Not All In Their Heads
It's a humdinger: Your task
is to whistle "Stayin' Alive" with enough skill for your teammate to
identify the 1970s disco hit. On your next turn, your partner draws a clue --
with his eyes closed -- and you have to figure out what it is. Some players even
find themselves spelling words backward in order to win a round. These odd challenges,
along with 11 others, make up the hottest new board game since Trivial Pursuit.
It is a "whole brain" game appropriately labeled Cranium.
took nine months for two former Microsoft employees to create a unique game and
take it to a market that's been craving something different. Company founders
Richard Tait and Whit Alexander are trying to satisfy the world's intellectual
hunger with a game designed to include something for everyone.
how's this game playing out? Cranium is currently one of the best-selling board games
on Amazon.com and is also selling like hotcakes at Barnes & Noble, Toys R
Us and Target, among others. And while the dynamic duo prefers not to reveal the
exact number of games they have sold to date, Tait reports Cranium went platinum
in 2002, selling its
millionth game and "bringing outrageous fun to millions
of people on every continent."
Tait and Alexander are enjoying
incredible success in the board game industry -- but they haven't let it go to
their heads. After living in the safe and warm world of Microsoft for a combined
15 years, the entrepreneurs are grounded by the big challenges of running a small
Racking Their Brains
By November 1997, personal experience would
lead Tait to consider a new breed of board games that incorporated a variety of
talents, unlike the popular uni-skill products currently crowding toy store shelves.
vacation in the Hamptons with his wife and another couple, Tait's entourage found
themselves stuck indoors one rainy afternoon and decided to pass the time away
with a board game. They first played Pictionary. Tait, a huge fan of the game,
and his wife, proceeded to "demolish" the other team. But his competitors
sought revenge and quickly challenged Tait and his wife to a game of Scrabble.
Tait admits his good friends were the overwhelming victors in the popular word
"I felt terrible and wondered why there wasn't
a game where everyone that plays can have a chance to shine -- still a competitive
fun board game, but one where everyone can show what they are good at," explains
Using Their Heads
Tait says he and Alexander,
who was a good friend, vowed to leap at future opportunities to work together
when they left Microsoft. So, upon germinating what he viewed as a hot concept,
Tait approached Alexander to help him examine the possibilities of producing an
offbeat, new board game.
"I must admit, we looked
more at online opportunities than thinking about a board game," recalls Tait.
That is, until they recognized the cash cow a blockbuster board game can represent.
After all, there have been five billion-dollar board games created in the industry's
history, but there has never been a billion-dollar PC game.
saw there was an opportunity to create something with a life span and a strong
revenue potential," says Tait. "All of the intellectual capital was
going into online and PC or [Sony] Play Station-type games, and we didn't feel
there was a lot of horsepower being applied to the board-game market."
Tait explains that board games go back centuries and have endured many different
competitive threats, from radio and TV to the PC-based gaming environment. This
gave the braniacs confidence that board games are here to stay. Finally, Tait
says the level of capital required to launch a board game was significantly less
than the investment required to get into the high-tech video-game industry.
Brains, Right Brains and Board Games
Once the duo decided to take the proverbial
plunge, they began conducting research to flesh out the concept of their "whole
"The next objective was to get to
a really robust prototype and get a lot of customer feedback, but before we could
get there, we had to undertake a good bit of research," explains Alexander.
He reveals that if you go back to the pre-television era, or even as far back
as the turn of the century, you can find antecedents to most modern games, including
Pictionary. The two soaked up as much knowledge as they could about the history
of social games, comparing their findings against the criteria for Cranium.
conclusion was to develop a left brain/right brain game, but neither knew much
about the hypothesis, so they began researching the field of intellectual psychology.
Tait and Alexander would soon discover a Harvard researcher named Howard Gardner
whose "Theory of Multiple Intelligences" postulates that there are eight
core competencies where people demonstrate intelligence, such as linguistics,
mathematical, spatial, and so on.
"We thought it was
a really rich framework to try to base the game design on, so we built up from
Gardner's work," explains Alexander.
identified a number of occupations that people might pursue if they are gifted
in one of Gardner's intelligences. They then broke down the findings into subject
matters or areas of interest that those same people would be exceptionally strong
in, ensuring each player their moment to shine.
three months of research during early 1998, Alexander and Tait realized the novelty
of their approach to the board-game market. In total, they had come up with 14
different activities, each one innovative in its own right.
had some great new ideas that hadn't been popularized in a board game," says
Tait. One such example is their Cranium Clay used to play "sculpterades."
As the name suggests, this activity requires players to sculpt clues while their
teammates guess what they are sculpting, bringing out the child in the most mature
adults. The duo's commitment to research and design took them through 10 different
clay recipes and multiple scents before settling on purple, citrus-smelling clay
that boasts a long shelf life. Tait says customers e-mail them often looking for
more of the putty because they like it so much.
settled on four unique groups of question cards, including "Creative Cat,"
which features sculpting and drawing activities; "Data Head," which
focuses on trivia; "Word Worm," which includes vocabulary-based questions;
and "Star Performer" featuring performance-based activities.
the team with the best combination of skills that wins," explains Tait. "Unlike
in Trivial Pursuit, where all the 'data heads' would prevail, or Pictionary,
where the artists prevail, or Scrabble, where the 'word worms' prevail."
Tait and Alexander say many of
the early challenges with Cranium were creative in nature. Ironically, the two
depended greatly upon their high-tech skills to invent this low-tech board game.
the value of a diverse knowledge base, Tait and Alexander assembled a "virtual
team," which acted as their editorial board. Though they never met during
production, together this cyber crew of about seven specialists would overcome
one of Cranium's greatest obstacles: creating the content that would make or break
The founders attracted contributing experts in
areas like the theater, visual arts, word games and pop culture, and also worked
with an experienced editor who reviewed the questions for qualities like appropriateness,
level of difficulty, age specificity, and so on. Alexander says the group developed
100 percent of the content via e-mail using special software he had worked on
during his time at Microsoft.
"Another challenge was
really putting it in front of consumers and watching them play," recalls
Tait. "We watched things like duration of play and determined what people
are looking for is really a 60- to 90-minute fun experience that they can have
after dinner with some friends."
Alexander would rely
on his computer technology skills once again to tackle another major challenge
for any popular board game: engineering the most effective play duration and play
dynamics. He simulated virtually thousands of different board lengths to determine
actual game duration, including the number of cells on the board, the number of
questions and how many sides were on the die.
play dynamics that allow one group to "demolish" another by limiting
each team to one task before passing the turn to the next player. Tait says this
is just one example of hundreds of game dynamics they fine-tuned throughout the
play tests. But, he adds, there was one constant throughout the testing period:
People were having a good time.
Tait and Alexander describe
funding as one of the challenges of coming up with an early business model, digging
deep into their own pockets to finance an invention they believed in with their
hearts and their heads.
"The reality check for us
was that, traditionally, it takes about $4 to $6 million to do a great computer
game, and the investment we've made to date in Cranium is only a fraction of that,"
An Intelligent Choice of Distribution Partners
mid-1998, Tait and Alexander had begun to identify their distribution partners.
By that November, they had secured four major deals, giving Cranium both domestic
and international exposure. The theme behind their distribution deals was consistent:
playing is believing.
Tait and Alexander identified distribution
partners that were focused on the same demographic they were targeting with Cranium.
Cranium's target audience, affectionately called "dating yupsters" by
the inventors, is made up of individuals between the ages of 25 and 35, with an
attractive disposable income. Tait says this demographic seems to have a natural
social tendency to play games like Cranium and Pictionary.
first major deal came from Starbucks Coffee.
the social dynamic of the game fit with their coffee-house culture," explains
Tait. "We knew they were looking for distinctive products, and we discovered
upon meeting with them that they had been looking for a game for two years. And
we were the game they chose."
Their next stop was
popular bookseller Barnes & Noble, whose gift buyers had only five words for
a zealous Tait: "We don't do board games." But Tait convinced the group
to hear him out, and during the meeting, he began to play a spirited round of
Cranium with the buyers.
"By the time I left the meeting,
they told us we were going to be the first game to be stocked in 150 Barnes &
Noble stores nationally since Trivial Pursuit," he recalls.
there, the impressive duo would use their contacts to get a foot in the door of
one of the hottest shopping outlets on the Web, Amazon.com. An eclectic group
of Amazon representatives gathered to conduct play tests of Cranium, and Tait
says the outcome was a place on the virtual shelves of the leading online bookseller.
after identifying a second, slightly younger demographic (18-21) during their
focus groups, the inventors decided to pursue an entertainment partner to help
target this lucrative audience. They focused their energies on Virgin Megastores
because Tait had read the biography of Richard Branson, Virgin's founder and CEO,
and felt he would be most receptive to Cranium.
knew if I could get this game into the hands of his kids and they liked it, we
would have a chance of getting stocked by Virgin. So, at Branson's book signing
in Seattle, I approached him with a game under my arm," explains Tait.
Branson asked what Tait was carrying, Tait presented him with Cranium. As it turns
out, Branson had missed an opportunity to invest in Trivial Pursuit and was eager
to reclaim lost ground in the board-game arena. Within four days of this nonchalant
encounter, Cranium had an international distribution deal with Virgin.
is also sold via the company's e-commerce Web site and through their toll free
number. Alexander says these efforts account for a growing percentage of Cranium's
In retrospect, Tait and
Alexander say they're quite pleased with Cranium's initial distribution methods,
although the former says they have started to look to the specialty-game-store
market as one avenue for growth and have found shelf space in stores like GameKeeper
and Seattle-based Turn Off The TV. The duo also plans to build on their own direct-sales
"The future of how to develop a board game
is pretty well documented by some of the other big, hit games, where you develop
new card packs," explains Tait. And he says Cranium will offer new and unique
card sets in the near future.
Tait reports that the company has spent very little on marketing efforts and indicates the most effective selling tool is sitting down and playing the game. Targeting additional demographics was another strategy for the continued growth of Cranium. Tait says it has become apparent from playing in family settings that younger children also appreciate the "whole brain" game. As a result, the inventors developed younger versions of the game.
originally started with a much broader vision than just a board game," explains
Tait. He says they looked at the 1980s and how the heart was so heavily emphasized
in conjunction with good health. "We think it's going to be the brain that's
going to be the organ for the new millennium, and we would like to be the company
that's at the forefront of providing fun things to do with your brain to keep
it happy and healthy."
This strategy has made Cranium
a standout among its competitors in the board-game industry, as there simply is
no other game that offers such a variety of activities. Even while still on the
shelf, Cranium stands out amongst other board games. This is thanks, in part,
to their choice of illustrators and the inventors' talent for consumer-focused
iterative product design, another skill they refined during their Microsoft days.
To respond to the unprecedented - and unexpected - enthusiasm for
Cranium, the company launched Cranium Booster Box 1 with 800 new questions, just
one year after the Cranium board game. To continue to satisfy the appetite of
Craniacs in the U.S., the company released Cranium Booster Box 2 and Cranium Primo
Edition, a deluxe version of the smash-hit party game, with all-new content and
a new twist on Cranium's incredibly popular sculpting activity.
to bring Cranium's distinctive kind of infectious fun to international markets,
in October 2000 Cranium launched a U.K. edition of the game, with content geared
specifically toward British brains. On its heels, editions of Cranium for Australia,
Germany, and France and two editions for Canada, celebrating both English and
French Canadian culture, began to lighten and enlighten people's lives in those
To build the brand for the brain and extend
Cranium's outrageous fun to more moments and more people, Tait and Alexander began
exploring how kids play. First came the award-winning Cranium Cadoo. With a variety
of hilarious activities, Cranium Cadoo gets kids ages seven and up thinking, creating,
giggling, and grinning as they go for four in a row to win.
Cranium Cariboo, which launched in 2002, takes three- to six-year-olds on an exciting
exploration of the magical island of Cariboo, where they'll find castles, boats,
balloons, and more. Eyes light up as each turn gives kids the chance to match
fun drawings, unlock secret doors, and even discover hidden treasure.
and Alexander also started to dig deeper into the moments in adults' lives, first
targeting how people spend their time at work. The result was Cranium Cosmo, an
outrageously fun office toy that is perfect for a quick break at your desk or
bringing a few laughs to your next meeting.
efforts have caught the attention of more than just its wildly large fan base.
The company won "Game of the Year" at the annual Toy of the Year ceremony and brought home the prestigious Parents' Choice Gold Award for Cranium Cadoo for Kids in 2001. Created with a strong commitment to do good as a company,
Cranium makes contributions through the Cranium Fund and has awarded more than
$600,000 to organizations that offer after-school programs in the visual, literary,
or performing arts to kids in challenging circumstances.
Tait's and Alexander's roles in the company are almost interchangeable.
However, Tait handles a lot of the marketing and business development, while Alexander
deals more with operations and fulfillment. Each works on product design, customer
requests and public relations.
"That's one of the
challenges. We can both do a lot of different tasks, but we each have special
skills. What makes us a good team is that we know which one is better at which
thing, and we are happy to delegate that between the two of us," explains
Tait. But he admits, as busy entrepreneurs, they do end up overlapping on a lot
of tasks just to complete them.
Today, the pair's main
challenge is building the Cranium brand name, and Tait alludes to a potential
TV show as well as new Cranium products in the distant future.
and Alexander are highly motivated by the potential of Cranium and indicate they
have no interest in selling their brainchild to larger industry players like Parker
Brothers. "We are committed to seeing this thing through into the next millennium,"
insists Tait. "It's too much fun to give up."