Both classics and newcomers are selling well

December 17, 1990|By John Corr | John Corr,Knight-Ridder

BORED? THIS year, the answer may be boards.

Board games. As in Monopoly and checkers. But we're talking about board games with a '90s (or, more often, an '80s) twist.

"This is a very good year for board games," said Frank Reysen, editor of Playthings, the nation's top magazine covering the toy industry. "One theory is that, with the uncertainty about the economy, people are looking for less expensive means of social interaction."

Reysen's magazine annually surveys buyers for some 10,000 American toy stores to find out what toys and games are selling best. This year's survey shows that updated and specialized versions of the Trivial Pursuit board game are selling strong. A newcomer making substantial progress is Monopoly Jr., a version of the old standard real-estate game designed for children 5 to 8. Instead of buying real estate as in the adult game, kids are at an imaginary amusement park, buying tickets to rides.

"The classics in general are doing well this year, games like Scrabble and [original] Monopoly," Reysen said.

Also doing better than usual are "licensed" games -- board games based on personalities or characters. Strong sellers include games keyed to the Simpson cartoon family, the Barbie doll, Batman and Dick Tracy.

"Little-girl board games are also very strong this year," Reysen said. "We're seeing good sales for Barbie's Just Us Girls, Sweet Valley High and Girl Talk."

Only one board game has broken into Playthings' Top 10 list: Scattergories, at No. 10. Scattergories is only marginally a board game, since the only board is a surface to roll dice on. But since it has a board, dice and cards, Playthings counts it. A roll of the dice determines the key letter of the alphabet for each round, and players must think of a word beginning with that letter in each of a number of categories, such as animals, foods, movies, etc.

Scattergories has the distinction of being one of only five games selected as worth the trouble of playing by Mensa, the international high-I.Q. society. Scot Morris, a Mensa member and games editor for Omni magazine, assembled an eight-member panel that played 80 word and strategy games and picked five.

In addition to Scattergories, the panel chose Tribond, in which players are given three words and most decide what they have in common; Abalone, played on something like a Chinese-checkers board with players trying to force opponents' men off the board; the most recent edition of Trivial Pursuit, and Taboo, in which you must describe something without using certain "taboo" words. (For example, if the word is "diamond," you can't say baseball, carat, jewel or engagement.)

The Playthings survey indicates that the most popular board games are no longer traditional two-player games like checkers and chess, but games that can be played by groups and involve a great deal of social interaction. A study by the Toy Manufacturers of America indicates that sales of these kinds of games have more than tripled in the past decade.

Social interaction is a key element in planning new games, according to Lawrence I. Bernstein, executive vice president of Parker Brothers, producers of the classic Monopoly game.

Parker Brothers is marketing a new game that combines a board with a video tape -- "America'a Funniest Home Videos" Game. It includes video clips from the television program, game cards, tokens and a question-and-answer booklet.

Another new game is "Gulf Strike" a role- playing game from Avalon Hill a Baltimore games publisher. In this timely game, players create roles for George Bush,Saddam Hussein and other principals in the ongoing tension in the Mideast.Avalon Hill also produces the established " Diplomacy."

John Yuscavage of Mountaintop, Pa., has created a trivia game with 99 categories and more than 3,000 possible answers. It's called Triviagory, and up to 12 people can play.

One of the most unusual new games is Patolli, which its manufacturers say is a faithful re-creation of a game played by the ancient Aztecs of Mexico. Patolli is played on a leather mat with dice and semi-precious stones such as quartz, jasper and turquoise. The game sells for about $30; extra game pieces are sold ($7.95 a set) separately for those who want to play "for keeps."

Another new team game this year is How to Host a Scavenger Hunt, which the Decipher game company describes as "a party in a box."

Games inventor Brian Hersch, who dreamed up "Taboo," agrees: Board games, he says, are "entertainment in a box."

"Board games are a natural form of entertainment for the thirtysomething generation," Hersch said. "Through plastic and paper, I must create an environment in which people can relax, laugh and get to know one another."

Hersch, the creator of Outburst, which has sold 2.5 million copies since its introduction in 1987, says board games are an important source of adult entertainment but aren't recognized as such.

"If a book sell 50,000 copies, it's a best seller. Why is it that a board game that sells 2 million copies and generates more than $50 million in revenue barely gets noticed?"

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