Game Boys

Twin Cities inventors end-run the board-game industry

When Rick Reed was growing up in Plymouth in the early 1970s, his mother always had an AM radio on wherever she was in the house. As a result, Reed and his brother Randy absorbed seemingly every popular tune of the time.

The two boys enjoyed quizzing each other on song titles and artists. They were, he says with a hint of pride, especially adept at naming one-hit wonders: artists who charted with one song, only to never be heard from again. As they got older, the Reed brothers figured that, someday, all the information in their heads would make a good book. Rick would contribute the bits of music minutiae he'd collected, and Randy would construct a narrative that would reflect their joint passion for rock 'n' roll.

But in the summer of 1994, Randy committed suicide. After several months of grieving, Rick's thoughts returned to the book. He quickly gave up, however, having realized that he was unsure how to complete such a project without Randy.

Games people play: Independent game inventors Bill Stephenson and Rick Reed show off their wares
Tony Nelson
Games people play: Independent game inventors Bill Stephenson and Rick Reed show off their wares

"I woke up the next morning, and I had an image of a game board in my head with a double-necked guitar on it," Reed recalls. "I don't want to say it was divine intervention, but I realized that I could do something with what we had started as a healing process."

Reed immediately made a crude drawing of the image. And then he started writing music trivia questions, sometimes as many as 20 a night. He bought a book documenting years of Billboard charts to verify his answers. The multiple-choice questions, eventually numbering 600, became the basis of "For the Record," a board game Reed, 44, and his wife Sharon unveiled in November 1997. In 1999 he revised the game's design, and then watched as "For the Record" become a homegrown success story.

Initially Reed thought he could simply come up with an idea and sell it to a major board-game company like Parker Brothers, but he soon found out that those deals were easily said but rarely done. So he got the game on the market himself, gradually learning the tricks of marketing and selling a board game as he went. The on-the-job training has paid off: Last year Reed sold 25,000 copies of the game, earning a profit of about $30,000. Next month, Barnes & Noble will begin stocking an updated version of "For the Record" in its bookstores nationwide.

For a while Reed thought he was the only guy who was breaking into the board-game biz by himself. But the onetime billboard-advertising account manager now finds himself part of a small but passionate clan called the Midwest Games Group, six people from the Twin Cities who have invented, designed, and sold their own board games. Unlike most game inventors, all six have chosen not to sell their games to the corporations that dominate the industry. By sticking together and swapping trade secrets, they say, they've been able to put small dents in the armor of the big guys. And, more important, they feel they are putting out original and quality games--remaining true to a certain indie aesthetic at a time when the rest of the industry seems stagnant.

Reed first noticed there were several board-game inventors from the area when he went to the annual International Toy Fair in Manhattan in February of 1998. "It seemed like half the people we ran into were from Minneapolis," he recalls. "Eventually we all came together to form the group. Some of us had dinner in St. Louis Park in early '98 and realized we could help each other compete with the big game sellers like Hasbro. We really felt like we were David against Goliath....There wasn't a school on how to do this."

The Reeds market the game out of their split-level home in Plymouth, calling marketing reps and storeowners across the country. The games are manufactured in Canada and retail for $29.95 in local stores like Games by James. As a sideline, they also run a "specialty advertising" business, selling caps, gift bags, and T-shirts for businesses holding retreats and seminars. Sharon, 43, who graduated from Concordia College with a business degree, crunches the numbers for Reed Enterprises. Rick, who graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in speech communications, is the dreamer of the duo. "I got a B.A. in BSing," he says.

The object of the game is pretty simple: just roll one die, advance on spaces along the frets of the double-necked guitar, and answer a question for whatever category you land on. There are pitfalls, however, such as landing on "Disco Purgatory" in the old version, or the "Mosh Pit" or "Bad Hair Day" in the new versions. "The idea is to make the game easy so that anyone can play," Reed explains, adding that winning requires "a combination of some knowledge and dumb luck....A song like, say, 'Born in the U.S.A.' comes up and people say who they were dating then and get this rush of emotion."

"Born in the U.S.A."? Reed can't talk about music without betraying his baby-boomer status, but he's made efforts to keep the game current. "I'm not a big rap guy," he says unnecessarily. He recently updated the game to include trivia from the Eighties and Nineties, and not just the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, as the original "For the Record" did. "In the Nineties I totally tuned out and had to catch up a little bit." In addition, he is constantly devising questions to go into "booster packs"--boxes of new questions to be sold to people who have already bought the game.

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