Cranium's Success No Head-Scratcher

Canada is one of the Seattle-based game company's most important markets.

Sure, there are the usual reasons for wanting to come up to Canada to shoot television commercials for the board game Cranium — lower production costs and the availability of skilled Canadian talent, to name a couple. But Richard Tait, Cranium's co-founder and so-called Grand Poo Bah (that's an official title, by the way), says there's another reason Canada is a natural choice: the higher-than-average popularity of Cranium here.

“Canada is such a vibrant market for us,” says Tait during a recent visit to the Greater Toronto Area to oversee the shoot — the third time the company has done so. Maybe it's because Canadians like to while away evenings or rainy days at the cottage with a board game. Or maybe our cold winters make us more likely to cocoon with a game by the fire. Whatever the reason, Tait, who with his business partner Whit Alexander — both ex-Microsoft employees — came up with the mind-bending board game in 1998, says that “Canadians have embraced Cranium.”

The privately held company based in Seattle, which launched its first game by selling directly out of Starbucks outlets, is on a roll. It has seen its overall sales grow overall by 70% so far this year, and 180% internationally. (Tait won't reveal the company's actual sales numbers.) That's coming off an all-time sales record in 2004. In Canada, overall sales of Cranium games grew 53% from 2003 to 2004, and are projected to grow by a similar amount in 2005. Also, sales of Cranium in Canada, the company's second largest market outside the US, are growing as a percentage of US sales, expected to reach 14% in 2005.

Tait says Cranium, founded on the principle that everyone who plays a board game should have a “chance to shine,” also plans to expand to 50 international markets from 22, fueled by a recent injection of $15 million in investment capital from private investors that include TPG Venture Group, Maveron Equity Partners and Raycliff Capital. There are now 13 Cranium games, including the newest — Bumparena and Family Fun Game, expected to hit store shelves this fall. The company has also launched into publishing through a partnership with Time Warner's Little, Brown Books for Young Readers division. The Cranium Big Book of Outrageous Fun, coming out in September, is the first in what will be a series of “game-in-a-book-in-a-game” activity books.

With more than 12 million Cranium-branded games sold, and 30 million active players, Tait credits a large part of the Cranium phenomenon to its ability to let players be creative and do well with at least one of the skills that make up the various games — whether its trivia, word play, artistic or musical ability. (Tait came up with the idea for the original game in the summer of 1997 after trouncing some friends at Pictionary, then being similarly trounced at Scrabble.) While there is competition, it's “soft” competition in that no player is supposed to go away feeling they're a big loser. The challenges posed must be stimulating, but not too difficult.

And it's a formula that works. Last year, the board game and puzzle industry, estimated by NPD Group at about US$2.3 billion, shrunk by 3%. Yet Cranium continues to grow in a market overshadowed by either the classic games of yesterday or the high-tech stimulation of video games — not to mention the internet, instant messaging and television.