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Saturday, January 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Families

Classic family board games still thrive in a PlayStation world

Seattle Times staff

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Microsoft's Xbox and PlayStation 2 may be all the buzz, but Monopoly and other family games - the ones that don't require batteries or a microchip - are making a comeback.

Granted, the $380-million world of board games is nothing compared to the $7-billion game-console industry. Nevertheless, when final figures from 2000 roll in this month, board-game sales are expected to show an increase of 23 percent from 1999. That is promising news to those who see non-electronic games as a better way for people to interact and socialize.

"To some extent, they're somewhat an antidote to the insular nature of video games and TVs and other computer-oriented activities," says psychologist Thomas Armstrong. In Armstrong's book "7 Kinds of Smart," he lists many games that encourage and help children to discover their multiple intelligences.

"Board games bring families together in cooperative or competitive spirits," says Armstrong.

Hasbro introduced Family Game Night in 1998 after research discovered that kids would love to play games with their parents, but didn't think their parents wanted to. And parents would love to play games with their kids, but didn't think their kids wanted to, according to Mark Morris, Hasbro spokesman.

Whether it's Hasbro's marketing campaign or an anti-video sentiment that is driving new sales, more folks are buying and today there are more choices than ever.

The classics are still there. In fact, Monopoly was the second best-selling board game last year through November, followed by The Game of Life, according to the market research group NPD TRST, which accounts for about 60 percent of total traditional toy-industry sales. December sales figures have not yet been tabulated.

Just be prepared for some changes. In 1999, Life was updated for the new millennium. The spinning wheel remains and so do the little people who go in the cars. Only "the cars look more like minivans now," Morris says. And instead of paying $20,000 to get rid of a skunk farm you inherited from an uncle, you fork out $40,000 to have a Web site designed.

The game world is not without its share of spin-offs. There is Pokémon Monopoly, Bible Pictionary, Wheaties (sports trivia game of champions), Chicken Soup for the Soul (a family game of sharing stories), the 'N Sync Backstage Pass Game, a variety of Harry Potter games, and the list goes on. Let's not forget the best-selling game of 2000: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

With this kind of variety, it's difficult to know what to choose. Many retailers offer Web sites and catalogues with reviews by staff. Such is the case at Bellevue Square's Turn Off the TV, owned by Tim Zier.

Zier started his business in 1995 because of the growth of video games. He wanted to market games that encouraged more social interaction and human contact. The plastic "rapid-fire card shoot-out" gizmo that comes with the card game UNO is about as gadget-y as his store gets.

What you will find in his store, among the 1,000 different products, are the latest games developed locally. Cranium is still a hot commodity, as is Pictionary. But ThinkBlot, thepollgame and Frazzle are the new players on the block.

Rob Angel and Terry Langston, of Pictionary fame, released ThinkBlot last year. Players find objects from the same blot of ink (the game comes with 100 blots) and then try to convince each other to see the same objects. It retails for about $25 and was a top 10 seller last November among new board games introduced in 2000. Not bad, considering it didn't hit the national market until September.

Mercer Island real estate agent Darrell Jochum and accountant Jeff Snow, of Bellevue, released thepollgame last November. The game centers on guessing how everyone will answer various questions such as, "Have you ever wrecked the family car?"

Playing the game makes people realize how much their own experiences and opinions dictate their view of the world, says Jochum.

The game is really for players at least 16 years old because the questions focus on life experiences and knowledge of major historical events. Fans have already requested a junior version, something Jochum and Snow hope to launch before next Christmas. The game retails for about $35.

For years, Kevin Brougher of Auburn created games that were fun and educational for his fifth-graders in the Federal Way School District. Precisely two weeks before Christmas, Brougher released Frazzle. Players try to be the first to shout out words that start with a designated letter for various categories, such as "Gets On Your Nerves." A judge, armed with a plastic squeaky hammer gets to slam the hammer in front of the quick-tongued who get it right. The more you play, the louder and funnier it gets. This game is for all ages and retails for about $23.

The Farming Game is anything but new. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1999 and Zier, of Turn Off the TV, says it's still one of his all-time favorites.

George Rohrbacher of Goldendale in Klickitat County created the game a few years after he and wife, Ann, bought a cattle ranch in 1977. The couple had already lived through two droughts and figured they had nothing to lose. George, who hates games, decided a board game was the perfect format to explain what farming is all about.

"We sold a bunch of cows and mortgaged the ranch and borrowed a bunch of money and said, `We're doing this,' " recalls Ann Rohrbacher.

The game is similar to Monopoly, but instead of competing with each other, players compete strictly with the bank. Players start out as part-time farmers whose goal is to get their farm solvent enough for them to quit their other job. Besides an unexpected visit from Mother Nature, players control their own destiny with the choices they make.

It's the only game George Rohrbacher plays.

"George either wins or goes bankrupt," says Ann Rohrbacher. "He usually goes bankrupt. He plays aggressively. I play more conservative. I never go bankrupt, but I don't win as much either."

The couple still has their farm and despite zero marketing effort - no time when there is a farm to run - orders continue to come.

"I had a call at 6 o'clock this morning from Amish country in Ohio," Ann Rohrbacher says. "It was an Amish distributor for other Amish stores." He ordered 96 games.

The Amish in Ohio and Pennsylvania are small, but consistent buyers. About seven years ago, the World Bank took George Rohrbacher and his game to Russia to teach Russians the capitalistic way of farming. Colleges and schools use The Farming Game as an economics lesson. The game has even been used by a North Dakota mental health foundation for use with depressed farmers.

As long as people still want it, the Rohrbachers say they'll keep making it. The game retails for about $35.

What can gamers look forward to this year? That's top secret until the annual Toy Fair next month in New York. However, sources inside Hasbro say Trivial Pursuit fans can look forward to a Genesis 5 Edition with questions on recent news events. (No. The Bush-Gore saga will not be included; production couldn't wait that long.) But you can expect questions such as: "Whose first five months in the U.S. attracted a daily average of 222 news stories, printed or aired in 1999 and 2000?"

Answer: Elian Gonzalez

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