STEVENS POINT, Wis. — They search for items like magic capes, power helmets and a two-piece puzzle called the bi-force. They do it by canoe in the backwaters of the Wisconsin River, just north of Stevens Point.
The canoe race known as PaddleQuest attracts about 80 teams of paddlers each August. In the course of the game they encounter such characters as the pirate leader Captain Abraham and a time traveler named Dr. BroHop. And they pick up trash they find along the way.
This is the offbeat world of PaddleQuest, a two-day "eco-friendly paddling adventure contest steeped in a world of fantasy," according to its founder, Matt Kirsch. A Stevens Point native, Matt created PaddleQuest in 2002 shortly after he graduated from college.
USA Today Network-Wisconsin reports that Kirsch is 39 years old now and a video producer at Sentry insurance, married and a father of two. But he's never lost the kind of creative drive that hatched PaddleQuest. So for the past few years, he's been thinking, writing and drawing, creating another game. This one is a card game called Quester Party.
Quester Party features character cards, location cards, power cards and cards that spell out the kinds of missions the players and their alter-ego heroes need to complete.
"It's a hybrid co-op adventure card game of exploration and battle," Kirsch said. Players take control of Questers, and draw cards to determine where the Questers go, how much power they have, and what they have to do to defeat the baddie bosses. Players work together to defeat the bosses, Matt said, but they also compete against each other in collecting points on various quests.
Kirsch unveiled it earlier this month on Kickstarter and on the website of Tiger Ghost, his game design label. And as Quester Party begins its journey, he is starting to ramp up his prep work on PaddleQuest 2018, which will be held Aug. 10 through Aug. 12.
It all sprouts from Kirsch's constantly churning imagination. He carries a notebook with him almost all the time, and jots down ideas and creates drawings when inspiration hits. It all fits into a uniquely Stevens Point vibe — brainy, nerdy, geeky fun, often with outdoors bent. This is, after all, home to the World's Largest Trivia Contest, a brewery that's made a pointy-headed bearded man its mascot and an author of best-selling and award-winning fantasy books, Patrick Rothfuss.
"Maybe it's something in the water," Kirsch said. "We're kind of beatnik creatives. Or maybe creative beatniks."
Kirsch grew up in Stevens Point and is a 1997 graduate of Stevens Point Area Senior High School. And his experience growing up in Point in a game-loving family with two brothers and a sister is very much a driving influence behind Quester Party, PaddleQuest and other games brewing in Matt's head and notebooks.
"All they ever do is play games," said his wife, Brittany Kirsch. "They get together, and it's hours of just playing games. It's like, all the time."
Quester was designed to be "simple," Matt said, "No dice, no boards, no craziness."
"Yeah," said Brittany. "But he'd spend seven hours creating those characters."
PaddleQuest incorporated the Kirsch family's other obsession, paddling and exploring the backwaters of the Wisconsin River. Matt's original intent was to create a video mockumentary satirizing reality television shows, and PaddleQuest itself was contrived as the contest within the video.
"The video wasn't all that great," he said. "But PaddleQuest was so much fun. So we just started doing that every year."
PaddleQuest has become a kind cult favorite, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" of adventure races that's attracted national attention. In 2015 Rolling Stone did a full-blown feature on the event, calling it "Woodstock on the Water."
Matt met Brittany, also a Stevens Point native, at PaddleQuest. She never got into the game portion of the event, he said. Instead, she just hung out with friends and soaked in the party atmosphere that soaks through the competition. Despite having differing attitudes toward gaming and general geek culture (Brittany has never gotten into it), the two hit it off.
And he moved back to be with her, although she'll argue he was looking for a way to come home to Stevens Point anyway. "Your heart was here and you just didn't know it," Brittany said.
Their children, Zia, 7, and Maceo, 3, helped inspire Quester Party, too. They influence the characters, and Kirsch said many of them were created during a family road trip to Charleston, South Carolina.
"Brittany likes to drive, so I sat in the back (of the family minivan) with the kids and a notebook and created a lot of the characters," Kirsch said.
He hired a Madison company, The Game Crafter, to print and manufacture the card game. Kirsch has no idea how well it will sell and no expectations. But as of April 20, 45 backers have pledged $1,698 on the Kickstarter.com campaign, where people can purchase the game for $25.
Kirsch is already on to the next project.
"The next game I'm really excited about," he said. It's an environmental allegory and "it's about Flerps. Flerps are energy-hungry beings. They're bodyless beings. They just have faces. But they're hungry for different energy types and you get a lot points for them. ... But if you end up with too many dirty Flerps, you lose points."
"Sometimes," he added, "I do these projects just to make myself laugh."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Wausau Daily Herald.