Games: Getting back on board

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The Independent Culture
GAMES companies bold enough to back their 'back to basics' judgement fared well at the recent British trade show. The change of venue, from Earls Court to Olympia, contributed to a more intimate, yet vibrant atmosphere.

A sign of confidence returning to the business was seeing buyers again physically writing orders at the fair itself - a rare sight over the last few years. Orders were also being placed for the new games being presented, and not just the standard, safe shelf-fillers.

With video games appearing to have peaked, people are turning once again to strategy and family games, and those companies that had identified and acted upon this trend seemed well pleased with their decisions.

Even 'Death Row' - the name traditionally given to the group of one-product, start-up games companies that so rarely make it to a second season - seemed misnamed.

It is a shame that it is no longer possible to get an overview of the whole British games market at one pass, but the large international companies, such as Mattel and Hasbro-Bradley, now hold private showings. Although they run courtesy coaches, if time is limited it is not always possible to take advantage of this.

Some of the major British companies have chosen to meet the challenge of video games with what a Waddington spokesman called 'kids' action games'. I enjoyed their Chilly Silly Penguins, where players flip fish-discs from their boats, trying to knock their opponents' penguins off the ice floe, while a battery-operated polar bear moves randomly, adding to the fun. Also interesting was Pigs Might Fly from Spears, where an air chute makes a piggy ball do exactly that.

Spears have been astute in snapping up the licence for the Canadian game Mindtrap - the object being to solve lateral-thinking problems. This is not to be confused with Lat-Rel, a promising new strategy game from a start-up company.

Many British companies seemed to be playing it safe and testing the water, but one company to take a bold step forward was David Westnedge, which began in 1979 as tarot and playing card specialists, later expanding into quality traditional games, such as chess and backgammon. Their next major step came this year, when they blossomed forth with a range of original strategy games, beautifully made in wood, as well as a range of card games - Teddy's Party, Duo, 77 and Croque.

Quarto is a strategy game using aesthetically pleasing wooden pieces that has already proved itself a success in many other countries and David Westnedge has secured the UK rights to this game. The second game from the Quarto stable is Pyraos, invented by David G Royffe, which employs a new strategy concept of stacking spheres. And the third is my own Cavendish, which, although established, was being offered for the first time in wood. It says much for the returning confidence of British buyers that they were prepared to write firm orders for Pyraos and Cavendish, even though it was only the prototypes that were on view.

The game that attracted the most attention on this stand was the Burmese-originated Carrom - best described as 'snooker for fingers' - which is filtering into pubs and clubs as two to four can play at one time, and far less room is needed than for snooker or pool tables.

The next stop was Nuremberg in Germany, generally accepted as the world trade fair for toys and games. Although Nuremberg is the German trade shop window, most other countries have strong representation there, and it is the place where most of the major deals are done, or at least initiated.

For many years, Germans favoured the 'games that play out a story' approach, but this year there was a marked decrease in new games of that genre, possibly because they are running out of themes. Although there seem to be more German games inventors per square metre than in any other country, and most newspapers have a knowledgable games writer, in general these games seem only to have niche appeal in other countries.

One British games inventor, Oliver Cockell, who had formed his own company, Oliver Grimes, to manufacture and distribute Pinpoint, seemed to be everywhere, demonstrating it on his shared stand and popping up on many other stands, seeking licensees in all countries.

That's the way to do it, and it was good to see such uninhibited enthusiasm. Pinpoint is an original strategy game, involving placing four coloured capsules into a sturdy board at each turn, attempting to form shapes - the bigger the better, and the more you score.

The final major trade show was Now York. This has a very different atmosphere, as many of the American companies have permanent showrooms at the Toy Center buildings, based around the area where Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue. But there is also a major four-day show at the Javits Convention Center. Whereas the mood at Olympia had been one of conservative optimism, and Nuremberg solid and serious, that at the Javits Center was of unrestrained exuberance. The American buyers were definitely there to buy - not just to look.

One of my new card games - Teddy's Party - had just won the American Parental Choice Gold Award, which created much interest with the media, as well as the buyers.

Again, another British game was the focus of a perpetual crowd. A magnificent, massive model was being used to demonstrate Pyraos, on the stand of the Great American Trading Company. The sheer enthusiasm of the company's president, David Karkowski, and sales director Yale Gordon, coupled with the simple rules and original format of Pyraos, soon had all the buyers hooked.

It seems like - certainly in the games business at any rate - the upturn in the British economy is not just a rumour.