Games: The 1997 Olympian Games

William Hartston found plenty to play with at the International Toy & Hobby Fair at Olympia

Last Christmas may still linger in the memory, but it is already too late for any games and toy inventors who have not yet perfected their products for Christmas 1997. The British International Toy & Hobby fair has just finished at Olympia, where retailers meet inventors and manufacturers, and plans are set for filling up toy-shop shelf space for next winter.

A recent survey by NPD Eurotoys Consumer Panel reveals some interesting facts about our toy-buying habits:

The total value of the Traditional Toy market in Britain in the first nine months of 1996 was pounds 662m (up 6 per cent on the previous year).

51.6 per cent of all toys were bought as Christmas presents.

78 per cent of all toys (and 88 per cent of all dolls) are bought by women.

68.8 per cent of toys are bought for the purchaser's own child or grandchild.

For every pounds 1 spent on daughters, pounds 1.21 is spent on sons.

Children aged 4-5 have the most spent on them.

The average amount of money spent on a single toy was pounds 6.91.

Furthermore, according to the government's family expenditure survey, the average UK family spent pounds 1.41 a week on toys, games and hobbies in 1993, with the Welsh spending 50 per cent more than the national average.

Beneath those statistics lurks a hugely creative industry and massive marketing expertise. With 420 exhibitors at Olympia, it is far from easy to give an overview of the exhibition as a whole, but there seemed to be a strong emphasis on extending established concepts into new dimensions.

That has happened most literally in the world of the jigsaw, with a number of companies producing highly attractive three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. "Puzz3D" from Waddingtons won the "Most Innovative Toy of the Year" award with its range of jigsaw scale models of famous buildings, including the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower and a 4ft-tall Big Ben. Prices range from pounds 14.99 to pounds 40 and they may take from eight to 40 hours to put together between 225 and 1500 pieces. (Available in the shops from March.)

If you want something perhaps even more attractive that takes up less space, look out for "Sculpture Puzzles" from The Really Useful Games Co. These are essentially sculptures cut into thin slices that can be reassembled on a central spike. There's a cheat sheet if you just want to make the sculpture - or you can make it still more difficult by breaking up the individual slices into mini-jigsaws of their own. Look out for the Venus de Milo and Rodin's The Kiss which will appear in the shops later this month.

Another noticeable trend was the tendency to jazz up traditional games, though sometimes this is little more than repackaging for specific marketing purposes. Does "Monopoly" - still the top money-earner in the games and puzzles market - really profit by linking itself to the Star Wars anniversary celebrations? Do we really need Darth Vader instead of an old boot, and Dagobah Swamp where Old Kent Road used to be? (Still, it looks jolly good value at only 40 credits.) Beneath all the SF gibbering, however, its still the game we know and love.

That other old favourite, Scrabble, has spawned some more original offshoots. Head to Head Scrabble from Spears is a nice way of combining the dice from Boggle with the anagram-forming and scoring ideas of Scrabble in a two-person game. Seven dice with letters on all their faces are shunted to and fro across a track, automatically shuffling themselves as they go. Score more points and push the rack nearer your opponent; reach the end and you've won the game. For real Scrabble addicts, there are Scrabble Cards and a new Travel Scrabble Deluxe for those who cannot bear a train journey without their favourite game.

Another Scrabble derivative is Numble from Positive Games Ltd. This is one of those brilliant ideas that's so simple you wonder why nobody thought of it before. It's also one of those rare games with genuine educative value that parents can play with their children. Put simply, it's Scrabble with numbers and mathematical symbols, +, -, x, and =, instead of letters on the tiles. The objective is to make, in the usual crossword format, sums with correct answers. (On sale now at selected outlets in Norfolk; shortly to be generally available. Price around pounds 14.95)

Finally there are the board games. You can pretend you're at the Olympics with "Games" from Worldwide Games, (simulated track and field events on an attractive board, with general sporting knowledge questions thrown in), or conduct a court case with "Libel" (the Really Useful Games Co). But the one to look out for is Snap Election (from Prowler Productions). With Sleaze cards and Banana Skins, this is just the thing for the present feverish political climate. More on this game shortly.

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