Come holiday time, the game's the thing -- trade bored for a board Real Winners


Remember the Christmas you got "Monopoly" and by the end of the day you had played so many games that the money was no longer crispy-new and everyone had stepped -- ouch! -- at least once on a stray hotel? Or the year you got "Trivial Pursuit" and the other team got all the easy music questions -- hint: the answer is almost always "Paul Simon" -- and your team couldn't get that last green wedge?

Board games and Christmas: While the rest of the year you may be perfectly content playing a computer and video game, there's something about the conviviality of the holidays that just calls out for a good ol' low-tech board game that you don't need to plug in or program or won't blow a fuse -- electrical or otherwise -- trying to set up.

"There will always be board games. They are played in social settings and are an adjunct to social settings. Computer games, by contrast, are asocial," says Winston Hamilton, executive director of the trade group, Game Manufacturers Association.

Consumers spent a total of $498 million on games last year -- a figure that includes all games except the Nintendo- and arcade-type games -- and half of that is spent during the holiday season, Mr. Hamilton estimates.

But how to choose between all the games that manufacturers hope will be this year's "Clue" or "Pictionary"? We gathered some players to test five new games that have received particularly good reviews by other publications, such as Games magazine. We were interested in testing a variety of games -- a word game, a strategy game, etc. -- and looked for general interest, party-oriented ones that you could play with other casual players, rather than those who are deep into celebrity trivia, historical or fantasy/adventure games.

Here are the five games we chose, in alphabetical order, followed by the manufacturer's name and phone number, price and a sampling of our testers' comments.

1. Farook, Amuse, Inc., (212) 481-8514. $13 to $50 (PC version).

This is one of those deceptively simple games. At first, it seems like a mere extension of tick-tack-toe, except players try to get four pieces in a row, in a square or on the corners of the game board.

But here's the twist: There are two wild pieces, and they can be either yours or your opponents'. That element adds layers of complexity -- or is it frustration? -- to the game.

"It's like miniature chess," Laurie said.

Farook -- the name refers to King Farouk who was forced to abdicate the Egyptian throne but took some of the national treasures with him -- also won praise for its elegant design: Unleash the drawstring pouch that carries the jewel-like playing pieces, and it turns into the game board.

"I like that you can take it anywhere," Diane said.

"It really makes you think, and my mind has been on hold for awhile," Cliff said. "The thing is, this is an abstract game, and most players either like abstract games or more specific games."

"I like it, but then, I like abstract games," said Ed Okimoto.

Farook has cafe potential -- meaning, its portability and open-ended style of play make it a natural on the shelves of your local coffeehouse next to the backgammon set.

And if you don't like playing just for fun, Farook offers a financial incentive on the personal computer version of the game: If you beat the machine at the grand master level, you win $1,000.

2. Inklings. Mattel, (800) 524-TOYS. $26.

This looks as close to a hit this year as anything -- we have yet to find someone who doesn't enjoy this "game of little hints."

Players divide into two teams. One player on each team is given a card with seven related items on it, such as "Men named John" (Wayne, Kennedy, etc.) or "Things that make you cry" (onions, weddings. . .). That player then writes clues on an erasable slate, announces the category and his or her teammates try to guess all seven answers in 45 seconds. Any clues they miss can be stolen by the other team.

But here's the ingenious part: The shorter the clue, the more points you get. It's like E-mail -- you can use

We tested the new games on two occasions. The first group met at our invitation, and included both game enthusiasts and more casual players. They are:

* Laurie Chambers, production manager of scientific publications for American Physiological Association in Bethesda, who has played games off and on over the years;

* Diane Ferary, a business teacher at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia whose use of "Monopoly" as a teaching tool won her IBM's "Teacher of the Year" title last year.

* Rob Weigend, a lawyer and owner of Games Parlor in Chantilly, Va., who is part of Mensa's panel of game testers.

The second group of testers came as a package deal -- they are friends who regularly meet to play games:

* Bill Cleary, of Owings Mills, a computer programmer at the Social Security Administration;

* Ed Fahrmeier, of Woodbine, a psychologist;

* Ed Okimoto, of Owings Mills, a computer specialist at Social Security;

* Ray Pfeifer, of Catonsville, a computer specialist at Social Security;

* Dave Terry, of Sykesville, an engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab;

* Cliff Willis, of Ellicott City, a claims examiner at Social Security.

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