America Goes `POG' Wild Over Simple Cap Game From Hawaiian Islands

MOVE over Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Watch out Nintendo. POGs are coming East.

``It's better than board games. Definitely better than video games... it's just cool,'' shrugs 10-year-old Tracy Altman.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the floor of a video rental store in suburban Boston is covered with clusters of kids and discarded coats. Commanding their attention is not the latest Sega game cartridge. Rather, a Hawaiian-born game that has moved out of the Pacific like a marketing tsunami, sweeping away West Coast kids.

The no-tech, low-cost game is a marketer's dream. It has all the rambunctiousness of 52-card pickup. It reminds parents and grandparents of marbles or tiddlywinks. Some California schools have banned it for being disruptive or akin to gambling. But San Diego police and church groups are using it as a teaching tool.

The so-called ``milk-cap mania'' is now breaking over Texas, Maryland, and the Northeast.

``You folks on the East Coast ain't seen nothin' yet. This is white hot,'' says David Watson, a vice president of M. J. Designs, a Dallas-based craft and hobby chain in Texas, Virginia, New York, and Maryland. ``It's definitely selling better than Power Rangers. It's drawing more attention to our stores than anything I've ever seen.''

The game is played with silver-dollar-sized cardboard disks, called caps, with designs, logos, or pictures on them. Two players stack up an agreed-upon number of caps. Then, each takes turns throwing a ``slammer,'' a heavier disk of the same size, at the top of the stack. Players keep the caps that flip over, or they can be counted up as points.

Alan Rypinski, president of the World POG Federation (WPF) in Costa Mesa, Calif., is fond of saying: ``POGs are the old-fashioned game of the future.''

Originally, ``POG'' was a passion, orange, guava fruit drink made by Haleakala Dairy on Maui. In 1991, an elementary-school teacher in Hawaii wanted to show her students how to play the milk-cap games of her youth. Unable to find any glass-bottle milk caps, she used the POG juice caps. The game swept the islands, then jumped to California, where elementary-school kids went ``pog wild'' over it.

Mr. Rypinski bought the rights to the POG name in 1993. Last month, Rypinski's company won a court ruling that POG is an exclusive trademark. At stake: millions of dollars. There are dozens of manufacturers selling caps priced at 9 cents to $2 each. He estimates more than 2 billion have been sold.

``On a given Saturday, we're selling a million caps,'' says Mr. Watson, whose Dallas stores hawk the disks out of galvanized horse troughs - as many as eight troughs to a store. ``When you've got 50 to 200 kids shopping for caps, that's how you've got to do it.

Like trading cards, the cardboard disks depict everyone from the Muppets to Troy Aikman, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback. In Texas, Bible study groups are giving out caps. The Walt Disney Company and The Coca-Cola Company are some others that have used POGs in promotions. The San Diego Police Department is making caps that depict police helicopters and offer advice on the back such as ``Don't Talk to Strangers.''

In addition to the variety of caps, there are playing boards, slammers, T-shirts, hats, backpacks, and carrying cases with POG or other manufacturer's logos for sale. Collector's editions are emerging, with some caps going for up to $1,000.

Rypinski is no marketing neophyte. In 1972, he turned an obscure chemist's formula into Armor All, a hot-selling leather and vinyl protectant. That experience is paying off as the WPF marketing machine shifts into high gear. McDonald's Corporation plans POG giveaway promotions in the coming weeks. A TV cartoon series featuring POGMAN - a bulbous-nose, crooked-tooth rat/ Tasmanian devil - is in the works, as is a TV game show featuring inter-school tournaments.

Some schools are using the game - using caps imprinted with nature facts or numbers and math signs - as a teaching aid. In Dallas, a key component to M. J. Designs's marketing plan was teaching the game during recess and physical-education class.

But several California schools have banned it. ``There are a lot of other times [other than school hours] when they can play this,'' says Carolyn Burke, a Framingham, Mass. school principal who banned the game after seeing several lunch hours disrupted. Dr. Burke says the ``gambling'' issue hasn't arisen, but it's a concern for some educators. ``If you play for keeps - whatever flips over is yours -

yeah, it's sort of like gambling,'' says 11-year-old Rob Gerstl.

``Was it gambling when we lost marbles as kids? I didn't look at it that way,'' says Lenny Altman, owner of Video Craze, a Framingham sponsor of Saturday POG tournaments.

``It's a nice alternative to sitting around and playing video games all day,'' says Joy Doucette, watching her younger brother embroiled in a contest on the store floor.

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