The Game Guy

12/22/2006 5:37 PM

09/17/2007 5:52 PM

Like many lovers of The New Yorker, Eric Poses, 33, found himself starting at the back of the magazine, in the section where readers are invited to come up with clever captions for quirky cartoons.

Poses' punch lines never made the magazine's shortlist, but he's hoping his obsession with the contest will pay off this holiday season. His company, All Things Equal, recently launched a board game called The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.

While the likes of PlayStation 3 and Tickle Me Elmo X-treme hog headlines and spark riots, Poses is hoping his brand of low-key, creative fun (no batteries required) will help his company claim a bigger chunk of the $22 billion toy market.

If you've never heard of Poses - a Miami native who graduated from Ransom Everglades in 1991 - you may have answered some of his Loaded Questions. The game - the company's first and still most popular title - rewards players for accurately guessing how competitors responded to a series of bemusing questions such as: "If you were invisible where would you go?" and "What hidden talent do you have?"

Poses' hidden talent, it turns out, has been the ability to spin that simple game idea into a thriving company with annual sales of $1.5 million.

Wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt on a recent weekday at a Barnes & Noble where the New Yorker game is on sale, Poses said he has resisted the urge to let his company swell with its achievements.

The company is profitable, although Poses will not disclose further financial details. Almost a decade into business, he works from his Miami Beach home and is the venture's sole employee.

"I'm the one that meets with the Target buyer and the Toys-R-Us buyer and I'm always reachable, " he said. "That is part of my success."

Success in the fickle toy industry is no easy feat. Most board games - particularly ones based on licensed material - have a shelf life shorter than your average round of Monopoly. But Tina Benitez, the senior correspondent at Playthings, a trade magazine that covers the sector, said The New Yorker may buck that trend.

"I'm hearing a lot of buzz in the industry about how different this game is, " said Benitez. "The New Yorker is a well-known brand . . . And this game has the potential to become a classic."

While most of the toy industry drools over children aged zero to seven - who account for 60 percent of all sales - Poses' instinct to aim for adults is also on target, said Benitez.

"Kids have so many options - there are video games and technology and gadgets, " Benitez said. "But when [adult] friends get together there are very few options outside of [board games] that fit in the 20- to 30-year-old range."

PLAY TIME

The rules of The New Yorker game are simple enough for kids of any age: Players are asked to secretly write captions for one of the 189 New Yorker cartoons contained in the game and then the roller has to guess who wrote what and pick the winning caption.

What sets the game apart are the classic and quirky cartoons that mix the mundane with the strange: clowns at cocktail parties, diminutive men who live in fishbowls.

It's not often that businessmen talk about business transactions being "an honor" but that's how Poses describes his meeting with New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff to discuss a licensing agreement.

"They basically threw out a very high number that they would demand on a project like this, " said Poses, "and I looked at that number and was frightened."

Eventually they agreed to "only a slightly less frightening number" which sent Poses scrambling to find a solid distributor to offset the licensing risk. Ultimately, Barnes & Noble committed to carrying 20,000 copies of the game - or about two-thirds of his initial production run - in exchange for being the exclusive national distributor.

BOOKSTORE SUCCESS

Barnes & Noble won't talk about its sales, but on the company's online shop earlier this week the game had a sales rank of 187 - ahead of classics such as Monopoly (ranked 1,262); Scrabble (ranked 1,706); and even Loaded Questions (ranked 741).

Poses said he is already dipping into reserves to restock certain outlets and independent game stores.

A holiday hit would be something of a welcome home present for Poses, who recently returned to Miami Beach from California.

The story of how Poses left Florida in the first place is as entertaining as any of his games.

After earning a history degree from Emory University, Poses was working as a copywriter in Miami when the idea for Loaded Questions hit him. After raiding his savings account and borrowing $33,000 from his parents, Poses made 5,000 copies of the game. On April Fools Day 1997, he loaded the games into his car and started driving around the country looking for customers.

As the media caught wind of the young toymaker pitching the game at campsites and mom-and-pop shops, he left a trail of headlines and press clippings in his wake that led all the way to the office of Toys-R-Us.

Within three months of starting his road trip, the national toy store had committed to buying 7,500 games that year. "And I was able to pay back my parents in the first year of production, which felt good."

Poses never slowed down, churning out at least eight more games, including Words of Wiz-Dumb, and Loaded Questions Junior.

"There are some games that never were and some games that never should have been, " he said.

And Poses has more in the works. In 2007 he's planning to launch one game based on creating movie plot lines, and a spicy version of Loaded Questions, which will contain zingers such as: "If there was a sexual Olympics what would you win the gold in?" Poses is the first to admit that most of his ideas aren't groundbreaking.

"Everything I've done has followed the Loaded Questions model, where answers are collected and the roller has to guess who said what, " he admits. "I'm a one-trick pony."

But good tricks bear repetition.

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