Sandy and Francisco Diaz have heard all about the declinin quality of education; in fact, they could tell you a couple "Johnny Can't Read" stories of their own. Having traveled throughout the United States, they have been too often reminded of the ignorance of many Americans -- young and old -- about their own country.
But the upbeat Rockville couple believe in fighting ignorance with information. And if you can have a little fun along the way, all the better, they say. Out of that mind-set they created Facts-A-Nation -- a challenging board game that the Diazes hope will be played in the family room as well as the classroom.
The game is designed with a map of the United States in the center and two playing tracks around the border. Players advance around the board on the outside track, identifying individual states, and eventually move to the more difficult inside track, where they must answer questions in 12 different categories.
Like Trivial Pursuit, the game tests one's knowledge in topics as diverse as cities, sports, ethnic groups and wars; but in this game, the questions--all 1,200 of them--are exclusively about the United States.
Nearly two years in the making, Facts-A-Nation is hitting educational and toy stores just in time for Christmas, and its creators couldn't be more pleased. The game, which the couple designed, developed and are marketing on their own, has been a labor of love, but an expensive and time-consuming one.
"Everything took so much longer than we had anticipated," says Sandy, who quit her job as an information specialist at the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information in August to begin marketing the game full time.
For Francisco, a native of Spain who spoke no English when he and Sandy first met in Madrid, the game that celebrates U.S. people, places and history is a particularly proud accomplishment.
"It's really been a beautiful project," says the former chemist who adopted a career change to computers as well as a new language when the couple married and moved to the United States nearly 18 years ago.
While Francisco's career developed, the Diazes moved frequently--to New England, the Southwest, Oregon, the East Coast. In each new location, they made the same troubling discovery: Americans are under-educated about life beyond their own back yard.
"The East Coast people know very little about the West Coast. And the West Coast knows almost nothing about the East. And the middle knows zero about both," says Francisco. "And I'm talking about educated people."
The idea of a game about the United States began with Francisco, who says he awoke from a dream one night about two years ago with a clear picture of the game board in mind. He shared his idea with Sandy, and the "professional student" in each of them began to emerge.
The Diazes quickly wore a path to the Rockville library and Smithsonian Institution, where they spent endless weekends and after-work hours. It reminded Sandy of her days as a researcher for Time-Life books. She had also done a fair amount of research as an English teacher, a museum docent and a travel agent.
The game was meant to be as educational as it was recreational, Sandy says, so they hired a couple of high school history teachers to help develop curriculum-appropriate questions on topics like geography, government and early Americans.
Meanwhile, the couple contacted a patent attorney, who confirmed that their invention indeed was unique. About $15,000 later, they had two patents on the game--one for the design and one for the way the game works--as well as a trademark and copyright.
The hardest part of being an inventor, though, was getting the game produced, says Francisco, who designs computer systems for Data Base Management Inc. and used his home computer to catalog the game's facts.
L "No one wanted to produce less than 20,000 copies," he says.
But after six months of searching, they found Marino Gust Enterprises Inc. in Buffalo, N.Y., who agreed to manufacture a limited run of 1,000 games. The first copy of Facts-A-Nation was delivered to Rockville, appropriately enough, on July 4.
Since then the Diazes have sold more than 750 games, almost entirely by word of mouth. They've sold to teachers at national conventions, to county fair-goers, to listeners of a local radio program, to neighbors and to friends of satisfied customers.
Most recently they've managed to get the game onto the shelves of 12 stores in the Maryland-Virginia area. [In Baltimore, Facts-A-Nation is sold at Greetings & Readings and Learning How in Towson and at School & PreSchool in Catonsville, for under $30.]
Initially aimed at players 14 and older, the game in its few short months in public has proved popular among people of all ages because of its flexible rules, says Sandy. While mom, dad and the older kids travel the inside track, tackling sometimes difficult questions, younger members of the family may be competing on the easier outside track, identifying the 50 states.
Other options are built into the rules as well, making the game adaptable to various grade levels. In fact, many of the early buyers of the game have been teachers who are exploring
possibilities for using the game in classes ranging from geography to ethnic history.
In Baltimore County, Perry Hall High School history teacher Peter Sugatt says he plans to use the game in an exchange program with the Soviet Union next spring.
The Diazes figure they've invested more than $40,000 in the game to date, and they have an order in for another 2,500 games in January. They don't even think about when they might start to realize a profit.
But, on most days at least, they wouldn't trade places with anyone.
"It's kind of like a roller coaster ride," says Sandy. "Some days you wake up and wonder, 'Why did I ever get into this?' But then someone comes along and buys six games. And every sale is a victory."
For more information on Facts-A-Nation call 1-800-275-6556.