Games on war, debt aimed at capturing public mood

February 13, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- Forget the fantasies of yesteryear. Baltimore-based manufacturer Monarch Avalon has arrived here for the annual Toy Fair to find that board games on sex (e.g., the Dr. Ruth Game) have little appeal and that Class Struggle is obsolete, while Gulf Strike and Insolvency are given the best shot for capturing today's mood.

The two-week Toy Fair traditionally serves as an outlet for the obsession of the moment, and this year is no different. Monarch Avalon's war-game clientele has clamored for a game set in the Middle East.

"The customers are always interested in the current conflict," said Fredrik Malmberg, a Swedish distributor buying games at Monarch Avalon's New York office yesterday morning.

Monarch Avalon originally produced Gulf Strike in 1983 based on the Iran-Iraq war and updated it in 1988 to reflect the cease-fire. "But we always left open the possibility of a superpower conflict," said company President Jackson Dott.

A third version was hurriedly put together last fall with Saddam Hussein's face slapped on the old wrapping and the goal simplified. "When he's dead, you win," said company Chairman Eric Dott.

The publicity release usually issued to describe a game was never printed. "We didn't have to because it's been selling like crazy," Eric Dott said.

For Mr. Hussein's opponents, the game has an upbeat structure. "You can fudge, but he's so outnumbered he's not going to win," Eric Dott said.

A computer simulation is in the works.

Monarch Avalon is hardly the only company to react to the war. Sharing its offices, for instance, is Hobbycraft Canada, a manufacturer of scale models of many of the planes used in the gulf.

"All we had to do is change the packaging," said the company's New York sales representative, Edward Goldberg. "We just happened to be in the right place at the right time when everything exploded."

Many other companies, however, have resisted, because of ideology, timing or skepticism. It can take up to nine months to create the dies for many products, and by the time next Christmas's shopping season begins, January's fascination can be either played out or strikingly objectionable.

One likely candidate to benefit from the outbreak in hostilities, Hasbro, hasn't manufactured any desert camouflage uniforms or Middle East scenarios for G.I. Joe, instead choosing to cast the venerable soldier this year as an "Eco Warrior" with the good G.I. named "Clean Sweep", the bad "Cess Pool" and the primary military vehicle the "Septic Tank."

And even the best ideas sometimes flounder.

For instance, Monarch Avalon's 1985 introduction of The Dr. Ruth Game would seem to have touched on an enduring theme. The company's stock price skyrocketed but then crashed.

Sales of the game are now almost nonexistent.

"Sex is out," Eric Dott said. "No one cares anymore."

Other ideas also have languished. Diplomacy is in low demand. "After the war, it will be back," said Tom Shaw, the company's sales manager. "We need some U.S.-Russian dirty deeds."

Another classic, Class Struggle, which pits capitalists against communists, has lost its appeal everywhere but Milwaukee, Eric Dott said.

Searching for current trends, Monarch Avalon has introduced the Wedding Game. "Weddings," said Mr. Malmberg, "are definitely in."

And the company is particularly hopeful for Insolvency, a game in which the player least in debt wins. "This is realistic," Mr. Shaw said. "Being in debt is not prestigious."

The game reflects the toy business itself, which has been anything but fun recently.

"Now you can own a game company -- and go $500,000,000 in debt" is the catch phrase on the box, and examples such as Mattel and Tonka are cited. That could be dicey for Monarch Avalon, which has four years of losses. But Eric Dott noted, "We're not in" the game.

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