Mayfair enters electronic age: Old board games join the video boom

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The Independent Online
AS Mattel and Hasbro, the US toy giants, slug it out for the global rights to Scrabble, Monopoly has just made it to the console. You may now go to jail via joystick.

The brand names of popular board games have given them a new lease of life on the computer screen. A digital version of Risk is already available, and Supervision, the video games subsidiary of John Waddington, has plans to release a computerised version of Cluedo later this year.

But the really big story of the past few years has been the rise and rise of the interactive games sector. 'The computer games industry has a bigger turnover than the CD music industry. And at its peak Nintendo made more money than Toyota,' says David Kelly, publisher of the magazine, Computer and Video Games.

Precisely how big the bucks are is a vexed question, since the toy industry is beset by secrecy. Sega and Nintendo, the fiercely competitive market leaders, are not renowned for their frankness and do not disclose turnover, although they claim to have 45 and 55 per cent of the market respectively.

The interactive games sector 'has also exploded at such a fast rate that it hasn't yet matured sufficiently to monitor itself properly,' says Stuart Dinsey, editor of CTW, a computer trade magazine. However, Mr Dinsey himself estimates the video games market (including hardware and software) in the UK to be worth approximately pounds 600m, while the market for computer games software - products tailored to IBM-compatible PCs - is worth another pounds 200m.

Interactive games thus account for approximately half the total UK toy market, estimated at between pounds 1.3bn and pounds 1.6bn. Board games, by contrast, account for about pounds 120m, a meagre 8 to 10 per cent of the market. But if Sonic the Hedgehog has dented the board games business, it has also failed as yet to deliver a knockout blow.

According to a a spokeswoman at John Waddington: 'The evidence suggests that classic board games are making a comeback. Despite a drop of 16 per cent in the toy market last year, games like Monopoly held their own.'

Robert Devereux, chairman of Virgin Interactive Entertainment, believes this is because 'the demographic fit of those who buy Sonic and those who buy Scrabble is almost non-existent'. He argues that families buy board games to play together, while young teenage males buy video games to play alone.

However, the video games business is also notoriously volatile. 'It's a very faddy business, where games have little longevity. But the investment and inventory costs are quite high,' one sector expert says.

The recession has taken its toll, says David Coombs, editor of Toy Trader. 'In 1993, the total toy market was down by some 14 per cent to pounds 1.3bn. The board games sector was down by 17 per cent, but it fluctuates around an average pounds 127m and was only down 11 per cent on a five-year average.' By contrast, the video games market, having peaked in 1992, may have plunged by as much as pounds 150m.

Nevertheless, this reversal of fortune may only be temporary. The computing games market has held up rather better than the video console market, suggesting that there is scope for expansion with a more mature audience.

(Photograph omitted)

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