An Interview with Matt Kirby, Inventor of Apples to Apples

Several months ago, Matt Kirby, inventor of Apples to Apples, attended our Game Night in Santa Barbara to play test his newly released game, Picaroon.  It was exciting for everyone to meet the inventor of Apples to Apples, which has sold over 15 million copies.  Our regular gamers brought their Apples to Apples game for autographing and many asked for a picture with Matt, which he kindly obliged.  I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Matt and learning more about him and his life as an inventor. 

How did you come up with the idea for Apples to Apples?

I was at my in-law’s house having lunch and I wanted to have a stimulating conversation with them.  I posed the question:  Who is the better writer - F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway? Before my in-laws answered, I recognized a pattern of comparison in my question.  Then I thought:  Who is the better writer - Fitzgerald or Picasso?  That led to:  Who is crazier?  Picasso or a toaster? The more I thought about the pattern of comparisons, the more I realized I was onto an interesting game idea.  I did not set out to design a game.   I wanted to have a stimulating conversation. 

Did you have any idea that inventing Apples to Apples and working with Out of the Box Publishing would lead to a hit game?

When I started play testing the game with my friends and family, there was instantaneous laughter.  People wanted to keep playing. I knew it was worthwhile to keep going because whenever people played, the game created a party feeling. It was laughter in a box.  I thought in the back of my mind, “This could be big.” 

Originally, I created it as a board game.  I developed it for a few years and then took it to Origins in 1998, where I met with Out of the Box Publishing. 

Apples to Apples is now part of the Mattel portfolio of games.  Do you submit extensions to the original game play and is that creative task easy or challenging?

I’ve created a whole module of extensions and ideas.  Mattel is receptive to new ideas.  The Big Picture Apples to Apples is an example of one of those extensions. 

Of course, it is challenging to follow the original Apples to Apples. In some ways, I am a prisoner of my own success.  However, there are a million ways to play Apples to Apples. That’s the beauty of the game.  My family is always asking me for a new way to play it.  I even had a more edgy version, but it was never published. 

How has your life changed since inventing Apples to Apples?

I was working as an engineer when Apples to Apples was published by Out of the Box in 1999.  In 2006, I was able to quit my engineering job and put my mind to things I love to do.   I am more than blessed by this game. 

The success of Apples to Apples allowed me to build my dream home.  I have more time to develop and work on other games.  I created a game called Shipwrecked which was published in 2000.  I produced a documentary about artist, Fred Holle.  It’s called "Gnomegame: The Fred Holle Story (YouTube).  I’m also able to devote a lot of time to a project I created called Creative Symposium. I go into K-12 classrooms and explain the creative process in general, how the kids can learn to be more creative/poetic and find their own voice.  I am reaching out more in this way, and it is very rewarding. 

What inspires you to invent?

The creative process is the closest thing we have to the Divine. I’ve always loved to create things.  I’m inspired by nature – what I see, what I perceive, how I feel.  I was raised in an artistic family, so that influence has affected me greatly. 

Do you play games with your family, and if so, what are your current favorites?

Yes, we play a lot of games and of course, my family play tests a lot of my games.   They are hard on me, which is good.

My favorite games are Chess, Liar’s Dice, and Dungeons and Dragons.  I like games that are simple but dense.  I think Risk is a great game too, but you don’t win it, you survive it.

I know Apples to Apples fans will want to know more about Picaroon.   Can you describe the game and the process of creating it?

Picaroon was a mindful creation.  The engineer in me loves dice.  Picaroon is a light, abstract, strategy board game with dice. It’s a 6 x 6 grid of 36 cards on a game board where players (pirates) are collecting certain treasures based on rolling the dice.  There are lots of nuances to the game. There’s luck, strategy, memorization, negotiation and money management.  This game has been my hobby since 2007.  I’ve tested it around 100 times with many revisions. 

When and where will Picaroon be available?

Picaroon is available now on the website,  I will also be doing guerilla marketing, starting with meet-up groups, specific retailers, and expanding from there.

Do you have other new projects in the works?

Yes, I have several games in R & D.  I may license them or self-manufacture them. 

I am fascinated by astronomy and physics so I am planning on creating some documentaries on the subjects.

Would you share the three most valuable things you have learned as an inventor?

  1. Work from nature, from the way you see the world.
  2. Give yourself license to pursue your idea. Get out of your own way. Ideas don’t have to be perfect.
  3. Don’t be derivative. There’s no reason for it.

Any final point you’d like to add?

Don’t get seduced by technology.  Focus on content and creating meaning.

Thanks, Matt, for a terrific interview!