Ready, 'SET', Go
A highly competitive, cerebral new game called SET has captured the heart of Ann Arbor
By Janet Miller - News Staff Reporter
The Ann Arbor News - 4/11/93

Ready, get SET, go. A card game that combines visual perception, speed and raw competition is moving through the Ann Arbor area like a runaway brain wave.

SET is in the schools and is working its way into the home. Parents, looking for quality time with their kids that can also be fun for themselves, can't resist trying this addictive game. It demands intellect and concentration, but adults have no built-in advantage over youth. Skill, and not chance, rules the game.

"It's very Ann Arborish, whatever that is," says Wes Buck, owner of The Conservatory, a gift shop and one of a handful of Ann Arbor stores that sell the 81-card game.

It first came to Ann Arbor by chance - through Hertler Brothers Inc., the feed and seed store on South Ashley Street. It started on the hood of a car parked during the art fairs in Hertlers' lot. SET inventor Marsha J. Falco of East Lansing had come to hawk her card game on the Diag. She parked in Hertler's lot and introduced the game to John McGovern, co-owner of the store. Soon, a game was started on a car hood. "I was so impressed with the game," says McGovern. "I had to sell it."

That was almost two years ago, and SET has been a steady seller, advertised only by word of mouth. Hertler workers play the game at the homey store, and customers join in. Hundreds of sets have been sold. But since the new year, as the game entered Ann Arbor schools, sales have skyrocketed. Hertlers has sold more games in the past three months than over the past year, says McGovern.

The spiraling sales are due, in part, to Pat Bantle, an Ann Arbor enrichment teacher who introduced the game at Bach Open and Lawton elementary schools. She lit the fire, and children can be seen sitting in the halls of Bach in SET face-offs. A SET tournament may not be far off. The two schools have bought about 70 SET sets. Bantle expects other Ann Arbor enrichment teachers to introduce the game. "It's going to spread through Ann Arbor," says Bantle. Kids are going home and convincing parents to spend $12 on the game.

SET combines education with fun. "It reinforces the concept of set," says Bantle. "But you also learn to problem solve with the game. And you can learn to apply that to other things." The game, she says, "helps students become good thinkers."

It's a challenge, says Bantle, but it has simple rules and it's easy to learn. "You don't have to be a math whiz to do well," she says. There's logic in it." There's also great speed, making it appealing to youth. "but adults have a ball with it," says Bantle.

Falco says it teaches pattern recognition and helps youngsters learn to read. "It's also good with on-your-feet thinking" she says.

Schools around the country, including a junior high school in Henderson, KY., and schools in Boston and Arizona, are using the SET game to teach math to students.

At first, Falco didn't think it was an educational game. The SET seed was planted in Cambridge, England, where she worked as a population geneticist, studying epilepsy in German Shepherds. It was complicated work and Falco used genetic symbols on 3-by-5 cards to sort things out. A couple of veterinarians were looking over her shoulder and saw the sets.

"It became a family game," says Falco. Post doctorate students and graduate students played it. She made sets on tiny business-sized cards and gave them away. After her two children were born, it became a children's game.

An increasing number of people asked Falco to make them a game. "I said 'What do I look like, a toy factory?'" The idea of marketing SET was born in 1988. Today, SET has become a full-time job for Falco, who travels the country, visiting toy fairs, educator conferences and stationary shows. Separate companies print the cards, the instructions and make the boxes. A first, Falco and her family assembled the parts in their basement. Today, a sheltered workshop for mentally impaired workers in East Lansing assembles the game.

Falco has spurned advances from Tyco toy company. Officials there want to buy the rights. Falco says she'd make more money if she sold SET to Tyco. But she won't. "We're having too much fun," she says.

"I didn't think it would sell well." But her husband, Robert Falco, and two children had the faith. "They wanted to take our children's college money to market the game," says Falco. " They were that confidant."

They were also right. Since the game first hit the market in December 1990, more than 100,000 games have been sold, coast to coast and in Canada. Sales have been especially brisk in California and New York City.

MENSA, an international organization for people with high IQ's, named it a top mind game for 1991. Omni Magazine selected SET as one of the six best games for the same year. Games Magazine picked SET as a top game in 1992.

Sales in Ann Arbor are just starting to take off, says Falco.

Vickie Plotner, owner of Campus Bike and Toy Center started receiving phone calls for the game soon after Christmas. She figures families got together over the holidays, played the game and wanted a set of their own. Unaware that Hertler's sold the game just blocks away and that an East Lansing woman invented it, Plotner called toy and game distributors. "One woman told me it was very popular on the East Coast so I called all over the East Coast," says Plotner. No luck. She finally stumbled upon Falco. Campus Bike and Toy Center began selling the game last month and sales have been brisk.

Except for small pockets around the country, SET has not caught on with the college crowd, says Falco. It doesn't seem to have entered the University of Michigan, either. This puzzles her. After all, SET got its start in a college atmosphere.

McGovern, from Hertler Brothers, figures SET is popular with school aged children and their parents because its a game the two generations can play together. "People are interested in spending time with their kids," he says. "And the kids tend to play better than the adults. They have clearer thinking. They see things more openly."

How to Play

The rules are simple and few. Deal out 12 cards. Anywhere from one to the maximum number of people who can squeeze around a table can play. Whoever sees a three-card set yells "SET" and takes the three cards. Three more cards are laid out. There's no taking turns. The first person to yell "SET" takes the cards. If they're mistaken, three cards are forfeited. Instructions say children age 6 and older up to adults can play. It's not unusual, however, for 4- and 5-year-olds to catch on quickly.

Where to Buy

SET sells for $11.95 at Ann Arbor area stores including Hertler Brothers Inc., Campus Bike and Toy Center and the Conservatory.