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Cheap Thrills for Hard Times : Games: For less than the price of an evening out, fun seekers can get entertainment that can be recycled repeatedly. Here's one business that booms in recessions.

March 26, 1992|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Foster is a regular contributor to Valley View

Quick. How many points for the word recession if the letter S intersects the word games and the letters R, C and I land on double-letter score squares?

If you answered 16, advance to the next paragraph.

Don't worry; this space has no south-of-the-boulevard houses or mini-malls. Free parking? You'll have to look outside Los Angeles County.

The recession has folks paying off more than their credit cards. They're also paying luxury taxes, buying railroads and melding their way to winning canasta hands faster than you can name the capital of the Rift Valley Province in Kenya, East Africa.

Playing games has become the preferred form of cheap, recyclable entertainment for many during the recession, requiring little more than a clean house and a $35 board game that will easily last into the next economic downturn.

"More and more people are playing games," said Winston Hamilton, executive director of the Iowa-based Game Manufacturers Assn. "Buying a game represents an entertainment investment for families that don't want to spend $50 or $75 on a Saturday night out."

"The game business has always been strong during tough economic times," said Keith Meyers, promotions director of the Game Keeper stores. "Games have always had a built-in value factor."

The three classic board games of this century became popular during the Depression or during recessions: Monopoly in 1934 during the Depression, Scrabble during the recession of 1952, and Trivial Pursuit during the recession of 1982.

The game industry posted half a billion dollars in sales last year, a figure that doesn't include electronic games, such as Nintendo. The latest growth spurt came five years ago with the popularization of such role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons and a war game called Squad Leader, the complete version of which can top $300. Both games have been around since the 1970s.

Sales have risen steadily since, Hamilton said. Scores of game-specialty magazines have appeared and numbers of gaming conventions, where manufacturers release their latest creations, have doubled.

Woodland Hills resident Jeff Hale was hooked after playing a "How to Host a Murder" dinner party game with friends last year.

"We were going to go to a club for Halloween but realized we would have to spend about $30 each," Hale said. "So we each pitched in a couple of dollars and bought this game--the theme was 'Chicago Caper'--about Prohibition during the '20s."

The $33.50 game is a home version of a murder mystery party, often thrown as a fund-raiser by organizations. The boxed version, a best seller at area game stores, contains invitations, recipes, a dinner menu, complete whodunit script, character biographies, costume suggestions and a map outlining clues.

"It was one of the most memorable evenings we had with friends," Hale said. "We decorated the house to look like a speak-easy and even attempted to make bathtub gin."

Hale began trying out other games and eventually took a job as manager of the Game Keeper in Northridge. He now plays games with friends each Saturday night.

Other game store owners said best-selling games include Taboo, a takeoff on Password; Scattergories, which challenges players to fit words into specific categories, and mystery jigsaw puzzles, which when solved (usually by two or more players) reveal clues to a story line.

Jenga, a children's game, has surprised many game designers and store owners by "taking off like a storm" with adults, Hale said.

Jenga players take turns removing three-inch-long wooden cubes a from a foot-high tower. As the removed pieces are placed on top, the tower gets taller and heavier until it tumbles.

"It's that simple," Hale said. "But somehow, it's also incredibly addictive."

Dungeons & Dragons has also led sales at stores in recent years, although its intricate rules and lengthy preparation time seem to attract only the most stalwart of players.

The game pits a player's skills against a "Dungeon Master" who sits behind a screen rolling assorted polyhedron dice, dictating what imaginary adventures players will take. The game is popular among teen-agers, although an advanced version has caught on with adults.

"Role-playing games are popular because they allow people to act out a part; you get to be someone other than yourself," Hamilton said.

War games or "historical recreation" games also fall into the role-playing category. Some involve shuffling painted soldiers or figures around a grid. Although there is renewed interest in World War II-themed war games because of the war's 50th anniversary, the Persian Gulf War hasn't spawned any board versions.

"You just couldn't produce that war in a game format," Hamilton said. "It would be like, 'I'm going to tie you up in a chair, pound you with a hammer and it's always my turn.' Where's the challenge?"

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