Board games are making a comeback

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By Teri Goldberg

When I joined a mah jong club this past summer, I thought I was being oh so chic to take the time to learn the ancient Chinese tile game, which was popular in the United States in the 1950s. Then I heard about a mah jong club that meets in a local coffee house in a suburb of Chicago and another group that gets together in New Jersey to play a simple dice game called Bunco. Whether it’s a female bonding thing, a family game night phenomena or a post-9/11, turn-off-the television (and computer!) back-to-basic nesting fad, board games are popping up in new and unusual places.

This past summer, the mah jong group I belong to met on the rooftop of a friend’s apartment building in Brooklyn. Now, that is chic. Due to hectic schedules, though, it took three years to settle on a day and time to meet each month. But now that we’re on a roll, who knows what’s next? Tournaments? I’m still not sure if it’s the play that keeps us coming back or the spread we jointly put together for the event. Summer eats have included but were not limited to tea sandwiches, homemade chocolate chip cookies, party mix and strawberry shortcake, always served with mojitos, a Cuban rum-laced limeade drink with mint.

Some data suggests board games — ancient and new — are making a comeback. While overall toy sales are down or remain flat, sales of games and puzzles are on the rise, according to analysts at npd.com, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. Sales of games and puzzles were up 11 percent from 2002 to 2003, compared to a decrease of 3 percent in sales of all toys in the same year.

Cranium creates a craze

The makers of Cranium even claim that their board game helped fuel the growth and renewed interest. Cranium, a non-virtual game where teams act out different activities in four play groups, was one of the first games to be marketed in a coffee house or bookstore back in 1998. Initially, the game was only sold at Starbucks, amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. 

“Early adapters embraced the games,” says Richard Tait, a former Microsoft employee who co-founded Cranium, Inc., about the first wave of cyber junkies, who where often isolated and came to coffee houses for social interaction. “People were working really hard...and had a human need to re-connect,” says Tait, who says Starbucks became a “community hub.”

Cranium continues to have a following of “Craniacs.” Cranium now comes in six editions, ranging in price from $34.95 to $49.95. The company also developed a series of kids and family games, including Cranium Hullabaloo, Cranium Cadoo, Cranium Caribou and Cranium Zigity, the newest game on the market priced at $12.95. Most games are now available at mainstream retail outlets such as target.com, Toys ‘R’ Us at amazon.com and walmart.com.

New games on the rise

These days, marketing board games in coffee houses are more common place. Board game enthusiasts on the Left Coast can test out a new board game called Roundabout in select coffee shops located in Santa Barbara and the San Diego area. The company even lists its coffeehouse locations on its Web site.

Greg Otero, the game’s inventor, admits it’s a “promotional tool” for consumers to “test drive the game.” Otero decided to place the game in “independent, funky little neighborhood” coffee houses because he has fond memories of playing games in coffee houses when he was a college student in Santa Cruz, Calif. in the late 1970s. Then, there was no Starbucks.

Otero actually believes that Starbucks is a simply “distribution point” to sell games like Cranium, rather than a community hub. “I go to Starbucks all the time and I’ve never seen Cranium played there,” says Otero.

Roundabout, a simple game of strategy, retails for $24.95 and is sold at the company’s Web site. The game also is available in retail stores in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii and Utah, listed in the online store locator.

Another toy manufacturer picking up on the coffee house board game trend is fundexgames.com. This past July, Fundex Games started marketing its Jumpin’ Java game in 15 coffee houses in the Indianapolis area, where the company is headquartered. “The primary reason for targeting coffee shops is because of the growing trend of games being played in the shops,” says Piper Van Santen, a Fundex Games company representative. “People go to a coffee shop to enjoy a great cup of coffee, relax, read and now to play games,” he adds.

Jumpin’ Java is a natural with a cup of Joe. The objective of the game is to move two red or yellow espresso cups and saucers (provided with the game) from one end of the board to the other end. The board is comprised of a series of cardboard coasters linked together. Just don’t mix up the play cups with real ones. Prices vary widely online for Jumpin’ Java, from $9.99 at areyougame.com to $19.95 at boardgames.com.

And what about mah jong and Bunco? There doesn’t seem to be an obvious increased interest in the complex game of mah jong, says Z. Lois Madow, president and founder of the American Mah Jong Association. “I think games are just more visible now,” says Madow, who believes this generation of mah jong players meets outside of the home whereas previous generations congregated inside the home.

Bunco keeps boomingAs for Bunco, it’s booming, at least according to Leslie Crouch, founder of the Carlsbad, Calif.-based World Bunco Association (WBA). Bunco traces its roots to England in the 18th century and sprung up in the United States when a “crooked gambler” brought the game to San Francisco in 1855, according to the association’s Web site. All that’s needed to play the simple dice game is a bell, some dice and a scorecard.

But in 1996, Crouch smartly trademarked the name Bunco and packaged the tools needed to play in a small kit. Inundated with requests for the game, Crouch licensed the production of the game to a small toy manufacturer Talicor. A bell and dice set retails for $7.95 and the party pack, complete with score cards and a plush fuzzy die, costs $19.95.

Crouch admits “you don’t need the game to play it” but the recent revival of the old dice game has increased demand for Bunco merchandise. At ebunco.com, the e-commerce site associated with the WBA, Bunco enthusiasts can buy all sorts of paraphernalia, including Bunco Babe T-shirts, tote bags, a wall clock and more.