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Cranium-tickling game takes off in Seattle
Inventors selling their brainchild through Starbucks

SEATTLE -- Seattle's computer junkies are probably the last ones you'd expect to shun Nintendo and Tetris for a board game. But a new low-tech game is taking the city -- and the nation -- by storm.

The inventors -- two former Microsoft employees -- simply knew the secret to launching their game Cranium here. Go to Starbucks.Seattle's coffee lovers have become Cranium lovers. And since the game's debut in November 1998, Cranium has become a hot item, selling 100,000 games in the past year -- mostly through Starbucks coffee houses.

"We were very willing to change the rules," said Cranium co-founder Richard Tait. "No one had ever sold a game through Starbucks before. We have now become one of their top-selling products and the only game they sell."

Cranium Inc. was named the "hottest new start-up company of the past three years" by Inc. magazine in its July edition.

From the get-go, Tait and his partner Whit Alexander put their Microsoft business experience to work for them by creating a content-rich product and by being flexible about who distributed the game. As it happened, Starbucks was a better option than the traditional stores like Toys R Us for the $35 game.

"Cranium's thought-provoking content and the way it naturally brings people together creates the kind of experience Starbucks customers love," said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman and chief executive officer.

An alternative to the traditional board game, Cranium's concept is based on the notion that individuals have different skills, and by working as a team to showcase each person's talent, anyone can win.

"The game's a lot of fun. Everyone who plays has a strength so no one feels left out when they play," said Ana Blackstead, 31, of suburban Seattle, who plays Cranium with her husband and another couple.

The game goes a step beyond other popular adult board games, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit.

For instance, players choosing the "Data Head" category, might be asked which tree chocolate comes from (cacao) or whether or not Walt Disney's real name is Mortimer Dinerstein (false). Creative types will enjoy the "Creative Cat" category in which players might be asked to draw an angel with their eyes closed or sculpt lips with a piece of molding clay included with the game.

Players who choose the "Star Performer" category may be asked to hum or whistle a tune so that another player can identify it. Or guess a teammate's impersonation of Ed McMahon.

The fourth category, the "Word Worm," gives players a chance to spell words backwards or unscramble a word.

When Tait, 35, and Alexander, 32, left their positions as Microsoft executives in 1997, they had 15 years of creative software development and distribution expertise between them. But they balked at doing a computer game.

"We realized that while no computer game has ever made more than a half a billion dollars, several board games have," Alexander said from Cranium's Seattle headquarters. "There really hadn't been any breakout games since Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit."

"We were ready for a David and Goliath challenge," Tait added. "We thought we could bring a new IQ to the board game world and shake things up a little."

Tait came up with the idea while on vacation with his wife. Sitting around on a rainy day in the tony Hamptons in New York, they played Pictionary with another couple and won handily. Then they played Scrabble with the other couple, winning just as easily.

"I asked myself, 'Why isn't there a game that we can all play and shine at?' So, on the plane home I sketched out this game," Tait said.

The pair soon had a prototype that combined skills, talents and knowledge. They put together an editorial board, including a journalist, college student, mime and a crossword puzzle builder, to work on questions.

The result became Cranium.

Figuring the average person plays a board game four times a year, Whit and Alexander expected the initial card set to last three years. Instead, a new booster pack of 800 cards was produced and is now on sale after just 18 months.