Play's the Thing—American International Toy Fair 2002

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Based on a February 12 visit to the American International Toy Fair 2002, it appears that designing a successful plaything this year involves selecting popular toys and games from three or four decades ago and making them edible or covering them with licensed brand or team names. Another popular option is creating something kids can play together with their parents, or even better, with their grandparents, in the safety of their own homes dressed in facsimiles of the uniforms of firefighters and police officers (also known as community workers).

At the 99th American International Toy Fair, presented by the Toy Industry Association (TIA) at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, the mood was cautiously optimistic with a strong emphasis on cautious. Notwithstanding the 1.7 percent increase in toy industry sales in 2001, as compared to the industry’s 1.4 percent drop in 2000, exhibitors and industry analysts were expressing uncertainty about the coming year.

At the annual state-of-the-industry news conference, Patrick Feely, chairman of TIA, put the best face on the present challenges and the arduous past year. "Historically, toy sales have remained solid in times of war and economic decline. During such difficult times, consumers tend to focus on their families and, particularly, their children’s well being…. As the economy continues to improve during the year, we should see the momentum build in the industry."

For 2001, the $25-billion-a-year industry saw tremendous growth in action figures, up 36 percent; building and construction toys, up 22 percent; infant and preschool toys, up 14 percent; and a slip of 10 percent over 2000 in the games and puzzles category. Feely attributes this slight downturn to the decline in Pokémon, since the "family games" category showed great strength.

All around the show floor, family games were flexing their intergenerational muscles. Typical of this category was Family Reunion from USAopoly. The game, which will ship in early June, capitalizes on the aphorism that "every picture tells a story." Photo cards are used as prompts to share family history, and the winner can ask each player to reveal a family secret.

For families who prefer to reveal secrets about Fonzie, Hawkeye Pierce, or Krusty the Clown, Flashback Games of Oregon has just released Flashback -- Sitcom Edition. Based on trivia from popular situation comedies from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, the game can be played at different levels, depending on the player’s familiarity with the television show. "I’m always amazed at what a big part of people’s lives these shows are," said Brett Jenkins, developer and owner of Flashback Games.

TDC Games also offers a trivia-based game called Reminiscing -- The Game for People Over 30. Questions cover the 1940s to the 1990s, and those who are unable to guess the answers after four clues can earn one point by answering simple queries about themselves. Can’t guess the 1970s "nature lovers anthem" ("Rocky Mountain High"), how about "Have you ever been to Colorado?"

For families with a limit on their quality time, Stewart House is distributing sports-related games designed to be played during commercials while enjoying professional sports on television. Those family members who don’t wish to watch the game can continue playing.

For those who like to play with words, Faby Games Inc. of Toronto has been producing award-winning games that may be future classics. The company’s first game, the card-based Word Thief, rewards spelling, vocabulary, and larceny. It won the award for best new game at its debut at the British Toy and Hobby Fair five years ago and an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio’s gold seal for 2002. Best Sellers, introduced in 2001, asks players to construct a story using as many words as possible beginning with two selected letters. The game comes with "book jacket" to provide themes and even young reluctant writers will be lured in. This year’s Oxford Dilemma is a board game combining spelling and strategy.

For kids with an attraction to storytelling, Dave Kapell of Magnetic Poetry has introduced StoryMaker for children age seven and up. The game features 150 magnetized pieces, including color-coded nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases. Also new is Magnetic Poetry -- The Game for Kids. For young poets, Briarpatch president Martine Redman demonstrated the Rhyme-A-Thon Game, available in the spring.

Stephanie Oppenheim and Joanne Oppenheim, publishers of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, spoke to BTW as they carefully surveyed the show floor. Joanne, editor of the Portfolio and longtime toy expert, spoke of some improvements over past years’ offerings. "Manufacturers are showing smaller lines with more targeting. Definitely more conservative this year, [toymakers] are reintroducing older toys," she said. Both believed that last year was "very discouraging" with far too much directed play, such as puppets with computer chips that talked.

This year, according to Joanne Oppenheim, there are many more "child-powered things." As an authority on toys and child development and author of over 40 books, she spoke about the "present agendas that are totally age-inappropriate such as spelling games for preschoolers. Parents’ expectations have been changed and young children are being asked to do things that they’re not supposed to learn at that age."

Toy buyer Lori Koelsch of Buttonwood Books and Toys of Cohasset, Massachusetts, also believes that this year was a quiet one in which "nothing exceptional jumps out." She noted patriotic themes and "lots of dolls."

Lots of items featuring The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were seen around the floor. Fantasy Flight Games has introduced a series of board games and expansion packs based on the Tolkien series. In the Lord of the Rings Boardgame, named the Family Game of the Year by Games Magazine, players must journey through Middle Earth to stop the Dark Lord Sauron from winning back the One Ring. Coming in the Spring is Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, a two-player board game in which one player takes the role of the Sauron and the other, the role of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Dave Schylling of Schylling Associates displayed some unique licensed merchandise with Harry Potter characters: tin signs, a tin Gringott’s Bank, a mechanical Hedwig the Owl bank, and a bewitching magic wand kaleidoscope. Other offerings were in the company’s nostalgia line of metal lunch boxes, tea sets, and wooden puzzles based on the literary characters of Madeline, Curious George, and Anne of Green Gables.

Angelina (by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig, illustrator) from Pleasant Company, will be the star of a new PBS series, Color Angelina’s World, airing Saturday mornings beginning May 4.

Julie Creighton, in her 25th year of testing and writing about toys, told BTW that she sensed changes this year due in part to the attacks of September 11, "You see a lot of red, white, and blue. The manufacturers haven’t changed their products, but if companies happened to have fireman or police officers in their line, they are moved to the front. This is also a good year for games. Hasbro is capitalizing on their family game night. Companies are also profiling continuing toys, instead of more new things. What sold well last year, they’ll support it for another year. I also see a trend toward food-related toys -- cooking things at home like caramel corn kits, Easy Bake stuff, and café play."

Around the show floor, many samples were offered for playthings now available in a food form -- play-dough by Edo is meant to be consumed after playing, and what looked like a typical sand art craft kit was really packed with colored sugar. Klutz has introduced Eat This Book, to much fanfare. David Letterman and CNN were both seen at the Klutz exhibit filming the 20-page book, which includes games and pens to use on the thin, colored, edible sheets.

Why an edible book? Picture this … an 11-year-old girl writes a highly confidential note about a certain someone to her best friend. The teacher intercepts it, or worse, the certain someone does. No problem -- the author simply pops it in her mouth and the evidence is eliminated. -- Nomi Schwartz