HOLIDAYS : Games Remain Among Favorites

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Brenda Rees writes frequently for The Times

Everyone loves a good contest of luck and skill. Toy dealers fill up their shelves with new board games and old reliable classics knowing that a game isn't just a game--it's an investment that keeps on playing.

"You can take $20 and buy a stuffed animal which ends up sitting on a ledge collecting dust. Or you can buy a game that you'll use over and over again," says Doreen Ford, manager of Uncle Tom Toys in Montrose. "Good games provide play value--they're inspiring and fun."

A whopping 134 million games were sold last year in the United States, according to Jody Levine of the Toy Manufacturers of America. That amount is up 6% from the previous year, and it's significant, Levine says, because the toy industry overall showed only a 1% increase. "People are buying games more than ever," she says.

One reason is that games make ideal gifts, says Abrahim Victory of Ventura Toys in Sherman Oaks. They're educational, enjoyable and encourage parties, he says.

At home, entire families can get in on the fun, as the Smiths of Studio City testify. Parents Howard and Illisa play simplified versions of Life and Monopoly with their 5-year-old son, Josh. "He'll play on one level and we'll play on another," Illisa says. "We make sure playing the game is interesting for us, too."

Mary Brown, owner of Buddy Brown Toys in Studio City, endorses this attitude, pointing out that "kids want to play their favorite games over and over again. This can get tiresome for adults."

All good toy stores keep their shelves stocked with a healthy inventory of classic games, like Scrabble, Chutes and Ladders, and Risk. "These old games are great perennials--we are never without them," says Brown.

In addition to the old favorites, toy makers have introduced an array of new games that stores are recommending this year. Labeled by age, these run the gamut from wordplay to treasure hunts to exercises in manual dexterity.

Several novel games for younger kids feature a motorized toy with a simple premise attached. Gator Golf (Milton Bradley, ages 4 and older, $20) is a favorite among local toy dealers because it transforms any room into a miniature golf course. When kids succeed in putting a ball into the motorized gator's mouth, he flips his tail and hurls it back, then spins into a new position for the next player.

Two popular new games this year are based on movies: "The Lion King" and "Beethoven's 2nd." In the Lion King Matching Game (Milton Bradley, ages 5 and up, $7), little lion buffs get a chance to create, and re-create, an African scene.

Beethoven's 2nd (Parker Brothers, ages 4 and older, $10) revolves around the adorable litter of cinematic St. Bernards. Kids race around a brightly colored board catching the runaway pups.

For those who think they have a steady hand, there is a new stacking game called Bottle Topps (Parker Brothers, ages 8 and older, $16). A wooden milk bottle is the base on which players must carefully balance wooden milk caps on top of one another.

In a more technical vein, Beakman's World (Pressman, ages 8 and older, $15) aims to make science fun for the youthful set. Based on the popular TV show of the same name, this game challenges players' scientific knowledge and skills.

Finally, several store owners predict that Crack the Case (Milton Bradley, ages 12 and up, $20) will be the hot party game for this year.

Where and When

Location: Uncle Tom Toys, 2281 Honolulu Ave., Montrose.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Call: (818) 249-2178.

Location: Ventura Toys, 1454 1/2 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Call: (818) 784-6706.

Location: Buddy Brown's Toys, 12166 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

Call: (818) 766-3649.

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