The County Board : Venturopoly: Dozens of local merchants bought game space for advertising. Some say they made a great decision. Others say they wasted their money.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Life in Ventura County has its ups and downs for some people, but it's all just a game for others.

And the name of the game is Venturopoly. For four years, a stylized version of the classic board game Monopoly with a local twist has been selling steadily throughout Ventura County in bookstores, toy shops and even a hairstyling salon.

The theme of Venturopoly seems to be that the main activities of county residents are driving down the Ventura Freeway, selling their farms to shopping mall developers, fighting for the environment and getting hit with exorbitant parking tickets.

In the game, there are winners and losers. And in the marketing of the game over the last four years, there have also been winners and losers:

Among the dozens of local merchants who bought board space to advertise their products, some say they made a great decision, others that they wasted their money on a bad investment.

"On your way to riches, you'll buy and subdivide large tracts of land, strike it rich in the oil fields, or get stung by the schemes of other wily speculators," warns an advertisement printed on every box of Venturopoly.

The words of wisdom are meant for prospective players, but Venturopoly investors have found out since the introduction of the game in 1986 that the same principle applies in the real world.

To have its name on one of the game board's 46 spaces, each business paid $700 to Santa Barbara resident Frank Critchlow, who created and marketed the game. In return, they got 36 Venturopoly sets for free. Those who sold out the games at the recommended price of $20 a set recovered their investment, but many failed to do so.

Laura Rhodes, owner of Standard Beauty Supply and Salon struck it rich. Her shop has sold over 100 games, which are discreetly displayed next to hair sprays and brushes and eye shadows.

"People come in and pick it up because it is so unique and it makes a great gift," Rhodes said. "I knew I could market it because women are good shoppers and when they come here they're willing to spend money."

John Holden, president of Century 21 County Center Realty, got stung. "We didn't get anything out of it," he said. "Nobody listed their home with us because they played Venturopoly, and we ended up giving the games away because we couldn't sell them."

Like Monopoly, which is based on the entrepreneurial spirit embedded in the American Dream, the goal of Venturopoly is to become a millionaire, with the first player to make $1 million in cash the winner.

But unlike Monopoly, financial greed in Venturopoly is tempered by concern for the environment, the region's history and even a shade of guilt.

In the world of Venturopoly, the Save the Oaks Society can make you lose a turn, cars conk out on the freeway's Conejo Grade overpass, and Chumash Indian heads adorn dollar bills. The old family farm gets unscrupulously sold to "another shopping mall developer."

It's a portrait of Ventura County that locals and tourists seem to relate to, if game sales are any indication--more than 3,000 sets sold since 1986.

For the people who play it, Venturopoly reminds them of what makes their county special. "It has to do with our folklore and our heritage," said Saticoy Elementary School Principal Nancy Bradford, a Venturopoly enthusiast who has sold dozens of games to raise money for her school's PTA.

The Ojai Music Festival, the Conejo Valley Days and the Ventura County Fair are always a roll of the dice away.

"It's like playing with your neighbors," said Hilda Cooper, who manages the Livery bookstore in downtown Ventura, which sells six to eight games a month, 20 to 30 during the holidays.

The game board, she said, "is like a shopping directory of Ventura County, and you know all the stores."

In the Monopoly square belonging to, say, Park Place, Venturopoly has Santa Paula Savings. In place of Monopoly's Connecticut Avenue is Venturopoly's Andria's Seafood restaurant.

Venturopoly creator Critchlow, 36, is an unlikely entrepreneur. He barely makes enough money to split with his brother the $925 rent on a Santa Barbara house. The garage has headquartered his one-man toy company, Wizdom Games, since 1984.

Strange as it may sound, the man who puts millions of play dollars of Venturopoly money into every game swears he's perfectly content with his $25,000-a-year income and does not intend to get rich.

"In order to make a huge profit I'd have to go national, and my philosophy is to reach a level of survival and not try to expand," Critchlow said. "Here in Santa Barbara we like to live within our means."

Critchlow started out working for a San Francisco-based toy company, where he was responsible for designing Monopoly-type games for several cities, including Washington, New Orleans and Dallas-Fort Worth.

"I got excited with the concept and decided to go out on my own," he said. In 1984, he came out with Santa Barbopoly, featuring Nancy and Ronnie dollar bills and the well-known Moreton Bay Fig Tree homeless corner, where players go to beg money from their rivals when they become bankrupt.

More than 6,000 Santa Barbopoly games have been sold so far. "The tourists love it, especially the Japanese. They want something from Santa Barbara to take home," Critchlow said.

Critchlow is currently at work designing SLOpoly, the San Luis Obispo version, in which the game ends suddenly and nobody wins if a player rolls a double and lands on the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, precipitating a "nuclear meltdown."

He said that SLOpoly will be Wizdom Games' last real estate game. The next project involves a "chess-type game with lasers and robots," Critchlow said.

As for Venturopoly, Critchlow plans to update it once he sells out his first batch of 5,000 games. The next version, he promises, will acknowledge the re-emergence of the Oxnard Trolley.

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