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KosherLand? Demand for religious toys, games grows

Entrepreneurs mix fun with serious themes and find a niche, even though few mass retailers carry their products.

December 22, 2006|From the Associated Press

BOSTON — The "crazy, crazy Jewish fun" of KosherLand looks a lot like the board game Candy Land, except gefilte fishing substitutes for visits to the Ice Cream Sea.

In Catholic-opoly, like Monopoly, the job is to bankrupt your opponents. The difference is it's done "in a nice, fun way."

And playtime can get pretty realistic with the Biblical Action Figure of Job, which comes complete with boils.

The market for religious board games and toys like these is tiny and a bit quirky. But sales numbers indicate that demand is growing as families seek wholesome entertainment, selections expand and the Internet gives greater access to retailers.

Abe Blumberger of Jewish Educational Toys says people are much more willing to buy religious toys since he helped create KosherLand in 1985. His game is now offered on UrbanOutfitters.com.

"I think there's a recognition there's a small niche out there," Blumberger said.

Statistics on sales of religious games are hard to find. However, retail sales of inspirational gifts and merchandise, which includes religious toys and games, were an estimated $1.9 billion in 2005, an 11.8% increase from the previous year, according to an April report by Packaged Facts, the publishing arm of MarketResearch.com.

The report projected 26.3% growth to $2.4 billion in sales in the gifts and merchandise sector by 2010.

The games and toys cover a variety of faiths and include Risk-style games, such as Missionary Conquest, and talking plush dolls, such as the smiling and sneaker-wearing Pray With Me Mantis.

In the Muslim board game Race to the Kabah, players advance by learning the meaning of the 99 names of Allah. KosherLand teaches about Jewish dietary laws, requiring, for instance, that players move backward if they mix milk with meat. In the Mormon game Mortality, good decisions help a player acquire "testimonies," which strengthen his faith and help him endure life's trials.

Many of the games were created by people with little or no toy-making experience who were inspired by religious conviction and an idea that wouldn't let go.

Cliff Rockwood of Tyngsborough, Mass., developed Holy Huggables because he wanted a doll for his daughter that reflected his family's spiritual values. Using informal gatherings with friends as market research, he and his wife developed talking Esther, Moses and Jesus dolls and have sold "tens of thousands," though Rockwood declined to be more specific.

Thasneem Ahmed, creator of Race to the Kabah, wanted to promote family life after being deeply affected by the 1999 Columbine massacre. She paid $40,000 to produce 2,500 copies in 2001. Last month, she sold the last game of that batch.

"I felt this was really important for children and families," she said. "That's what it came down to."

Rebecca Sachs Norris of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and Nikki Bado-Fralick of Iowa State University coauthored a paper on religious games and toys, which they say can be a powerful part of instilling values.

But they also worry about whether children can handle some of the more serious and complex messages the games try to send.

"These aren't trivial," Norris said. "They really aren't."

In some games, for instance, the losers don't reach enlightenment or heaven, Norris said. Missionary Conquest awards extra points to players who are martyred by stoning as they try to establish missions in the Middle East.

Rockwood says his dolls' sayings portray what the Bible says in a way a child can understand. The popularity of Holy Huggables is more evidence to him that manufacturers are ignoring a bigger, religious-oriented market.

"There's a population that would like to have these kind of products, and no one wants to make them," he said.

That may be because retailers are just going with what they know.

Anita Frazier, a toy industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group Inc., says the major concern of toy makers about new products or markets is where and how they'll distribute it. They're often forced to find lesser-known, alternative distributors for products because mass retailers largely choose to stock their shelves with proven brands.

KosherLand's Blumberger says his game has had short rides on the shelves of major stores, including Wal-Mart. But his hopes for a mega-marketing deal seem slight.

"I don't think any of the other game companies have to worry about us taking over the market share," he said.

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