- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Operating on Shrek, buying up the Simpsons’ hometown or taking a Risk to conquer Middle-earth — they’re twists on classic board games that have found prominent space on toy store shelves and have helped keep the board game industry in play.

Toy companies have capitalized on the popularity of pop culture icons like “Shrek,” “The Simpsons” and the “Lord of the Rings” to revamp their classics.

“By doing [licensed] games, we are co-branding two well-known entities,” said Mark Morris, director of public relations for Hasbro Games, which makes such games as Operation, Clue and the Game of Life. “It’s a great way to bring a fresh connection to it.”

For the first time in Operation’s 40-year history, Cavity Bob — the patient on the operating table — was replaced this year. Surgeons-in-training now can operate on Shrek, removing the ogre’s ear wax, among other nasty things.

Monopoly’s “Simpsons” edition lets residents of Springfield — including Homer and Bart — buy up places like Moe’s, Barney’s Bowl-A-Rama and the Kwik-E-Mart.

This year, 21-year-old Trivial Pursuit introduced a “Saturday Night Live” edition featuring 2,000 questions plus a digital video disc highlighting famous sketches throughout the show’s 30-year history. Trivial Pursuit also has a “Lord of the Rings” edition. So does Monopoly, Risk and Stratego.

Thirty-two-year-old Uno has 26 variations, including “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “South Park,” “The Simpsons” and “Peanuts.”

The Memory Game, introduced in 1966, has a “Finding Nemo” version. And the Game of Life, which started in 1960, has “Simpsons” and “Monsters Inc.” editions.

Despite all the competition, board games — old and new — are still a popular pastime. Americans are shelling out money to buy the new versions — whether they are an updated edition of the classic, a new licensed version or a technologically advanced edition.

The original, generic versions still exist and still sell.

In 2003, consumers spent $909.8 million on board games. That was about a 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Board games make up about 38 percent of the $2.4 billion games and puzzle industry.

“Board games are very hot right now,” said Maria Weiskott, editor in chief of Playthings, a monthly trade magazine. “This resurgence is a post-9/11 phenomenon and it hasn’t stopped.”

Many in the industry credit Hasbro’s push for Family Game Night — a campaign that began in 1998 to encourage families to play board games together.

“The reason it’s still vital is because games are a real catalyst for social interaction,” Mr. Morris said. “And at this point, there is more competition for people’s leisure time, yet the classics still sell.”

Toy manufacturers are banking on parents to introduce their children to the classics.

“Parents remember enjoying [a game] as children, so they are buying it to share with their children,” Ms. Weiskott said.

The popularity of licensing continues to grow. It is easier now to acquire license agreements because of the financial benefit of being affiliated with a game.

“It shows to consumers that this brand is established enough to be associated with popular family games,” said A. Stone Newman, president and co-founder of Sababa Toys, which makes licensed Uno games.

Themed board games aren’t new, but they have taken off in the past 20 years.

“Basic classic board games have been around forever, but [retailers] wanted them in a new fun way,” said John Davis, president of USAopoly, which licenses Monopoly from Hasbro.

The generic version mixed with a license “takes it the next level,” Mr. Davis said.

USAopoly, which started in 1994, has re-created the 69-year-old board game with more than 100 themed Monopoly games. USAopoly expanded beyond its Monopoly roots beginning in 1999 with Clue: Scooby-Doo. It has since created other games and versions like Clue: The Simpsons, Pictionary: The Simpsons Edition and Pictionary: Austin Powers Edition.

“Taking a familiar play pattern and attaching a favorite license to it makes sense,” said Bonnie Canner, vice president at Cardinal Industries, which produces licensed board games. “People don’t have time to read directions and learn brand new games.”

Cardinal has such games as Care Bears Dominos and Simpsons Chess and has created trivia games based on popular TV shows such as “Friends,” “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” The trivia games tend to have easy directions.

Sababa Toys licenses Uno from Mattel and then acquires other licenses to give the card game a new look.

Its first licensed Uno edition was “SpongeBob SquarePants” in 2001. The company now has 26 Uno editions.

“We built this company on the shoulders of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’” Mr. Newman said. “Uno as a portfolio has effectively put us in the game industry.”

Sababa Toys ships more than 1 million Uno games a year and will hit $10 million in sales this year.

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