Stuart Tucker is growing impatient with his fellow settlers. A ship, filled to the brim with corn, is ready to sail off to Spain. But there it sits, inexplicably idle at a Puerto Rican port. Beads of sweat gathering on his forehead, Tucker reaches over the kitchen table and seizes the goods.
"Stuart, put the corn back!" screams Eric Sanne, another settler. "I still have corn to sell. And now you need to apologize."
"I won't apologize," says Tucker.
The familiar sounds of children playing a board game, right? Well, not exactly. Tucker and Sanne are both 44. And the miniature crops, workers and plantations splayed out before them, a game called Puerto Rico, more closely resembles an international summit than a lap around the family Monopoly board. "We only play games with a significant element of strategy," says Tucker, a World Bank employee who holds an adults-only board-game session every Tuesday at his home in Gaithersburg.
Driven by an economic downturn, an emphasis on family together time and nostalgia, Americans are flocking back to board games. But not just any old game will do. In this age of the PC gamer, with more consumer spending going to video games and their components than movies, shoppers are looking for something that combines the complex strategies of electronics with the face-to-face interactions of board games. The answer: sophisticated games like Puerto Rico, in which up to five players on an island compete to grow, process and ship crops more efficiently than their competitors. The $35 German-made board game boasts elegant pieces, quick play and lots of interaction.
The Game Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, estimates that sales of non-electronic specialty games, which exclude best-selling standbys like Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and Connect Four, have nearly quadrupled since 1995, from $700 million to $2.7 billion. Some of those sales include popular children's card games such as Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, but one of the fastest-growing areas, industry experts say, is the adult strategy game.
"People are going to the big stores, buying generic games, and at some point they say, 'Isn't there anything other than the 19th version of Monopoly?' " said Larry Roznai, whose company, Mayfair Games Inc., publishes one of the most popular specialty board-game titles, Settlers of Catan. "Here is an exercise in decision making and resource management. I've got to build a city -- I need some rock and some wheat carts."
The specialty market is still dwarfed by mass-marketed games, which have dominated the industry for decades and benefit from strong holiday sales inside Toys R Us, Target and Wal-Mart. In 2002, Hasbro Inc. sold 1 million copies of the 20th anniversary edition of Trivial Pursuit; to put that in perspective, most specialty games never reach sales of 10,000. New Mexico-based Rio Grande Games, which licensed the game Puerto Rico from Alea Games -- a subsidiary of Ravensburger, one of Germany's largest gaming companies -- has sold 20,000 copies in just over a year.
But even the biggest players in the U.S. gaming industry are taking notice of Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan. "These are the games we are playing at home at night," said Michael Gray, senior director of product design at Hasbro Games, the East Longmeadow, Mass., company that makes Monopoly, Connect Four and the Game of Life.
Gaming experts are split on the cause of the specialty board-game renaissance. Some call it a backlash against the solitary computer. Like the complex board games, popular computer games such as the Sims series allow players to work with multiple changing scenarios. And many cutting-edge games include the ability to play against others online. But electronic games don't provide face-to-face competition. Others believe that after years of trial and error, designers have finally found the right formula required to keep board games -- which are notoriously repetitive -- dynamic enough to play over and over again.
The U.S. board-game industry is relatively young. It took shape in the late 19th century when handmade imports, mostly from Europe and Asia, began trickling into cities. Soon, American inventors hatched their own ideas, taking their cues from the vox populi. Monopoly, for example, was created in 1933 during the Great Depression, offering players a wondrous meritocracy where rich and poor could compete to build apartments on Park Avenue. But mass-produced games did not hit store shelves until after World War II, with the development of better manufacturing techniques and a leisure class.
Board-game sales have always increased during economic slumps. In many ways, they are the ultimate bargain -- a lifetime's worth of reusable entertainment for about $30. "They are also escape mechanisms," said Jonathan Albin, marketing director for the Game Manufacturers Association. But the industry is not exactly a level playing field for manufacturers. Hasbro, which snatched up competitors Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers in the past three decades, dominates.
Erik Arneson, who meets each week with his former college roommates to play Settlers of Catan in southeastern Pennsylvania, says his friends grew tired of the scripted routines of classic American games.
"You roll, you move, you see what square you're on. You roll, you move, you answer a question," complains Arneson, 32, a chief of staff for a Pennsylvania state senator. "But they don't offer the ability to influence what other people are doing. When it's not your turn, you just sit there watching."
In Settlers of Catan, however, every roll of the dice shapes all four players' fortunes. Players vie to produce the most resources on an unsettled island. Movable tiles represent a resource-generating terrain (forests produce lumber, for example, and pastures produce wool). Roll a 5 and every tile containing that number generates goods. But luck does not prevail over planning: Trading resources is required to gain the upper hand.
The games may sound overly complicated, but fans say they are not. Players can generally master them after one sitting. Playing time is usually 90 minutes, about average for the industry. By comparison, the strategy game's closest mass-marketed counterparts, war games Risk, Diplomacy, and Axis and Allies, can take weekends, if not weeks, depending on the intensity of the combatants. If owners ever tire of the specialty game, expansions -- which add new levels of complexity -- can be purchased.
In a sign of just how hungry people are for smarter board games, adult-education programs in Fairfax and Arlington now offer classes that introduce strategy-oriented titles. The name of one course: "Beyond Monopoly."
"It's a real eye-opener for people," said instructor Ben Baldanza, who lives in McLean. "Very few of the people who come to the class have heard of the games we play. But they generally love them."
At 32, Anthony Lefebvre thought his board-game days were far behind him. But after playing a series of strategy games this year, the Arlington resident was hooked all over again. To date, he has bought three specialty games. "It's not about chance, which is what so many other games are about," he said. "These are games where you have to really think, which makes it more gratifying when you win."
Converts like Lefebvre are changing the economics of specialty gaming. For much of its life, specialty-game manufacturer Mayfair Games, based in Skokie, Ill., struggled for a niche in an industry dominated by the likes of Hasbro and Mattel. Then the company licensed Settlers of Catan from its German creator in the late 1990s, translated the game into English and repackaged it for American consumers. Over the past five years, the company has doubled its sales. "That's a hell of a statement," says Mayfair's Roznai.
With 10 million copies sold worldwide, Settlers of Catan has made the leap to the Toys R Us Web site, but few games achieve enough of a following to make it onto mass-marketers' shelves. As a result, much of the specialty-game business is conducted online. Companies like Mayfair and Rio Grande have set up elaborate Web sites with links to a game's summary, rules and player reviews. A handful of specialty stores -- including The Compleat Strategist and Wizards of the Coast, which both have Washington area locations -- carry the games.
Some of the most successful new titles are immigrants from Germany, which has long prized board games and their designers, whose names appear in large print on the boxes. Unlike American families, which will buy a game, play it once or twice, and promptly toss it aside for five years, German families routinely drag out games for all-night sessions, says Guido Teuber, managing director of Catan LLC and the son of Klaus Teuber, who designed Settlers of Catan.
"In Germany, these are seen as cool party games," he said. "They have the same place in many households as books or music." Most American board games, on the other hand, "have been repackaged without innovation," and so consumers view them as the province of children and hard-core gamers.
That may be changing.
Lefebvre, the strategy-game convert, has no reservations about bringing his games on a family vacation. Or even cracking open a box in front of his friends. So far, at least, no one has balked at the idea of spending a few hours puzzling over how to settle Catan. "Most people," Lefebvre said, "find it's a great escape."