Rolling The Dice

December 09, 1991|By Kim Clark

You'll never see it on toy store shelves, but Eric and Jackson Dott had the secret hit of this year's Toy Fair, the annual New York extravaganza where retailers stock up for the coming year.

The father-son management team of Baltimore's Monarch Avalon Inc. had toy executives and retail managers clustered around their latest board game, a one-of-a-kind spoof on the toy industry they called Pursuit of Insolvency.

The Dotts, who made their sample of Insolvency to entertain their friends and not to sell, designed the game so that players would lose money while marketing games. Roll the dice enough and you were guaranteed to end up in bankruptcy court.

Like many Monarch Avalon games, Pursuit of Insolvency was clever, witty, true-to-life . . . and unprofitable.

And up until recently, many in the game industry feared Monarch Avalon was pursuing insolvency in earnest.

Buffeted by competition from a new generation of computer and board game makers, Monarch Avalon's sales had plummeted. The maker of games ranging from the technically sophisticated war game Gettysburg to the risque Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex had lost money from 1986 to 1990. Their bread-and-butter products, complex war games, suffered from a host of socio-economic changes: growing competition for entertainment dollars, aging players, Americans' declining interest in reading, and a shortage of modern wars interesting enough to serve as game models.

Their game sales had dropped from $7.3 million in 1986 to $4.4 million in 1990, and the company lost more than $1 million in the same period. Monarch Avalon's stock, traded over the counter, sank from a high of $13.50 in 1986 to about $1.50 a share.

Although the company's stock is still depressed, the Dotts are able to poke fun at their own -- and their industry's -- financial troubles now.

Since assuming the presidency of the family firm in 1990, 33-year-old Jack Dott has pared back operations dramatically, bringing Monarch Avalon $418,000 into the black for the fiscal year that ended April 30 -- the first annual profit in five years.

Now, as they prepare for this year's Christmas selling season, the Dotts are looking to the future. They hope to start their company growing again, but are torn between wanting and fearing a mass-market hit.

They have lost millions investing in things like "Hideababy" dolls and science fiction games -- products that, they thought, would capture the fancy of parents nationwide.

So, they are trying to protect their core market, the middle-aged males who like to play war strategy board games. At the same time, Monarch Avalon's game designers are developing and marketing simpler board and computer games for kids and adults.

Even the Dotts admit they have no idea whether their new strategy will work.

The game industry is like one of their games, the Dotts say. It is a lot of fun, but your fate often rides on something as unpredictable as a roll of the dice.

A fun company

Many people might think designing and play-testing games all day would be just about the world's best job.

Though they've had some tough times, Jack and Eric Dott say they do have a lot of fun.

Eric Dott, the 63-year-old founder of the company, looks a little like a cleaned-up and kindly version of Grandpa Munster. He distributes both chocolates and jokes liberally to his 150 employees.

Jack says people tell him he is not "crazy like your dad." But while posing for a picture, Jack extemporizes a quick rap song and dance, then waggles two fingers behind his father's head.

They are, in fact, alike in many respects.

They are both pack rats. Their offices are cluttered with sample ++ games, stress dart boards, James Bond movie posters and piles of job applications.

Neither of them plays Monarch Avalon games in their off hours. "They are too damn hard for me," Jack says of Avalon Hill's war games, which feature large fold-up maps and 45-page rule booklets.

And both men seem to enjoy taking care of details that could easily be handled by employees.

Eric Dott personally oversees the decision of which chocolates to buy for Christmas gifts.

And Jack concedes he has difficulty delegating while he unloads boxes of imported dice from his Chevy Blazer into the company warehouse.

Though there is no formal division of duties and there are occasional disagreements, the two get along.

"It is a fun company. I always wanted to work for my father. I never went through that 'I hate my parents' thing,' " Jack says.

But running a fun and games business isn't all fun and games. The industry is notoriously cutthroat and fickle. Little-known Monarch Avalon has watched as high-profile companies like Tonka and Coleco soared and crashed in recent years.

In fact, Eric Dott, who started a printing house in 1949, took over Avalon Hill, the nation's first modern war board game company, after visiting the offices to see why his customer was going out of business.

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