A Game Maker’s Winning Moves

Here is how Jan Travers, a young entrepreneur, launched Abalone on the US market almost without any money:

……

NYT_logo+

A Game Maker’s Winning Moves

By ALISON LEIGH COWAN

Published: July 4, 1991

 

Jan Travers’s young company did not have the money to advertise his new board game, Abalone, so he tried something few frustrated entrepreneurs would do: he gave the game away to small shopkeepers and played it in places like restaurants and beaches to drum up interest.

“You need a little strategy when you have a strategy game,” said Mr. Travers, president of the Abalone Games Corporation in New York.

His efforts are paying off. In the last two years, 100,000 of the games have been sold in the United States and five times that number worldwide at US $20 (about $54) to US $40 (about $108) each.

While that is a modest success, it still means more than US $15 million in retail sales since the game’s debut.

Singled out recently by Games Magazine and American Mensa Limited, the high-I.Q. society, as one of the best new games, Abalone is still going strong, game industry executives and analysts say.

The breakout of Abalone (pronounced AB-uh-loan), in which two players manipulate large marbles to dominate a hexagonal board, is increasingly uncommon in the US $17 billion toy and game industry.

The millions of dollars needed for national advertising and marketing campaigns to get shelf space at giant chain stores like Toys “R” Us is all but prohibitive for many entrepreneurs.

To make up for their lack of financial firepower, Mr. Travers and his partners had to be clever, and their story reads like a primer on how to market a product on an absurdly low budget.

It is even more striking considering that Hasbro Inc., which recently fortified its position as the nation’s biggest toy maker with its purchase of the Tonka Corporation, collects nearly three of every four dollars Americans spend on games.

With games like Scattergories, which sold 1.77 million units last year, Hasbro owns 16 of the 20 top sellers, giving it clout few toy companies have with retailers to push new products.

“If Mattel can’t do it, that says a lot about how hard it is,” said Sean McGowan, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison & Company, alluding to the troubles that the country’s second-largest toy company has had in cracking the game market.

That Abalone Games pushed ahead without sacrificing quality — Mr. Travers searched worldwide for the perfect marbles to use in Abalone — is also worth noting.

“I never had up-front money in my life,” said Mr. Travers, who is 36 years old and a former restaurateur and media buyer with a fondness for sandals and casual clothes. “So I’m a big believer that you can do things without money.”

With one side represented by black marbles and the other by white ones, Abalone strongly resembles sumo wrestling. The first player to push six of his opponent’s 14 marbles out of the center ring wins.

To do so, players have to cluster their marbles to overpower their opponents without leaving stragglers.

“You have to work in groups,” Mr. Travers said, explaining that the game’s name is a play on the word alone. “In groups, you are strong. Alone, you’re weak.”

To be sure, Abalone was helped by a growing demand for cheap home entertainment and the waning interest in video games. “The timing is right,” said Steven Eisenberg, a leisure analyst at Oppenheimer & Company. “With the video game category peaking, it’s correct to expect that retailers looking to fill some of the vacuum would consider stepping up their commitments to board games.”

3 French Partners

Abalone’s inventors, two French artists, and the French businessman who put up US $2 million in start-up capital, are all equal partners with Mr. Travers, who became involved with the game in 1988 when he did a marketing study for it.

Since they banded together, the men have sponsored tournaments in the streets of Harlem and given games away to cafes and ski resorts where it would be seen — and sampled — by a fashionable crowd.

For example, when Cafe Mirage recently opened on West 57th Street in Manhattan, a free Abalone game was sent over. It proved so popular that the owners now refer patrons who get hooked to the Compleat Strategist, the game store next door.

Mr. Travers also sent a game to Club Med’s purchasing office in Miami, noting that the rugged design made Abalone ideal for beach play. The boss took it home, played it with his kids, and ordered 12 for all the Club Meds in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Sold in Specialty Outlets

Mr. Travers’s shrewdest move, however, was persuading hundreds of specialty stores to stock the game long before he could afford to advertise. He promised not to sell it to discounters like Toys “R” Us, although he acknowledges that the concession was less grand than it sounded: the giants never would bother with an unknown game with no national television exposure.

Mr. Travers also makes a practice of listening to and watching his customers. He learned that the odd-shaped game was difficult to giftwrap, a drawback in the all-important Christmas season. He quickly developed a six-sided gift box that wraps around the game in a few seconds.

At an Abalone tournament, Mr. Travers noticed that some blind players had to scratch or chip their marbles before they could play. He now sells rough and smooth marbles especially for them. Attention to Detail.

Despite his success as a marketer, Mr. Travers seems far less gifted at financial or legal matters. He has yet to sign contracts with distributors, partly because of a fanatic attention to detail that has delayed completion of agreements. But that trait helped make Abalone sought after by collectors and helped it win a slew of industry awards.

The best example is his quest for the perfect marble. One exasperated American supplier, Marble King of Paden City, W. Va., shut its factory for two weeks to try ways of making a superior marble. It finally declined the job, even though it would have meant selling another four million marbles a month.

“We tried, and we couldn’t work with him,” said Alice Beaver, a company official.

Mr. Travers found a Mexican supplier, but returned half the marbles it sent him the first year because of flaws. During that time, he regularly visited the factory armed with a magnifying glass and calipers to monitor production. He now pays twice as much for his Mexican marbles but gets fewer rejects.

Stumbling Blocks Remain.

Despite its initial success, much still stands between Abalone and hot games like Scattergories. Abalone’s stark black-and-white design is less attention-getting than the more customary shades of loud red, yellow or blue used for games. And as a game that neither zaps electronic bogymen like Nintendo nor livens up a party like Trivial Pursuit, Abalone shares some of the marketing disadvantages of quieter games like chess or checkers.

“There’s a certain mental effort required and that tends to limit its potential,” said Burt Hochberg, an editor with Games magazine.

To broaden Abalone’s popularity, Mr. Travers has done what he had long resisted: he has licensed the North American rights for the basic version to Lewis Galoob Toys Inc. for a royalty that both sides say exceeds 5 percent of sales. In exchange, Galoob, the San Francisco company that has seen recent softness in sales of its Micro Machines line of toy vehicles and other items, plans to run national television advertising this Christmas and next.

Photo: In his low-budget promotion of Abalone, a board game, Jan Travers gave sets to ski resorts and cafes, hoping they would be seen by a fashionable crowd. At Cafe Mirage in Manhattan, which received a free game, Melissa Keene, left, and Joan Marie Capua played on a recent afternoon. (Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times)(pg. D1) Graph: “Games Adults Play” shows the leading adult games sold in the United States in 1990. (Source: N.P.D. Group)(pg. D14)

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/04/business/a-game-maker-s-winning-moves.html