Game Boys

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

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.

"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.

There's also no denying that Reed is a bit of a geek. His eyes shine, for example, when he starts spewing sample questions and answers: "What is Taylor Dayne's real name?" (Leslie Wonderman) or, "In October of 1975, which group hit the charts with 'Sky High'?" (Jigsaw). "I try to put humor into the multiple-choices," he says. "For example, for wrong answers, sometimes I'll put in Bill Clinton as a choice. Or better yet, the names of friends and family members, to get them talking about it."

One of the wrong answers Reed frequently uses is "Bill Stephenson," who happens to be one of the mainstays of the Midwest Games Group. "I've been a wrong answer all of my life," Stephenson cracks, sitting at Reed's dining-room table. The two first met at that dinner in St. Louis Park, but they gravitated toward each other like lifelong friends.

"Rick had a theme and put it to a game," explains Stephenson, a 49-year-old Golden Valley native who now lives in Maple Grove. "I constantly have games that I'm trying to put to a theme. Our brains are always going." Stephenson's game, "Spy Alley," came out in 1996 and sold 35,000 copies last year. He turned a profit of $40,000 but still manages a grain elevator in Minneapolis. He has a group of seven investors in the game and says he is waiting for the right moment to release another game that he is certain will be even bigger. "It's nice to have a hobby that pays the bills," he says.

(In "Spy Alley," players spy for a given country and try to uncover their opponents' identities, all while keeping their own identity a secret. It's a concept that he says has been likened to an improvement on "Clue.")

Stephenson he says he would have sold his "Spy Alley" idea to Hasbro, which claims annual sales of more than $3 billion a year, for $10,000 had the game behemoth approached him when he first copyrighted it in 1988. Ten years later, the company did in fact express interest in "Spy Alley" at the Toy Fair, but Hasbro eventually balked at giving Stephenson an offer. No matter, he concluded: He took great satisfaction in getting the company's attention while being successful without Hasbro's help.

Though Stephenson claims that the company, along with Mattel, is keeping an eye on his game's success, it would take a sum "well into six figures" for him to surrender the rights now. "This is my baby and I'm financially tuned to it, and I would need to maintain some control of the game and royalties," he says. "Hasbro won't even take a game now unless they can sell a half a million a year," he adds. "Hasbro and Parker Brothers can afford to put out a bad game and shove anything down people's throats. We can't do that. Our games have to be good."

Stephenson and Reed both complain that the big companies aren't coming up with any original ideas these days--something they blame on Hasbro's purchase of Parker Brothers in 1991 and Milton Bradley in 1984. "The big guys are just interested in licensing money now, spinning off different versions of the same old games," Stephenson explains. "Golf gets popular, so they put out 'Golf Monopoly.' Or everybody likes the Simpsons, so they put out 'Simpsons Clue.'"

Those titles might be easy to market, they say, but they might not meet their standard for a good game: Something that's simple and entertaining enough that children and their parents can play together. And all of the games produced by members of their Midwest Games Group are fresh and challenging, they boast. "It's fun to take on the big guys," Reed says. "We are all doing well without their help, and they have to pay attention to us."

All this camaraderie is well and good, but there's also a hint of a little friendly competition: "I sold one more game than [the Reeds] did last year," Stephenson declares.  

"No, that's not true," Reed retorts. "We sold two more."

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