Many vendor booths were still being set up Friday, the evening before the official start of the Carroll County 4H & FFA Fair, but there was already plenty of traditional fair activity at the Carroll County Agriculture Center.
Inside the long, low buildings were shelves of 4-H projects, from ceramics to T-Shirts to photography, already pinned with white, red and blue ribbons by the judges, and next to them rows of produce an platters that had received the same.
The aroma of fried chicken from the Union Bridge volunteer fire company’s stand filled the lower lot, while geysers of black smoke periodically erupted from the Buck Harmon Arena as the tractor pull competition put tires to sand.
But there was one new attraction Friday night at the fair, which runs from Saturday through Aug. 2. Tucked between the face-painting stand and the petting zoo, a small white vendor booth was labeled with paper letters reading, “Carroll County Cake Swap.”
“It is a cake decorating competition,” said David Sensenig, owner of Jealous Cat Games, showing off a deck of special cards, each one a different color or size of cake or type of icing. “The mechanics of the game are you are taking cakes layer by layer and putting them on your platter.”
Players try to build a cake to match one of the judging categories, such as the “premium," where the cake must have all different colors of frosting, or the “prestigious” category, where the cake must be all vanilla or chocolate. Cakes of higher difficultly — made of more layers — earn higher ribbons, and tougher categories earn higher-scoring ribbons.
“A white ribbon is for a three-layer cake; you have to have at least three layers to be able to enter. Four layers gets you a red ribbon, and then five layers gets you a blue ribbon,” Sensenig said. “The harder it is to make the cake, the more the ribbons are worth, and the first person to get 31 or more points wins.”
If that’s a game that sounds reminiscent of a traditional fair activity, that’s intentional: Sensenig based Carroll County Cake Swap — loosely — on the fair’s annual cake auction.
“Really? That’s really very interesting to me," Amy Petkovsek, cake auction superintendent, said when asked about Sensenig’s game. She wasn’t aware of the game before, but “Anything that gets the word out about the cake auction is good to me. More people coming, more people spending money cakes to support the fair is good news.”
The cake auction, a chance to bid on the blue ribbon-winning cakes baked by 4-H’ers, will kick off at 7 p.m Wednesday, though the children in 4-H who bake the cakes will get there as early as 8 a.m.
“They finish at noon, and that’s when the judging starts,” Petkovsek said. “If you get a blue, it means you can go in the auction, it means it tasted well and is delicious. Then from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., all the kids leave and the judges compare all the blue ribbons to each other to pick the best.”
Those best will be auctioned off, raising funds important to keeping the tradition of the fair going, according to Petkovsek, noting that the Carroll County 4H & FFA Fair doesn’t charge admission and the $5 parking fee only kicks in after 4 p.m.
“The kids bake their cakes and they take great pride in their baking skills. When that cake sells for $100, $300, $5,000, all that money goes back to the fair” she said. “When we make between $50,000 and $65,000, that allows the fair to keep operating.”
And keeping the fair operating not only provides entertainment to the public, Petkovsek points out, but it also provides a focus for hands-on, social activities for Carroll youth all year ’round.
“In today’s world, so many kids communicate with a screen in front of them,” she said. “That can be good sometimes, but 4-H remains one of the few programs out there, like sports teams, Boys and Girls Clubs and Scouts, where kids have to talk to each other face-to-face.”
And of course, face-to-face interaction is exactly what Sensenig is going for. Carroll County Cake Swap is designed for two to six players ages 8 and older, and is self-published — Sensenig being a hobbyist and game enthusiast more than commercial vendor. He is running a Kickstarter campaign to try and launch a larger print run of the game.
The idea for the game arose a little more than a year ago when Sensenig joined a game development group in Frederick, where he lives.
“Initially, I was just looking at a game that involved different layers of things and was initially thinking about towers, but also suggested the theme of cake. Everybody I talked to just really loved the idea of doing a cake-themed game," he said, and then wondered about the context. “What about a county fair? Everyone seemed to love that idea, the friendliness of it.”
And having heard of the cake auction, the setting for the game was clear.
“Carroll County seemed like a good backdrop for it, the rolling hills, the bucolic countryside,” Sensenig said. “I thought it sounded good, it rolled off the tongue, and people seemed really taken by theme.”
The thing was, Sensenig had never been to the fair before Friday — Wednesday will be his first time attending the real-life cake auction, something he was excited about, and noted that the fair in real life was exactly what he had imagined.
“Carroll County seemed like a good representation of what I wanted to evoke in the game,” he said. “I’m from a rural area in Pennsylvania, so I am well familiar with the environment — it’s what I grew up with.”