What's worth playing and what's just a trivial pursuit in the world of adult games
The Detroit News
- 4/11/93

Get a clue. Board games aren't what they used to be.
Plastic tokens and paper money no longer have a monopoly on playtime. These days, a new generation of trivial pursuits can be plugged into your TV set, CD player or boom box - and they're winning back the generation that grew up with Col. Mustard and Marvin Gardens, Yahtzee dice and scrabble tiles.

Adult board games are on a roll, all right: We're snapping them up faster than a winning hand of cards. Figures from the Toy Manufacturers of America show the category grew 10 percent in each of the last three years, compared with 3 percent to 4 percent growth in the toy industry as a whole.

Spurred by economies and nostalgia, many recession-stung families in the '90's are staying in to play together on weekends rather than dropping big bucks on baby-sitters, restaurants, movies and other pricey pastimes, industry-watchers say. "After you've seen the movie and eaten dinner, it's gone, but a game you can play over and over again," observes Bob Moog, president of California-based University Games and host of Games People Play, a two-hour weekly radio show in St. Louis. Beyond that, Moog attributes the explosion of interest in board games to the pace of contemporary lifestyles, "Games give you time with people you care about," he says, "and you're doing something where you're talking to each other."

The adult-games craze has inventors racing to pass go and collect hundreds of dollars, though none is expected to post the kind of blockbuster success of Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary in the '80's. Among the winners is Marsha Falco of East Lansing, who parlayed her study of epilepsy in German shepherds and other gene mutations into one of the hot new games of the '90's. "I didn't set out to invent a game - It just happened," notes Falco, 47, whose fast-paced, addicting card game, Set, uses genetics symbols. It's winning national raves from the likes of MENSA, the high IQ organization; Games magazine and specialty toy store managers.

With more than 250 new adult board games introduced last year and a confusion of promotional TV commercials, it's hard to separate winners from losers. So we asked toy consultants, specialty toy store owners and other leisure buffs for recommendations.
Then, in the interest of good gamesmanship, we gathered several crews of volunteers to test them. Our reviews are based on each game's overall playability, fun, general appeal and staying power. We also included a half-dozen board games parents may enjoy playing with their children. (See accompanying story.)

With this consumer guide, then, let the games begin:

Set (Set Enterprises, 6 and up, $11.95): Based on set theory, this is an intriguing game of visual perception that creates excitement and draws players to the edge of their seats. It features 81 cards with one to three symbols - ovals, squiggles or diamonds - in red, green or purple that are either solid, shaded or out-lined. No luck or memory is involved and no previous knowledge is required as players race to find all the "sets" in a shifting series of 12-card layouts. Everyone plays simultaneously. ****

Play It By Ear (Ryko, 16 and up; $40; CD player required): It's kind of eerie hearing Adolf Hitler's voice emanating from your compact disc player, or trying to identify the sound of a fax machine from a brief audio blip. But these are just some of the surprises contained in what's billed as the world's first CD game. Like Trivial Pursuit, only with sound, this evocative high-tech quiz fest tests both your memory and your mettle. Besides identifying original sound bites, snippets of music, TV themes and animal sounds, players squirm their way through tongue-twisters and memory teasers. Playtime doesn't get any better than this! (To hear a sample, cal [800]7-CD-GAME).****

Phractured Phrases (University Games, 12 and up; $30): Phooey. Pheh. Phrustrating. Phorget it. Unless, that is, you're an English Lit major or a whiz at arcane quotations. In this easy-to-learn game, the sayings of everyone from Shakespeare and Ben Franklin to Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose are disguised by replacing two words; players must determine which two, and then quickly declare precisely the right words. It might be fun if all the questions were as easy -and amusing- as these mangled cliches: "Absence makes the hair grow blonder." (heart, fonder); "Don't one of you fire until you see the size of their thighs!(whites, eyes). But too many tend toward the extremely obscure. Said one bewildered player after four exasperating rounds: "you know, we could learn a lot from this game, but why bother?"**

Trumpet (International Games, 9 to adult; $10): No wonder Games magazine sounded the horn of this game two years in a row. Proclaimed 1991 Game of the Year and listed in last year's top 100, it's a winning combination of card strategy and board game savvy. Just decide which of six suits will be the highest in a changing tower of trumps and then play your cards right. It's simple, fast-moving and fun. ***

Scrutineyes (Mattel, adults, $28): Don't be put off by the snotty rules. Take a closer look and you'll find this game's a real hoot. Adrenaline flows and hearts pound as teams race to find objects in artsy paintings or humorous, Waldo-style cartoon drawings. Warning: Beware of bug-eye. A modified version, Scrutineyes Junior (7 and up $14), is easier - and almost as much fun. *** 1/2

Nightmare (Chieftain Products, 15 and up; $35-$55): Anyone who might find it amusing to be called a "maggot" or "dirt-bag" may enjoy this strange interactive video board game, billed as the world's first. But a pair of Detroit area therapists, and an engineer and teacher who also played it for us, turned thumbs down, terming the game's verbal abuse mean and hostile. That doesn't mean it isn't popular; sequels already are being introduced. Invented in Australia, Nightmare creates "atmosfear" with a host/gatekeeper who periodically appears on the TV screen to issue commands and banish unworthy players to the black hole. Beyond that, it's a race against the video running time (60 minutes) and your opponents. An interesting concept, but as one of the therapists said: "I felt intimated at first, then, finally, I thought, 'Hey, I don't have to take this!" No stars.

Shuttles (University Games, 10 and up; $13.95): Keep your wits aboout you and you'll outwit your opponent. Lose your concentration and you'll feel like a nitwit. Strategy is all in this intimate, two-person game of shifting maze and pegs. Compact and portable, this would be perfect the next time you and your mate shuttle off somewhere. ***

Pipeline (Playco Hawaii, ages 8 to adult; $30): We don't mean to gush, but this oil industry game is a winner. Who'd ever dream that linking pipelines between loading docks and a central wellhead would not only be fun but addicting? This quick-moving game of ever-shifting strategy blends savvy tactics with random luck; using tiles depicting various pipe segments, players simultaneously try to advance their own lines, avoid blockades and divert their opponents. Just pray for a plug when you need one. Games magazine's 1992 Game of the Year, it was invented by Hawaiian Ed Okamura, a baby products manufacturer who's best previous invention was a cloth cap that can be folded and used as a sun visor. ****

20 Questions (University Games, 12 and up, $30):"To me, Marilyn Monroe was just another can of soup." The answer, of course, is pop artist Andy Warhol. But the clues aren't always that obvious in this brain-stimulating board game version of the classic person, place or thing guessing contest. And even when they are, there's no guarantee your mind won't go embarrass- ingly blank. Some of the clues, such as the description of Henry Ford as an author, may throw you way off track. But a liberal sprinkling of lose-your turn and bonus plays makes for a pleasant parlor game. ** 1/2

Showdown Yahtzee (Milton Bradley, 8 and up;$11): The look and feel of Las Vegas - -more or less - comes to your living room with this exciting new twist on the classic dice game. Unpredictable down to the last roll, the final round can transform losers into winners and winners into losers, just like that. But don't get mad when a lucky roller steals all your hard-won chips. Just play again - and get even. If you like games where you can yell, let the good times roll with this one. ***

Humm...ble (United Enterprises, ages 16 and up;$30): Hmmm. This Trivial Pursuit-style musical party game could be loads of fun- for someone with a good ear, a good memory and a good partner or two. But for the tone-deaf among us who have spent a lifetime dodging song-identification games, it can be frustrating. True, humming- and such options as whistling or charades-style acting-out- are sometimes easier than singing, but anything musical tends to be off-putting for the musically impaired among us. Still, it was Games magazine's 1992 Best New Party Game. And there is something endearing about watching your mother go blank on a Broadway show tune and your uncle shout out, "Sounds of Silence."**1/2

Swoggle (Chieftain Products, 8 and up;$10): Less confining than Scrabble, faster and easier to play, this write-on word game is nonetheless challenging. Unrestricted by tiles, players make up words, cross- word-style, using a magic pen, wipe-off board and letters of their choice; a roll of the die determines word length. Three cheers for a creative word game. ***

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (University Games, ages 10 and up; $20): Straight from television and personal computers to your dining room table comes that jet-setting thief, Carmen Sandiego, bent on snatching landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Tower of London. In this game, unlike most others, the oldest player goes first. Some player-detectives find that amusing, and everyone gets a kick out of Carmen's gang of cohorts, Gene Yuss, Lynn Gweeny, Minnie Series and Sybil Servant among them. The chase, which involves getting a warrant and overcoming other hurdles, is tedious, but answering the questions, especially if you're a geography buff, can be fun. While a working knowledge or interest in geography is virtually essential, a multiple-choice option at least lets adults save face and gives younger, less worldly players a chance. But if geography's not your bag, save your money and watch Carmen on PBS. **1/2

Abalone(Abalone Games, 8 and up;$30): Using the strategy of Japanese Sumo wrestling, this tantalizing two-player game, invented by a pair of French artists, requires opponents to think in several dimensions while pushing each other's marbles off the hexagonal "mat." Subtle, with infinite possibilities, it has captured awards throughout Europe, says Michigan distributor Matt Mariani of Grand Haven, who is trying to get the marble similarly rolling in the United States. Large marbles in stark colors of black and white enhance the Oriental feel, but, no, you don't have to wear Sumo-style diapers to play. ***1/2

Word Madness (The Perfect Game Co., 8 and up; $6.99): Once you get past some confusing rules, this card game that combines elements of Scrabble and Go Fish draws you in for more. Licensed by Webster's New World Dictionary, Word Madness Features the flexibility of building on opponent's words. But it also can be vexing because players may lose a needed letter while waiting to lay down a word. Best part is the potential for last-minute changes of fortune. **1/2

The aMAZEing Labyrinth (Ravensburger, 8 to adult,$24): Shifting luck and surprising out-comes are the hallmark of this enchanting maze game. Move through the labyrinth, opening and closing corridors, while collecting magic rings, wands, spiders, amulets and other symbols of enchantment. No matter how hard you plan, your opponent may wipe out your progress. And, sometimes, like magic, everything just falls into place. **1/2