed on Rollors, a handcrafted wooden game of skill and chance. Think bocce meets horseshoes.

The game is hand-carved from maple wood and includes a pyramid-shaped goal, six wooden discs marked with points (three each for two teams), and a measuring cord.

To play the game, two teams of up to six players take turns rolling two-sided discs (numbered from 1 to 6) toward the opposite goal. The discs that land closest to the goal and face up earn the most points. As in horseshoes, a disc leaning on the goal, or a “leaner,” earns the maximum points. The team with the most points takes the victory.

Butler, a 34-year-old Minneapolis native, confesses that he has a lot of ideas circling in his head, but this is the first to take flight. For the sports enthusiast, creating a fresh spin on a backyard lawn game was a natural fit.

“I am from the Land of a Thousand Lakes,” he says. “I grew up in the city. We went to cabins to escape and always played games that were easy to set up and tear down, like bocce ball, horseshoes, badminton …” Butler doesn’t claim to have hatched a novel concept.

“These games have been around for thousands of years — it works,” he says. “The American way is innovation. Inventing something is good, but also if you look at things people have thought about, sometimes ideas have innovated it, changed it and made it better. That’s what I did with this game. It’s nothing new. I just did a new approach of it.”

When deciding where to outsource the prototype of the game, Butler found it fortuitous that the economy was down. It meant that many retired military veterans and skilled local contractors, unable to find work in the housing industry, could assist him in handcrafting his game. It was a win-win relationship. The knowledgeable veterans were pivotal in shaping the final product — literally.

“It was important to me that it be good quality. I wanted it to last — I didn’t want anything plastic,” he says.

Butler’s crafty comrades tried different finishes and lacquers on the maple; they tried curved and flat sanded edges and suggested exactly where the hole should be drilled so that it rolled best. Butler continues to work with a handful of local veterans who create games for him in the evenings or on weekends when they have time. To date, he has sold a total of 214 games, which retail for $85 plus shipping and handling, and tries to keep a limited number in stock.

Winning by chance is the only thing that has been left to chance with Rollors. In addition to manufacturing, all patent research, trademarking, marketing, Web site development, packaging and distribution have been handled locally — and that’s by design.

“I feel good about it in multiple ways, because I know I’m helping people here,” Butler says.

He has already become a mentor to other would-be inventors. Butler has even been asked for advice on launching cosmetic products. One tip he has shared is to be wary of organizations promising too much or that are overly eager to help.

“There are a lot of fakes out there who claim to provide patents and such; you have to be careful,” he says.

One piece of advice Butler himself received early on is to be sure to apply for a patent that gives the most protection.

“I chose a utility patent, which covers your idea in general,” he says. “If you get a patent on something too specific, someone could change your invention slightly and take your idea.”

Beyond the reward of realizing an invention, Butler’s foray into business has enabled him to provide his new colleagues with leads and referrals.

“It’s not (only) the game that is helping the economy in the area, so I feel good about that as well,” he says.

Butler advises that market research could be a game changer.

“When you have an invention, you have to be sure that not only is it marketable, but is it something someone is going to like?” he asks.

Instead of conducting surveys, Butler donated Rollors as prizes at tournaments and events. He then watched and listened while his game was played. He also enlisted a professional gamer who reviewed Rollors and then shared pros and cons.

According to the Rollors Web site (rollors.com), the reviewer of Outdoor Games concluded that the game is “portable, easy to learn, easy to play, high quality and fun.” But there were some suggestions for the new inventor.

“I learned I needed more than one measuring device, and that makes sense,” Butler says.

Some people wear their pride on their sleeve, but this soldier displays his on the game’s box — literally. It’s no surprise that Butler’s invention would be packaged in red, white and blue. The old-fashioned, retro-style graphic design, which depicts a family enjoying the game, seems to embody Butler’s American spirit.

“It’s made in the USA, and not many things are anymore,” he says. “I may change things here and there, but I’ll always keep the red, white and blue.”

Rollors, like many games, can be purchased online, but what is not typical is Butler’s free, personalized delivery service. He has hand-delivered games to customers from Pensacola to Panama City Beach.

“I could have just waived the delivery fee, but delivering the game gives me a chance to meet the person, show them the game and talk to them about it,” he says. “When I see their smile, it’s worth it.” Butler says the game is popular with grandparents as a family gift, but he also sees it purchased as a wedding gift, and as recreation for camping and tailgating parties.

Now that Rollors is “in play,” Butler is tinkering with several aspects: reducing manufacturing costs; designing a convenient carrier for the game; improving the packaging; and managing supply and demand. Though he has other ideas, he says he’s not racing to get them to market, adding that he will “stick on this for a while.”

Butler is happy to take turns. He looks forward to sharing tricks of the trade and good advice that he was given from fellow inventors he has met through trade organizations and Inventor’s Digest magazine.

“People who’ve helped me said all they ask is that I pass it on to someone else, so that’s what I try to do — and I feel good about that,” Butler says.

For a soldier who rolled with his idea, it seems his new toy may be as lasting as the American dream. Game on.

Want to play?Visit rollors.com to order the game ($75 for personal delivery in Northwest Florida, $85.35 to have your set shipped). Each set comes with 6 Rollors, (3 red, 3 blue), 2 goals (1 red, 1 blue), a measuring cord and instructions.