Inventing a board game is more than a roll of the dice

One evening in the spring of 1986, Scott Pardee sat down to play a game with his father in his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y. He was not in the mood for a long, cerebral game of chess. Nor did he feel like backgammon. Suddenly his father got gruff.

" 'If you can't decide, make up your own game,' my father told me," Mr. Pardee recalls. "I said to myself, 'Yeah, why not?' "

Fourteen years later, Pardee finally produced the game he would have loved to play that evening. He calls Chebache a blend of chess, backgammon, and checkers. Last month, he presented the game at the American International Toy Fair, the industry's most prestigious trade show, held in New York.

Pardee is one of many independent exhibitors who come every year to Toy Fair in hope of getting their products licensed. In the $23.5 billion toy industry, they are called "the dreamers."

They are regular working Americans who hope to hit the jackpot with their games. But in an industry long dominated by big companies like Mattel or Hasbro, success stories can be counted on one hand.

"Most of them are looking for that 'dream deal' that seldom happens," says Mary Couzin of Discovergames.com, an Internet company that matches retailers with independent creators.

Pardee rented the cheapest booth available at Toy Fair, a $2,200, 10-by-10-foot area that looked more like a newsstand than a showroom. He asked two of his friends to help him run it, stayed at an acquaintance's place in Brooklyn, and got a $50,000 loan that will cover the cost of producing the next 5,000 runs.

Pardee says he makes a living from his artwork and painting houses. A shy man with dirty fingernails, he hardly resembles the stereotypical businessman. It took him more than a decade and $100,000 of his own and his friends' money to develop the game. Most of it was spent on the patent, marketing, production, and what he calls "trials and errors."

"I did not go through business school," Pardee says, "so I had to learn about the business while I was doing it."

Today, Chebache is sold in fewer than 50 stores around the United States. Production of the game is still primitive: Pardee assembles all the pieces of his game. "I even put the shrink-wrap on the box," he says.

Last December, Games magazine ranked Chebache among its "Games 100," the top nonelectronic games for the year 2000. Pardee hopes Chebache will be the next classic board game of the new century. But for that he needs a big company to license and distribute it.

There's a precedent for his rags-to-riches dream. In December 1979, two Canadian friends, Scott Abbott and Chris Haney, decided to resolve the question of which one was the better game player by creating their own game. They called it Trivial Pursuit.

Deep in debt and having sold only a few hundred copies, they attended Toy Fair in 1982. Two years later, they had sold 23.3 million copies of what has since become one of the most popular board games of the past 20 years.

But this kind of fairy tale happens once in a great while, says Mark Morris, director of public relations for Hasbro Games, which sends a squad to each Toy Fair to spot new ideas. Out of the thousand proposals that Hasbro studies each year, Morris estimates that no more than a dozen lead to a deal.

Games from independent creators have to pass the "five-question test" to have a chance of being licensed by Hasbro, Morris says. A game has to produce a clear-cut winner, provide a fresh experience every new round, and be enjoyable, challenging, and "nonfrustrating."

"It will happen that a game goes from a first-time invention to being a hit, but it's very rare," Morris adds.

Robert Poole agrees. For the past six years, this sports fan has been trying to sell "Rules of the Game," a board game he created. The effort has put a strain on his wife and three children, and has cost him $15,000 and hours of family time.

"Doing this is stressful," Mr. Poole says. "The chance of a small guy making it is so slim, and it costs so much. You can't get a shelf in a store, and you have to make a name for yourself."

But eventually, he argues, it is feasible. He has already sold 150,000 copies, licensed the rights for a traveling game show, signed a contract with Random Games to produce a CD-ROM, and in the wake of Toy Fair, he now has some deals on the table.

This middle-aged man with square, metal-rimmed glasses jokes that common sense is his only business degree. Until August, Poole was a mail carrier at Avent Ferry post office in North Carolina.

He dreamed up "Rules of the Game" on his mail route. Poole is so well-versed in sports - he coached football and baseball - that his clients and co-workers would come to him with "let's stump Robert" questions, he says. This sprouted the idea of a board game where players would act as umpires who have "to make the call."

"One day I came to see my mom and I said, 'I have an idea for a board game,' " Poole says, "and she told me 'Let's get to work on it.' That's how it really started."

The next step was to find money. He raised $630,000 from friends, co-workers, and neighbors in his hometown who invested in his company, Game Technologies Inc.

"I bump into some of my shareholders every day," Poole says. "I see them at church, on my mail route."

Last October, Rush Limbaugh mentioned the game on his popular radio talk show. Since then, the value of his company's shares has jumped from 15 cents to $1.50.

"If it becomes big, we and our shareholders deserve it," Poole says. "It has been really tough ... like a long roller coaster ride."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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