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LDS convert makes a career out of board games

Some say life isn't all fun and games.

For Al Waller, who is a husband, father, LDS convert and CEO of Out of the Box Publishing Co., life is just that.

Waller's company publishes family board games, the most famous of which was Apples to Apples.

"It's like family game night every single night of our lives," said his daughter Burgundy Waller, who was 8 years old when Apples to Apples came out in 1999. She remembers sitting around the table with her siblings and testing games for her dad.

But although Al Waller grew up loving board games, he didn't see it as a career path.

"In my youth, that was far from any visions that I had of being a pilot or doctor or lawyer, or anything that would earn an income," he said. "I don't think many people, when they are young, see making games as a viable business."

As he got older, games lost importance in his life, as did religion. Despite his strong Catholic roots, he began to fall away from God.

Finding religion

One day as a young adult, Waller decided to get on his knees and pray for the first time in years.

"I actually remember getting an answer," he said. "That was a turning point because I had forgotten God, but he had not forgotten me."

Shortly after this experience, Waller returned home to Wisconsin where he came in contact with a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who refused to do business with him on a Sunday. He was curious, and she connected him with the missionaries.

The Mormon missionaries answered questions Waller had always had and for which he had never known how to find the answers.

"I remember sitting there and hearing a voice in my head of Heavenly Father saying, 'These are the questions you asked back in the sixth grade,' " he said. "It was at that point I knew I had to listen to these young men that were trying to teach me something."

Six weeks from his first missionary discussion, Waller was baptized. He served an LDS mission a year later.

Permission to play

He said the two years of missionary service gave him the courage to leave his engineering career behind to become an entrepreneur, something he had always wanted to do. He began experimenting with startups and starting his own businesses.

This wouldn't be the last time the gospel led him in a new career direction. When "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" was released by the church's First Presidency in 1995, one line that really stood out to him was "wholesome recreational activities" as part of a successful family.

"I was setting goals, I was working hard, I was being a good dad, I was doing all those things I thought I was supposed to be doing," Waller said. "But when I read that, it was like, 'You're not playing enough. You're just this serious dad.' "

Waller said this got him to start thinking about games again and to consider the business world behind them.

"It was almost like the Lord himself gave me permission to go out and play," he said. "I don't know if that's what the prophet intended when they originally wrote that, but that's how it worked for me."

Waller started a board game publishing company with a friend, and although they didn't get off to a great start, they soon found Apples to Apples.

He said they met the inventor of the game at a trade show. Although they weren't there to buy games, Waller felt inspired to listen to what the inventor had to say.

They decided to publish the game. Between 1998 and 2007, when the company sold the rights to Mattel, they sold 3 million units, according to

Burgundy Waller said she has noticed a pattern in her dad's life of following the Spirit.

"I think he has a very close relationship with the Spirit in everything that he does," she said. "And the major turning points in his life are when he has revelation, if you want to say that."

She said her father's commitment to his personal beliefs has made him stand out in his career. She remembers at trade shows he would sit at the kids' table with his family instead of going to the bar with the others.

"He never caved," she said. "And even though everyone around him was doing things that weren't among his personal beliefs, he never looked down on them."

Waller said because of his career, he gets the opportunity to share his testimony "in a fun way." He said the overall barometer for his games is whether he would feel comfortable with the prophet playing them.

Although none of his business partners are LDS, Waller said they agreed to this family-friendly standard.

Waller said sometimes it has been difficult to turn down games that end up financially successful but don't fit in with his and the company's values.

"From a short-term business standpoint, yes, that has been a temporary challenge," he said. "But I'm in this for the long haul. I know my business life is short-lived, and at some point I am going to be held accountable for all of my actions to the Lord."

The 'fun factor'

Waller said besides being family-friendly, all of his games have a few characteristics. They are quick, usually educational and, most of all, fun.

"With all of our games, the No. 1 thing has to be what we call the 'fun factor,' " Waller said. "All of our games have to provide an emotional level of fun that can compete with going to a theme park to ride roller coasters, or going and playing miniature golf."

Out of the Box's newest game, Snake Oil, was released last year. Waller hopes it will be the next big game.

Snake Oil is similar to Apples to Apples in that players are dealt a hand of random word cards. The "customer" is assigned a card, anything from "zombie" to "fireman," and the players have to come up with a product from their hand of words that they think the customer will like. Unlike Apples to Apples, the players have the opportunity to take on characteristics of a snake oil salesman and try to persuade the customer that their product is the best.

Waller said he published the game purely for entertainment purposes but has since found out that teachers and businessmen are using it for educational and professional purposes.

"It was a very pleasant surprise," he said. "I was creating an entertainment product. Never in my wildest dreams did I think teachers were going to give homework with it."

Springville toy store owner Jimmy Morrison said some of his best customers are teachers looking to bring games into the classroom.

He said his store, Funfinity, has been selling Waller's games for years.

"We carry all of his games," Morrison said. "They are very interactive and family-friendly. They are the current best-seller in our store."

Waller said he advises young people who want to be successful to figure out what they are passionate about and go with it.

"I really like making people laugh," he said. "And one of the ways I can do that is to make games that bring laughter into people's homes."

Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: