How this toy got to market

A toy's path from drawing board to store shelf rarely follows a straight line. Behind every Furby and Monopoly, there is usually an equally good backstory, and Richard Levy's latest game is no exception....
February 1, 2001

A toy’s path from drawing board to store shelf rarely follows a straight line. Behind every Furby and Monopoly, there is usually an equally good backstory, and Richard Levy’s latest game is no exception.

The Idea: A game based on Magnetic Poetry, those ubiquitous word tiles that you hang on your fridge and can piece together to form Haiku-like poems. On February 22, 2000 at 3 a.m., Levy has an epiphany for the Magnetic Poetry board game, and without knowing what it will entail, he fires off an e-mail to Minneapolis-based Magnetic Poetry, which has sold over three million units since 1993. Magnetic Poetry founder and CEO Dave Kapell and president Mike O’Halloran are intrigued by the proposal and, by March 1, the company shakes hands on a deal with Levy, permitting him to pursue his MagPo game.

The Process: Over the next two months, Levy and his wife work on the game and begin pitching prospective gamecos they believe might want to license it. In April, Levy calls in the services of his inventor-friend Tim Moodie to help brainstorm.

The Concept: To bring competitive play to constructing poems. On a game board shaped like a fridge, teams of two or more players race against a two-minute sand timer to create poems using over 350 magnetic word tiles. The game (for ages eight and up) features two sets of cards-subject cards and challenge cards. To play, teams draw subject cards containing a word that they must create a poem about. To pick up extra points, players can select challenge cards, which increase the difficulty level. Teams may have to construct poems in a certain way-by starting each line of the poem with the same letter, for example. Additionally, distributed throughout the subject cards are rapid rhyming cards, which call for teams to face off and conjure up words that rhyme, still against the falling sands of time. So if the word on a rapid rhyming card happens to be ‘dog,’ one team might suggest log, the next team would say frog, and so on. The last team to get stumped during a rapid rhyming session is awarded extra points. At the end of five rounds, the team with the most points wins. The game doesn’t stipulate any hard-and-fast rules on what constitutes a poem; rather, the idea is for players to define the parameters at the outset.

The beauty of the game, says Levy, is that it poses the question, what is a poem? You get a card that says `President Clinton’ on it, or `Describe your wife.’ Now you have to come up with a poem about that subject within two minutes. It results in some pretty funny stuff, says Levy.

The Twist: In late April, after presenting beta versions of the game to friends, including Kapell and O’Halloran, early reactions are positive. On May 16, a major gameco prepares to make an offer for the rights to the game. The MagPo guys, though, have other ideas. The next day, O’Halloran calls Levy and tells him his company wants to produce and sell the game. Levy agrees and licenses his invention back to Magnetic Poetry. (Though he won’t divulge the terms of the deal, Levy says most toy inventors receive a 5% to 6% royalty for their concepts on the net wholesale price of the product.)

‘It would have been nice to have a major [toyco] do it, and put out 500,000 copies, but they’d run it for two or three years and then they’d drop it. Mag Poetry will grow the business. We can surely do those numbers over the long run,’ says Levy.

The Latest: Kapell and O’Halloran showed a prototype of the game at the New York Gift Show in January, and this month, they will exhibit it at Toy Fair. In March, manufacturers in the Orient will begin churning out copies of the game. Magnetic Poetry: The Game (US$29.95) is projected to ship to U.S. specialty gift and toy retailers starting May 5.

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