Dragging a new board game to the table

Behind an upstart's struggle to roll into a world tightly controlled by big brands and distributors

In this city known for self-promotion, Celia Weiner can talk business with the best of them.

In the middle of a conversation with a waitress at a local restaurant, Ms. Weiner shifts the small talk to her latest project.

The waitress, whose family has been in the movie business for three generations, folds her arms, as if to steady herself for a conversation she suspects she has had a hundred times before.

Weiner has worked as a music editor in films including "The Right Stuff" and "Karate Kid." But her key interest tonight, and almost every night, is not in the pictures people watch, but in the games they play.

Before ordering, Weiner casually makes her pitch. She says that she is a board-game inventor and that she is selling a new game called Driveway Deals which everybody loves to play.

In Hollywood, such bald marketing does not seem out of place. Among independent board-game creators, it is the absolute norm.

Driveway Deals is the only board game in the US based on garage sales, says Weiner. But walk into any major toy store, Kmart, or Wal-Mart in America, and you will not find it. Despite years of phone calls, presentations, and pestering, Weiner has been unable to persuade a toy company to manufacture her game, or cajole a major toy store to carry it.

Despite the fact that board game sales in the US continue to grow, Weiner's struggle to sell Driveway Deals illustrates the difficulty small-time players face in an industry where a small group of companies decides which products ever see the light of day. It's one slice of what retail analysts call the "Wal-Martization" of America.

Most manufacturers and retailers "are absolutely not interested in pioneering new things," says Andy Daniel, president of Enginuity Games, an independent toy company in San Jose, Calif. "If your product is not a known entity, it's almost impossible to get it on shelves."

The fact that Weiner has had difficulty promoting Driveway Deals is somewhat surprising given her prior success. After watching hundreds of episodes of "I Love Lucy," she created a Lucy-based board game in 1989 that eventually won the approval of Lucille Ball and CBS.

Talicor, a Las Vegas gamemaker, agreed to manufacture 100,000 units. The manufacturer and CBS have received nearly all of the profits from the game's sales. Weiner, who has only made $5,000 on royalties, still considers herself fortunate to have been "published."

"They say you've got a better chance to produce a show on Broadway than to get a board game produced," says Weiner.

Driveway Deals is what industry experts call a "chase game." The goal: to beat the other players to a finish line on the board after purchasing five items at a variety of neighborhood garage sales.

Because more than 60 million Americans shop at garage sales, Weiner believed the game would be an easy sell. But Driveway Deals has faced a series of roadblocks. Weiner first spent three years attempting to sell the license for the game to one of the dozen or so major gamemakers. Several companies, Hasbro and Mattel among them, would not even speak to her over the telephone. Such a refusal is common among game companies who do not want to be sued in the future if they produce a game with a similar theme.

"I wish the buyers had more vision," says Weiner. "They have to see; people go nuts over this game."

Large toy manufacturers respond that they can take a chance on only a few new games each year because of the significant advertising costs associated with introducing fresh concepts to consumers.

"Shelf space becomes smaller and smaller for board games every year," says Bonnie Canner, vice president of marketing for Cardinal Industries, a major gamemaker in Long Island City, N.Y. "Without customer familiarity, it is hard to place a game on that shelf."

Retailers have little reason to invest in a new game, say experts, when established titles have endured for generations. "The biggest single resource a typical retailer has is shelf space," says Daniel. "They feel that they have to allocate that to what is proven to have sold. Everything else is a risk."

Not coincidentally, board games that have become classics, such as Monopoly and Sorry, are also cheap to manufacture. They need to be that way so national retailers like Toys 'R' Us and Kmart can sell them at low prices, a primary strategy for selling most of their goods. Games from independent designers, conversely, often cannot be sold on the mass market because they are too expensive to make.

Ask any toymaker in America what they are in most need of, say experts, and few will mention "a good idea." There simply are not many venues in which independent games can be sold. Bottom line: the supply of ideas for new games significantly exceeds demand.

"If God came down with a book of the 25 greatest games never published, I'd say 'God, this is wonderful, but I don't have the resources to publish these,' " says Mr. Daniel.

On top of that, many consumers' concept of a game has changed over the past decade from one that is played with a pair of dice and a piece of cardboard to one that is played in front of a television set. Annual board-game sales total about $380 million compared with $6 billion in video-game sales.

"Board games are no longer big kahunas, but small potatoes," says Gabriel Vega, owner of The Name of the Game, an independent game store in Camarillo, Calif., that carries Driveway Deals.

With major manufacturers largely ignoring products conceived by independent designers, several subcultures of small- and mid-size producers have emerged over the past decade to serve them. These middlemen of niche markets are particularly evident in the game industry.

One small board-game manufacturer, R&R Games, receives more than 30 submissions each month from independent designers hoping to have their game published.

But even here, the competition is tight. Last year, the Tampa, Fla., company published six games. Only one came to them as an unsolicited submission, says president Frank DiLorenzo.

After three years of rejection from different toy companies, Weiner eventually opted to go it alone. She invested $13,000 to produce 2,500 boxes of Driveway Deals, which she originally sketched out on a pad of paper on her kitchen table. She now spends her weekends trying to convince southern California game stores to carry it.

Weiner also set up a website on which she has made most of her sales, and she has given demonstrations of the game on morning talk shows in Arkansas, California, and Oklahoma.

Two books on the coffee table in her modest Hollywood apartment illustrate her current goals: Their titles: "Naked Marketing" and "The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah."

Weiner is unrelenting in her attempt to win her game star status. "I pester and beg and harangue and pester some more," says Weiner. "I'm what you call tenacious."

Noel C. Paul Christian Science Monitor

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