Three years ago, Trivial Pursuit seemed headed for the corporate garage sale. The onetime best-seller had plummeted to $15 million in sales, 98% below the peak in 1984. And the audience that relished its MENSA-type questions -- "What tennis term is said to come from the French word for egg?" (answer: love from l'oeuf) -- had shrunk to those who do crossword puzzles in ink. But rather than scrap the 1980s classic, Hasbro Inc. (HAS) reinvented the game around pop culture to grab a new generation.
It paid off. Hasbro sold 2.4 million Trivial Pursuit games last year, up from 500,000 in 2001. The best news: New customers include lots of 18-to-34-year-olds drawn to the 11 new versions, including a '90s edition and a pop culture DVD version. Instead of having to know who said "veni, vidi, vici" (Julius Caesar), players are asked: "What rock star declared on his 1995 album Circus, 'Rock 'n' roll is dead'?" (Lenny Kravitz.)
The turnaround of Trivial Pursuit has the Pawtucket (R.I.) gamemaker pushing radical reinventions of classics such as Twister, Monopoly, Clue, and Candy Land, too. And though hyperkinetic video games beat board-game sales seven to one, Hasbro and child-rearing experts say the old games are far from doomed. Kids, parents, and even young adults see them as a better way to spark personal connections and generate laughs than video games, says Anne-Marie Kroisi, head of Hasbro's Gameworks research lab. Experts back that up. "Young kids absolutely want to do more with their parents, and if the tradition is started early with board games, it becomes habit into teen years," says Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.
A NEW TWIST FOR TWISTER
Adding music and dance to Twister struck the right chord with music-mad youngsters and parents who would rather see calories burned than retinas. For years, sales of the 1960s and '70s family-room favorite held steady at 1 million a year. But 8-to-12-year-old girls told Hasbro researchers that they listen to music and practice dance moves while hanging out -- something the old Twister didn't address. So in 2003, Hasbro recast the game from one big sheet covered with colored circles to Twister Moves, played on four separate mats while a DJ on a CD calls out moves. To make the game more current, Twister Moves is promoted by tween heartthrobs such as singer/actor Jesse McCartney, whose songs are included on the CD. Twister Moves helped double overall Twister sales, to 2 million, last year, even though it retails for $20, twice the original price. "We've found a recipe to drive significant growth," says Hasbro Games marketing chief Mark Blecher.
A focus on less sedentary play -- a big parental concern about video games -- is behind the makeover of preschool classic Candy Land. With a nod to toddlers' love of TV, Hasbro has incorporated a DVD that helps turn the whole family room into Candy Land. Instead of a board, the new version comes with 25 small mats placed around a room with a DVD giving kids instructions for hopping along the "Candy Land path." To promote the new version, Hasbro is giving Candy Land to some 25,000 preschools. The new price tag: $30, vs. $10 for the classic.
Others also have profited from an anti-video game trend. Cranium Inc., whose first board game was in 1998 -- based on players doing an array of activities under a time limit -- now offers 12 games, sold at 10,000 outlets. "Technology has us living increasingly in a time of isolation, and people are looking to connect, especially within families," says CEO Richard Tait. On the strength of its SceneIt? game series, Mattel Inc. says it sees big opportunities in non-video games it has recently bought like Balderdash and Outburst.
Even with new growth in board games, it's hard to argue against the dominance of video games -- and now online poker. Market researcher NDP Group figures U.S. sales of board games totaled just $920 million last year, a fraction of the $7.3 billion spent on video game software. School-age boys average 13 hours a week playing video games. Girls would seem a riper target for board games since video games occupy them for just five hours a week.
Hasbro has little choice but to keep the makeovers coming since entering the video game wars now would cost too much. "It is impossible to overstate the importance of the board-game business to Hasbro," says Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbit who says rich profits can be made from updated board games even if sales are dwarfed by electronic fare. That's good for Hasbro, whose Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley games dominate with about two-thirds of the business. Games and puzzles -- including nonboard games such as trading-card games -- accounted for 43% of Hasbro's $3 billion in sales last year. "With gross margins over 60%," says McGowan, "it is their cash cow."
Next year, Hasbro plans bigger innovations, including a redo of its most sacred franchise, Monopoly. A faster, more intense version of the classic board game, Mega Monopoly -- with more penalties and more chances of going to jail -- is meant to appeal to time-pressured families. Higher odds of buyers and sellers of real estate and railroads going to jail? Can't get much more timely than that.
By William C. Symonds in Springfield, Mass.