Creating a game that is fun to play is serious business for Brian Hersch.
"There is an underlying presumption that since game playing is frivolous, then game making is frivolous," said Hersch, the creator of such adult board games as "Outburst" and "Taboo."
"I don't think it's frivolous at all. I damn well better (take it seriously) or I won't be successful. It's my business."
This no-nonsense approach has made Hersch one of the rare winners in the competitive contest to create a hot-selling adult board game. Six years after Trivial Pursuit mania swept the nation and unleashed a flood of adult board games, the category is now stagnant, leaving board game makers hard at work to come up with the next hit that will end up on thousands of holiday gift lists year after year. Many industry players also see the current economic slump as a way of boosting sales.
"There hasn't been anything hot and sexy for adults since Pictionary," said Larry Carlat, editor of Toy & Hobby World, a New York-based trade magazine, referring to the 5 1/2-year-old game based on charades.
"I'm not sure the category is going great guns," said Carlat. "The stuff with board games is that there is only one really hot and sexy one that drives the business."
Most entries in the adult board game category have not even come close to reaching the 100,000 sales mark, which qualifies them as successes and help ensure a spot on crowded store shelves. Even those who have created a hit game have trouble matching their success with a new and different item.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said game maker Robert Angel, who has not come up with a successful new game since creating Pictionary, which has sold 20 million sets in various versions--including Bible Pictionary. "We know we have gotten lucky."
The adult board game category had long been a backwater of the toy industry, and was dominated by strategy games such as Othello and Risk. But question-and-answer games such as Trivial Pursuit--which has sold more than 40 million sets in its different versions--were less intimidating and appealed to a broader group, with a minimum amount of strategy and a heavy reliance on common knowledge and popular culture. Shipments of adult board games totaled $158 million in 1989, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America.
With strategic games, "you are into the game itself, into winning," said Chris Hixson, a veteran game player who was browsing through the Glendale outlet of the Game Keeper, which stocks more than 30 adult board games. "But with Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary, you are into having fun with people and enjoying yourself."
"The game becomes the vehicle for (social) interaction--it's no longer the focal point," said Phil Orbanes, a toy and game industry consultant and former chief of research and development at Parker Bros. "These new games do not put too much of an emphasis on the feat of winning. It's more on the experience" of playing.
Trivial Pursuit "was a very important step forward for the board game," said David Leibowitz, a toy industry analyst at American Securities in New York. But, "if we eliminate Trivial Pursuit from the discussion, you will discover that there has not been an overwhelming increase" in adult board game sales.
The games also exploit the common experiences and knowledge of the nation's baby boom generation, which grew up with a plethora of toys. "They were the most coddled generation in history when it came to. . .play things," said Orbanes.
Brian Hersch, the Century City-based real estate developer turned board game maker, says that television game shows have also played a role in addicting baby boomers such as himself to board games.
"Playing games was just part of life," said Hersch, who grew up playing Risk and Clue and watching "To Tell The Truth" on television.
Hersch's biggest hit--Outburst, a free-association word game that has sold 3 million copies--weaves in all the traits that have made for successful board games. In Outburst, competing players, for example, are given a minute to come up with as many responses to such statements as "Commands You Give a Dog" listed on playing cards.
"It takes in everybody's common knowledge," said Hersch. "This is not an intellectual experience, playing a game. We know this isn't brain surgery."
In fact, games linked to technical or obscure subjects--such as high finance in Trump the Game--turn most players off. These games "were too heavily involved with what appeared to be high-level finance," said Orbanes. "That's too intimidating to most people."
Rules are a crucial concern to board game designers since adult players of today have little patience. "I have to have you understand the game in three minutes," said Hersch. "I can kill the game if the rules are too complicated. It's critically important to keep a steady pace, an enlivened pace. If you have to keep going back to the rules, people say 'who needs this?' "
Game boards and score-keeping devices, which are not essential to playing many of the games, help define the limits of the game and lend it a competitive zeal. "You don't have to have a board to play," said Hersch. "But a lot of people won't play unless its competitive."
With skimpy advertising budgets, board game makers rely heavily on word of mouth to boost sales. "If you get the game to play well, then they you have the start of word-of-mouth," said Bob Reiss, a New Jersey-based businessman who created a trivia game based on TV Guide magazine and is now working on a project with a love-and-marriage theme. "If it doesn't play well, they don't come back. You get one chance."
Despite a weakening economy, adult board games might appeal to a growing number of budget-conscious consumers, despite price tags of $30 and up. "Some people will have to give up their vacation or going to the theater," said Reiss. "People who are watching their money will want to play games" instead.
Many game players would agree. Davern Kroncke, a Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit fan from Santa Rosa, Calif., says she invites friends to dinner at her house and then plays games after her children go to bed.
"It's a time for us to get together, to laugh, unwind and have a lot of fun," said Kroncke, a 39-year-old dental hygienist. And "it's economical," she said.