Alice picks the brains of none other than Perigon inventor and Clarendon Games founder, Will Sorrell.

It's one thing getting the startup going, it's another investing your life savings, and it's another giving up a full time job to pursue what might in the aftermath of the dot com crash seem a risky venture, but it's quite another to invent a product entirely. To take it from lightbulb moment through to the Dragons' Den rigours of bringing it to market, seeing it stocked in all manner of British retailers (Hamleys amongst them) and then finally online no less (and that's the summarised version). Yet that's the path of one Will Sorrell, inventor, founder of Clarendon Games and the brains behind two new board games; Perigon and Market Meltdown. I think you'll agree, quite an achievement. Oh and he's also quite good at chess.

So who is Sorrell and where did he come from? Well, he's an alumnus of Edinburgh University, he's half Swedish, a consummate lover of the capital, softly spoken with a certain air of gentility; observations made as I watch him, brow furrowed over a chessboard in the guise of lesson/interview, because at the time of writing (in the name of another assignment) I very badly need to learn the 'game of kings'. Killing two birds with one stone is an apt theme as it turns out, because Sorrell is nothing if not an aficionado, and (drum roll) this is his first ever interview - which makes this er, quite a scoop actually. 'I’ve not actually been interviewed before,' he says with gravitas. It’s really easy, don’t worry! I try to assuage him. I just ask you questions and you answer.'

Which brings us to the build-up to that seminal moment (the aesthetic design of the games he's spent the last four years developing) having previously worked at a company specialising in high end skin care. 'I literally just woke up,' he says of Perigon, 'a two player strategy board game that combines the complexity of chess with the accessibility of backgammon.' 'I was thinking about how the pieces would move; the design of it. I suddenly felt like I had enough experience to set up my own consumer goods distribution type company. I made a conscious decision to do board games. I knew that they would maintain my interest. Then I spent about two months just trying out different stuff, thinking of different ideas... I was in the zone.'

For two years Sorrell skimmed the head off his salary, using the proceeds to make a prototype. 'I used to take it to my office and practice with it. I got kind of obsessed with it in the evenings and on weekends... I have an interest in web design as well, so I then built the website – almost before the game was even finalised. It was a way to make myself go ahead and actually do it.' And do it he did, following up Perigon (2011) with Market Meltdown in 2012; a Stockmarket inspired tour de force where players emulate the role of traders, whizzing their way around a Monopoly style board.

'There’s been quite a few challenges,' Sorrell says of the process. 'The biggest one? he laughs...'Probably persuading major retailers that what you’ve got is incredible. You’re starting from scratch and you’ve got nothing. You call up Hamleys and you go: “Hi... we’ve got this board game and we really think that you should sell it. No, we don’t sell it anywhere else. We’ve just launched it. You haven’t heard of us. Please do take this gigantic risk.” That’s really tough...'

'I’m really grateful for the small, independent stores,' he continues, 'because they’re the ones who kind of took the plunge first. After our initial contact with Hamleys, it took about two years to actually get in. Fortnum & Mason was actually our first stockist. We literally called them up, met with them a week later – and then we were on the shop floor a week after that. We had this massive show of support from a major retailer from the start which definitely helped our credibility.'

Online, however, is what we're here to discuss. 'It’s where we make our biggest margin,' Sorrell says as he considers his next move. 'We’re a distributor, so we’re primarily a business-to-business organisation. That’s the only way we sell directly to members of the public. Even though we don’t push it - because we don’t want to be in competition with our customers – it’s one of our biggest sales channels, definitely. We don’t pursue any aggressive online marketing or SEO campaigns. We tailor SEO around our brand name, rather than board games in general. So if anyone specifically wants to find out about our games or the company – they’ll find us right away, but anything else, any other search term, and we won’t appear.'

There's also the requisite app, of course, brought to fruition in six to eight months by developers in the USA. An expensive process no doubt - does Sorrell think he could have done it himself, given he's a dab hand with websites? 'No way,' he laughs. 'First of all, you need someone who’s highly skilled who can work out the logic of what the algorithm should be, and then, on top of that, they’ve got to translate that into the right kind of code. It’s really expensive. If you’re doing it for a commercial reason – there’s hundreds of thousands of apps out there – you have to spend a lot of money marketing it. It’s a bit like marketing a film; some independent films do incredibly well and lots of people watch it, but on the whole, the vast majority are produced by massive companies with a gigantic marketing budget.'

'If you get into the top hundred apps in any one time in terms of sales you’ve got to sell a ridiculous amount – tens or hundreds of thousands for a sustained period – and then you get into the top hundred. That’s where you reach critical mass, and the App Store makes you highly visible, and then that feeds into itself – but you have to put in your own legwork to get to that stage. Even if you have an app and you spend lots of money marketing it – that’s like making a film as well – it still might not take off for whatever reason. A lot of the people who make apps, they’ll make a dozen or so – spend a fortune making it, promoting it – and then they hope that one or two really take off and that pays for all the others. I think, with board games, people like other people to explain the rules to them, show them how to play. It’s a good way to raise the profile of the game. It’s a lot more competitive to get on the shelves. Anyone can get into the App Store. There’s hardly any criteria to be met... It's a lot tougher to get into Waterstone’s, but there’s only a few of you and you get a lot more visibility.'

There are two versions of the Perigon app; free and paid (at the very reasonable price of 69p) and it's apparently 'doing quite well'. 'It’s a good way for people to get into the game, because you can only play moves that are legal.' A topic which segways onto Sorrell's bête noire, the predominance of technology; 'I actually quite like not being in tech. It’s just quite nice to have that balance in your life – not constantly plugged in to your iPhone. I’m not reactionary; I think it’s good that tech is progressing and people are using it to improve their lives. I think you can strike a balance. I think there will be some kind of backlash against it all. There will be loads more gadgets and things coming out in the future, like Google Glass... It seems that people who are not much younger than us have completely different attitudes to privacy. I just wonder how quickly everyone will give up their rights. There’ll be these sort of retreats – maybe even actual physical retreats – where people can get away from all of that.'

Looking forward is of course just as important as harking back; 'When I was at school for Business Week, you could go to talks for different professions. What I thought was incredibly powerful, was being an entrepreneur had equal status on the notice board to becoming a banker or a solicitor, or a journalist. There were only about six professions. It had a massive impression on me. I thought: “Wow. If the school is giving being an entrepreneur equal status, then surely that’s a respectable profession to go into. It’s not crazily risky.”'

'I remember Johnnie Boden gave a talk about it; about the attitude - how it made you feel to be an entrepreneur. I remember being really disappointed at the time because I wanted more technical tips. I went to that talk – it had quite an impression on me - one thing he mentioned: some of his friends who worked in the City, who were making loads of money, they were jealous because he was doing something creative and exciting. The fact that he was earning a tenth or a fifth of what they were earning didn’t matter, because he really, really enjoyed it. I think about that now - his stake in his company is now worth something like £200m! He’d only just started at the time. He got the last laugh.'

Has the experience of launching Clarendon lived up to the early indicators then? Money aside (Clarendon is not yet in the same league) does Sorrell's experience in some way emulate that of Boden's? 'The highs and lows are really extreme. A rollercoaster. It’s such a cliché... Without trying to minimise a condition like bi-polar – it’s an incredibly callous comparison, but it’s so intense. I do spring out of bed every day though... It’s your thing. You make your own decisions, and you always do what you think is best. It’s not like you have a boss who’s telling you “you should do this” and you think you shouldn’t.'

'I did realise that everything you want to do takes three times longer and is three times more expensive,'
Sorrell says contemplatively. 'I knew that, but when you actually live through that then you really grow to understand it. It’s no longer an abstract thing in your mind. You have to be incredibly gritty and bloody-minded and you have to put up with not having a disposable income. If my parents didn’t let me live with them for a significant portion of time, then I don’t think I could have done it. I think I would have had to give up. Personally I needed that support. I can’t see how people do it without that.'

So there it is, a fly-on-the-wall insight of an inventor and founder at work; the interview draws to a close. 'People should just go for it because it’s definitely worth it,' Sorrell says in a final flurry of enthusiasm. 'It’s just so much more fun... I’d quite like to have a big international company that’s making loads of cool board games all around the world. We keep coming up with really cool ideas; fun, educational board games. Just keep going basically.' And with that he swoops in under the radar for a sneaky check mate, not before he's made me write them down though, some very important chess tips.


1) Have a plan and use all your pieces together as part of a team. If you don’t, it will be easy for your opponent to defend against you.
2) Avoid premature attacks. Make sure to look at the big picture, for sometimes a little victory could lead to your opponent getting the upper hand or conquering you later on.
3) Control the centre of the board. The closer your pieces are to the centre of the board, the more mobile they are since they can move to and control more squares.
4) Know when to trade pieces. The value of the pieces are: king - 10 points, rook - 5 points, bishop and knight - 3 points each, and pawn - 1 point. Don’t exchange pieces of the same value unless there is a clear advantage for doing so. As a general rule, if you have the initiative, don’t exchange like for like as the fewer pieces each player has, the fewer options the attacking player has at their disposal.

Perigon and Market Meltdown are available in Waterstones.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann, 2014.