For a board-game designer, watching children play can be a humbling experience. Unlike adults in a focus group, kids are unlikely to be polite. They're either having fun with your game or they're not. There's nothing in between.
That's why the designers for the Seattle company Cranium were holding their breath as they recently watched two preschool siblings, Nina and Milo, fiddle with a prototype of the new game Balloon Lagoon.
Balloon Lagoon presents kids with a bunch of "skill building" activities, including pressing the buttons on a slot-machine-style device to line up the elements of a picture -- for example, a scuba diver cut into head, body and feet.
But then Nina, 4, hit a problem: Every time the quiet, ponytailed little girl lined up one of the spinning pictures, she would knock it out of place while spinning the next one. Her brother, 5, was hunched over the game, vibrating with nervous energy and shouting instructions at her. "You got to get his body!" he blurted. When he tried the spinner, he didn't have much luck either.
The kids did not dwell on their failure, though. They quickly became engrossed in the other parts of the game, which included a little pond where they fished for alphabet letters, a game of picture dice and a bunch of plastic frogs they had to flip like tiddlywinks into "the frog pond."
Milo became obsessed with the clattering sound the dice made, and after 15 minutes the children were happily counting the tiny plastic balloons they received for completing each task. Milo leapt up, pumped his arms in the air and popped the question that every game designer is dying to hear: "Can we play again?"
That was music to the ears of Richard Tait, Cranium's co-founder and Grand Poo-Bah (his official title). It was also a validation of his philosophy about how to appeal to today's game players. Most classic board games are all about winning and losing. When you play Monopoly or Risk or Sorry! there is always someone crowing in triumph while others quietly sulk in defeat.
But Tait, 40, founded Cranium in 1998 with the opposite idea: to produce games "where everyone has a chance to shine," a phrase he repeats like a mantra in every conversation. Tait designs games that no single player can dominate; at some point, every player will be the hero. "And then they have that moment of glow, that moment of shine, that moment where everyone celebrates them," he says, speaking practically in the cadence of a preacher.
That makes the games particularly appealing to young children, who can be unhinged by the sting of losing. And for parents, it means that playtime is unlikely to end in tantrums. You can win a Cranium game, but no one really cares. It is, as one Cranium designer delicately puts it, "a softer win."
Yet the idea has taken hold. Cranium has now produced nine games aimed at everyone from preschoolers to adults and has sold 8 million copies in the last half-decade. That makes it one of the hugest independent successes in an industry in which selling a mere 5,000 copies is considered a roaring achievement.
It is all the more remarkable given that today's new games are still overshadowed -- and outsold -- by the classics of yesteryear. Worse, any innovator who manages to create a genuinely new kids' game must compete with everything from high-stim video games to instant messaging to the 500-channel smorgasbord of cable TV.
These days, unfolding a board game or setting out a deck of cards on the living-room floor seems like a fusty anachronism, something that would attract only the most weirdly studious children. But by zeroing in on America's insatiable thirst for self-esteem, Cranium appears to have discovered the paradox that gets kids and families playing again: a game where no one loses.
The idea for Cranium came to Tait one weekend in 1997. Tait -- a Scottish immigrant who worked for Microsoft -- and his wife were invited by some friends to their house in the Hamptons.
At one point, their friends pulled out one of their favorite games, Pictionary. Tait and his wife had always been terrific at the game, so they won. Then the other couple wanted to play Scrabble, which Tait and his wife are horrible at, and they were "demolished."
"So I felt like an idiot," Tait says. "And I thought, Why isn't there a game that gives everyone a chance to shine -- a game that has something in it for everybody?"
On the flight back to Seattle, he began sketching out a game with multiple components, each one requiring a different skill. He drew diagrams of a brain, putting left-brain activities (logic, spelling) on one side and right-brain activities (singing, drawing) on the other.
Then a friend introduced him to the work of Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor who in 1983 developed the theory of "multiple intelligences." Gardner thought that human intelligence was best understood as a bouquet of different abilities, like linguistic skill, spatial manipulation, musical talent and physical dexterity. Produce a game that hit upon each of those areas, Tait surmised, and everyone would have an easy entry point, but no one would be the master.
He decided that his initial audience would be "dating yupsters," young adults burned out from endless computer work in the dot-com boom who wanted to reconnect face to face.
Gnillips and humdingers
Armed with Gardner's framework, Tait persuaded a former co-worker at Microsoft, Whit Alexander, to help him design Cranium. (Alexander had his doubts. "You want to call my dad and tell him I left Microsoft to make a board game?" he asked at the time.)
The goal would be for a team of players to make it to the end by accomplishing a group of loopy tasks. For six months, Tait and Alexander brainstormed Gardner-inspired activities for different intelligences.
One part of the board would challenge you with verbal tasks, like "Gnilleps," spelling a word backward without writing it down. Another would give you musical challenges, like "Humdingers," whistling a tune accurately enough that a teammate can recognize it.
At times, they argued heatedly over what precisely constituted "fun." Alexander, 43, had watched his kids playing with piles of beeswax at Christmas and had an idea: Why not challenge players to create a recognizable object in 30 seconds? Tait didn't like it: He worried that adults and teenagers would find playing with clay too juvenile.
The matter wasn't decided until they began testing the product by taking it into people's homes and watching them play. One evening they watched as a 40-year-old man dived into the clay like an eager kid.
"I'll never forget the look," Tait recalls. "As his fingers delved into this wonderful purple clay, I looked at his eyes, and the eyes of a 4-year-old looked back."
Tait is a man who spends a lot of time staring into people's eyes. With his blond shaggy hair and elaborate collection of skateboards and sneakers in his office (including shoes worn and signed by Michael Jordan), he often seems like a particularly on-message surfer, eyes fixing yours as he hammers home the Cranium bullet points: Celebrating your abilities! Out-ra-geous fun! Everyone has a chance to shine!
But for a board-game designer, this devoted study of facial language is not just a tic. It is also a crucial skill, because there is no way to know if a game idea you have sketched on paper is going to work.
The only thing to do is endlessly play-test it, scrutinizing your players with anthropological intensity for signs of distraction or ennui. In the middle of Cranium's office, Tait and Alexander have even set up a mock living room with a big purple sofa and one-way mirrors so they can spy on families trying out their games.
"Sometimes it's just painful," Tait says about watching a game that isn't working.
Avoiding tricky endings
As they developed the questions and puzzles in Cranium, Alexander and Tait began to divine their central principle: Each challenge must be clever enough to be intriguing but not so hard that it would make anyone feel like a moron.
They began to codify their principles in a rule book. For example, a good word for the backward-spelling Gnilleps challenge, they wrote, "should be fun to say (e.g., "squeegee") but easy to pronounce. ... Avoid words with tricky endings" -- like "superfluous" -- "that might trip the player up as soon as he/she starts the Gnilleps. It's no fun to be out of the competition so quickly."
Words should be short and quirky, like "queue" or "knuckle." The game should not devolve into something that felt like a spelling bee or, worse, homework. "Keep the words that just feel like a test (e.g., "occasionally") to a minimum," they warned.
Tait and Alexander persuaded Starbucks to sell the game (along with Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com), arguing that it would be a social-bonding ritual that fit hand in glove with Starbucks's goal of bringing hipsters together over a Frappuccino.
Cranium became the fastest-selling independent board game of all time. Groups of players ("Craniacs") began to meet in the coffee shops and in bars and living rooms to play.
Tait and Alexander decided they could extend their nobody-loses philosophy to younger games, aiming at children all the way down to 3-year-olds. They began honing their design process into a tightly regimented system, inspired by the rigorous development processes they had seen at Microsoft.
Now when they begin work on a new game, they start with "moment engineering" -- imagining the paroxysm of triumph each player ought to feel at least once in the game and using that as their goal post.
For one of their children's games, Tait says, they drew a picture: "It was this mom sitting on the carpet, it was a rainy day and she was getting high-fived and delighting with her children as they succeeded. And that's what we're aiming at."
The image of players high-fiving is something that Cranium designers talk about with fascinated intensity. They see it as the apotheosis of a Cranium experience: a group of people who are simultaneously competing, yet also, you know, are not.
Engineering that group-hug moment is a difficult proposition. If there's too much competition in one of their games, it'll turn into a snarling Nietzschean contest. But too little competition can be just as bad. That's just plain boring and risks turning into a well-meaning but tedious educational game that "just doesn't have any juice," as Alexander puts it.
For a Cranium game to succeed, the designers must hit a delicate balance between the two. The sense of competence and mastery must shift from player to player, so that no one is moping while another gloats.
Your time is almost up
That proved unexpectedly tricky with Balloon Lagoon, the game for kindergarten-age kids. The designers developed four activities that touched on children's different intelligences -- like the frog flipping, a test of dexterity, or spelling with the letters fished out of the word pond, a linguistic challenge.
Each player had 30 seconds to try each activity, to maximize the chance that every child would win -- "shine" -- at least once. They set up a sand timer to count down the 30 seconds.
But the timer caused unexpected friction, as Alexander recalls: "One kid would take on the self-appointed task of being the sand-time watcher. And they'd be sitting there tapping the timer and going: 'Time's almost up! Time's almost up!' The trash-talking would start as soon as the timer went on." He watched kids sassing one another in a play-test one day and came out shaking his head. "I said to the team, 'Well, we've done a great job of making the Your Time Is Almost Up game."'
Then a designer had a breakthrough idea. If the timekeeping was the problem, he reasoned, then they had to "hide the time" -- by making the timekeeping invisible. They got rid of the sand timer and replaced it with a music box that plays a tune for 30 seconds, like musical chairs. Each child would play until the song ends and then stop.
It was a neat bit of social engineering: With no clock to watch, the kids shifted allegiance and began rooting for each player as he or she vied to complete the task in 30 seconds. "It transformed it from this schoolmarmish situation to one where they're all cheering each other on," Alexander says, "and high-fiving."
For anyone who was reared on old-school board games, Cranium's no-winners-no-losers style might raise an eyebrow. Isn't the whole point of a board game to throw children into heated competition -- and teach them to be gracious losers and gracious winners?
Certainly the classics -- like Monopoly, Risk or Battleship -- were born out of a much more traditional sense of combative gamesmanship. Indeed, they were created from the idea that what kids most wanted to do was emulate the cut and thrust of adult activities.
The modern board game was born in the late 19th century when 16-year-old George S. Parker -- the founder of Parker Brothers games -- created a game based on banking, which was the hottest business activity of the day.
"Parker realized that the best way to have fun was to vicariously experience adult life," says Phil Orbanes, a game developer and the author of The Game Makers, a history of Parker Brothers.
In the Depression, Parker had his greatest hit with Monopoly, a sort of virtual-reality simulator for the Dust Bowl desperate. Those games still sell extremely well today -- indeed, Monopoly remains Hasbro's best-selling board game each year. That might suggest that the audience for more traditional games hasn't gone away -- and that Cranium's up-with-people strategy is something of an anomaly.
"The classics," says Hasbro Games' senior vice president for marketing, Mark Blecher, "still sell."
Yet it is also undoubtedly true that the old games sell partly because of nostalgia. They are bought by Gen X and boomer parents who played them in their youth, in a time when board games were the acme of entertainment -- with no competition yet from Xbox or reality TV.
When parents walk into a store, they reach for the stuff they experienced as a kid. That's how a title like Othello has sold more than 40 million copies. "It's, like, inevitable -- you get married, you have kids, so you get Clue, you get Monopoly," says Sean McGowan, a toy-industry analyst.
Rare are the children who demand that their parents buy Risk. What's more, Hasbro continually reissues its old games each year with new "licenses," like Monopoly "The Simpsons" Edition or Trivial Pursuit "Star Wars" Edition; what Americans crave, it seems, is not a new style of play but a fresh blast of synergy, another lick at their favorite media brand. More charitably, Orbanes argues that the classics resell so well simply because they are so good.
'What's she smoking?'
At the Cranium offices, Monopoly is almost a charged topic: Among a relentlessly cheery staff, questions about the game provoked the closest I heard to annoyance, as if they were all too tired of being reminded about this monolith that bestrides their industry.
To be fair, many of today's other board-game designers are equally as ambivalent about the competition they get from classic games. "Does anyone ever finish a game of Monopoly and not hate someone at the table?" Mark Alan Osterhaus, president of Out of the Box Publishing, says jokingly.
Osterhaus designs games that are brief and highly cooperative, like Cranium's titles. Like Tait, he is another of the rare breed of successful independent designers. His main game, Apples to Apples, has sold a million copies since its introduction three years ago.
Apples to Apples merely consists of two decks of cards with words on them, one with adjectives and one with nouns. A judge draws an adjective card; the other players draw five noun cards each and try to pick the one they think most closely matches the adjective. The judge selects her favorite from among these.
The fun lies not so much in the play but in the spirited arguments that inevitably erupt. ("The judge thought 'butter' was a good match for 'dangerous'? What's she smoking?") A single round can take less than a minute to play, and as with Cranium, the "win" is curiously soft-edged: Though one player eventually winds up with more points than the others, the game never seems particularly combative.
"The thing about this game is, you can argue with the judge about why they didn't pick your word, but there's no right and wrong," says Matt Mariani, the company's marketing chief. "No one ever feels dumb."
This new generation of designers say that while the old-school classic games constantly resell, they do not really fit the needs of modern families: They alienate people with their winner-take-all approach, and they take too long for a time-deprived family to play. "The most frequently heard question during a game of Monopoly is, 'Whose turn is it?'" Osterhaus says.
Board-game designers have long boasted about their ability to get families to sit down and interact. That claim has become increasingly poignant today, as children and parents become ever more overscheduled and locked in their own worlds of TiVo, Web surfing and work.
Perhaps Tait's and Osterhaus's successes have come from developing games that try not only to bring families together but also to make a fetish of togetherness. Companies like Starbucks -- Cranium's original sales platform -- have similarly roared to national prominence by selling the idea of social contact, a "third space" for people to convene outside of home or work.
When Tait describes the Cranium mission, he often sounds less like a game maker than like a sociologist diagnosing the ills of an atomized society.
"There is an overwhelming presence of negativity in our entertainment choices today, whether it's 'You're fired' or 'You're the weakest link' or who's going to sleep with whose girlfriend on an island," he says.
"Many of the values that could decay human society are being celebrated on TV. We are a brand that represents a choice. Our games offer a sense of accomplishment and shine, versus a sense of alienation."
Tait and Alexander tell me about the moment they knew that Hullabaloo, Cranium's game for children 4 and up, would be a success.
The game is like an electronic version of Twister: kids lay a bunch of colored mats on the ground and a talking voice box hollers out instructions, telling them to jump to different places, play-act roles or "dance a funky monkey." In one of the early play-tests, Alexander found that in a 15-minute game, each child had managed several times to be first to complete a task.
"So I asked them, 'What'd you like most about Hullabaloo?' 'It's that I won!'" He laughs.
"They all say it."
Clive Thompson contributes to Wired, Newsday and the New York Times Magazine, where this article originally appeared.