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Necessity's Latest Offspring Is Coming of Age : Boring Trip Led Cypress College Professor to Create a New Game--'Fast Fax'

December 24, 1987|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

Like many inventions, Terry O'Brien's game was born of necessity.

O'Brien, 52, of Anaheim Hills, is an art professor at Cypress College. Games were not a part of his life until the summer of 1980 during a trip he and some Cypress-area students were taking to South America.

"We were on a train, going through Peru, up the mountains to Lake Titicaca," O'Brien recalled Wednesday. "It was a very long trip, and everyone on the train, including our group, and many Latins, and many French and German tourists, were hot and bored.

"One of my group came to me and said, 'You gotta do something.' So I grabbed some file cards and a felt-tip pen and marked up letters of the alphabet. I told everyone we'd play a game. I told them the first category was sports, and I held up the letter 'B.' 'What sport begins with a B?' I asked. 'Baseball!' someone replied. And then I'd hold up another letter.

"Pretty soon everyone on the train, even the Germans and French, were playing with us."

Officially Launched

From that quick invention on the train, a new game has been officially launched this year. It is called "Fast Fax," and the game is distributed by the same New York City merchandisers of the enormously popular game, "Pictionary."

"Fast Fax" is not yet a runaway seller, but O'Brien said Wednesday that about 50,000 of the games have been sold so far this year. He noted that the game did not hit the market until August, which gave it little time to be known or talked about before the Christmas-buying season. In 1988, though, O'Brien expects "Fast Fax" to start taking off.

"Fast Fax" is a simple game with few rules.

Family-reunion-size gatherings of up to 30 or more people can play the game. Or the game can be played by two or three. A person, called the "moderator," starts the game by naming any category of his or her choice--trees, movie stars, ice cream flavors, whatever. The moderator then draws a card showing a letter of the alphabet. The first person yelling out a correct response gets to keep that card. There are 32 cards. The person winning the most cards gets to be moderator for the next game and to pick the new category.

"One man who distributes games told me that he hates these games that have complicated rules," said O'Brien. "This game is easy. There are hardly any rules."

3 Frustrating Years

But despite being simple and versatile for group size and age, "Fast Fax" had a hard time coming into the market. O'Brien said he spent about three "frustrating years" trying to land a merchandiser before the Games Gang in New York took over "Fast Fax."

"I was naive enough to think that all I had to do was offer my game, and everybody would want it," O'Brien said. "What I've since found out is that there are about 3,000 to 4,000 new games offered every year, and only a handful of those make it to market. And of those that do make it to the market, only one or two are around for a second season."

Having made it to market, O'Brien is still not sure how much money he will earn from his game. "I'm supposed to get my first royalty check next week," he said. "One big expert on games told me once that I had a gold mine in this game. But the same man reminded me that mining for gold is hard work."

In recent weeks, O'Brien has been working his gold mine, laboring diligently to promote his game during the Christmas-shopping season.

He has visited several toy stores, autographing the "Fast Fax" games people buy and chatting with customers about his new invention.

Paused to Watch

On Wednesday, O'Brien was at Karl's Toys store in the MainPlace mall in Santa Ana. As hordes of Christmas shoppers paused to watch, O'Brien would quickly start a game of "Fast Fax" to involve the audience.

One person in the crowd of spectators turned out to be a Cypress College student of O'Brien.

"Yeah, he's my art professor," said T. R. Lind, 20, of Garden Grove. "We played that game the first day of his class. He's fun to have as a teacher, and I've learned a lot under him."

Oblivious to the praise he was getting from one of the voices in the crowd, O'Brien kept holding up cards. "What's an animal that starts with the letter A?" he asked.

"Antelope!" said a woman.

"You get the card," said the art professor-turned-games inventor-turned-entrepreneur.

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