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Like other role-playing game fans, Stackpole admits he's "hypersensitive" about criticism charging that the games can lead to bizarre behavior by players who act out their assumed characters in real life. "It's urban myth," Stackpole says. "Gamers tend to be loners, it's true, and highly intelligent. But role-playing is a way for them to socialize. . . . It's good, clean fun."

THE KITCHEN TABLE One spring night in 1984, while watching the late, late, late show, Phoenix housewife Nancy Kotwasinski decided to invent a word game modeled after Trivial Pursuit. During the weeks that followed, Kotwasinski and her best friend, Marilyn Davis, sat around the kitchen table and planned the game. Until it appeared on department-store shelves the following fall, the two women say, they thought of little else.

Both speak rapidly, energetically, as if they'd just downed several cups of coffee. They frequently interrupt each other. "I can't leave things hanging once I start," Kotwasinski explains. "Both of us pull all-nighters. I figure when I get old and they put me in the ground is when I'll sleep."

"I nursed my baby while I worked on that game," interrupts Davis. "I am so proud of this game. I don't care if it never goes anywhere. I just feel really proud that we did it. We worked hard and nearly went crazy, but we did it."

After many brainstorming sessions at the kitchen table, the women pored over fifteen dictionaries and a thesaurus to find 3,500 interesting words. Then they wrote out 3,500 definitions on cards--original definitions, because they feared they'd be plagiarizing if they copied any from reference books.

To play the game, one player reads a definition from a card and the other must guess the corresponding word. Example: "What's `the fear of having peanut butter stuck to one's mouth?'" The other player would have to guess: "arachibutyrophobia"! A correct answer entitles the player to advance his little man on the game board. The first to make it to the end of the board is the winner.

Before producing their invention, the women test-marketed a prototype on friends, using cardboard, crayons and notecards. The response was enthusiastic, so they copyrighted and trademarked What's the Word. They hoped to sell their idea to several game companies and dictionary publishers.

They failed. Undaunted, Kotwasinski and Davis decided to form their own corporation. They obtained about $40,000 from investors, mostly friends. Then they set out to produce and market the game themselves.

Hauling their babies on their hips, they traveled the Valley seeking just the right designer, printer, boxmaker. They even visited cake shops, thinking plastic cake decorations might make appropriate "men" for their game. The little decorations, they learned, were far too expensive.

A few months later, with the help of their friends, they assembled 2,500 games in Kotwasinski's living room. "We had fifty or sixty shoeboxes just with the definition cards," recalls Davis. "We worked so hard we got slaphappy."

"It could have been a nightmare," Kotwasinski interrupts, referring to the long hours and close quarters. "Fortunately, we had good friends and we had fun."

The inventors then persuaded the sales managers at Diamond's (now Dillard's) and JC Penney to try to sell just a few. Eventually fifteen stores agreed to sell the game at retail prices ranging from $30.95 to $19.95. The first 2,500 games sold within a few months, generating enough money to manufacture another 2,500.

They sold 1,500 of the second lot, but 1,000 still sit in Kotwasinski's garage. If they sell the remaining games, the women will break even on their $40,000 original investment. But their interest has, quite simply, fizzled. They just got involved in other projects, they explain, and didn't have time to market the leftover games. Kotwasinski is studying to be an interior decorator and says she has no plans to invent more games. Davis enrolled at ASU to get her degree and is now a teacher.

Davis admits she still dreams of doing different versions of What's the Word--using medieval terms or maybe a foreign language. Of course, she'd like to get rid of the remaining 1,000 games. "I do believe in this game," she notes. "But if somebody wants to buy it out, we'd go for it."

While Davis and Kotwasinski appear to have tired of the hassles of gamemaking, two other Phoenicians who conjured up a game over the kitchen table are still burning with enthusiasm.

More than two years ago, Phoenix firefighters Ollie Hoelzer and Terry Garrison decided to invent a board game that teaches fire safety to little kids. The two firemen say they aren't interested in getting rich or famous. They just want to teach children to learn not to burn.

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Terry Greene