Games maker rolls the dice

San Francisco’s University Games Corp. is changing rapidly, buying other board-game companies to fuel its international expansion and building games to buck the one-kid, one-computer trend developing in homes nationwide.

The 22-year-old private company already has a partnership in place with Nintendo Co. (NTDOY) to develop Nintendo’s “Big Brain Academy” mental-fitness video game into a board game.

If it’s successful, University Games CEO Robert Moog said, he hopes Nintendo will consider bringing some of his company’s board games to the Wii system, such as Totally Gross (“The Game ofScience”) or 20 Questions.

“We’re making a big shift, from being a board game and toy company to an entertainment company,” Moog said.

In so doing, the company faces an inner tug-of-war. The company was founded in 1985 to make products that bring families together — away from the television set.

Now, Moog said, the company still wants to make games that gather the family, but kids are already spending more time on computers and mobile phones. Moog said he hopes to do both — create games that use technology but still are based on the face-to-face experience.

Aside from Nintendo, the company is speaking to other potential partners, he said.

“There hasn’t been too much new in that area,” said BMO Capital Markets Equity Analyst Gerrick Johnson, speaking of face-to-face games. “If you look back a few years, Cranium … really took the bull by the horns. But they’ve slowed down in the new game creation space.”

University Games already produces a wide range of products, from its Brain Quest card deck games to Dr. Seuss games, the Colorforms brand of activities, glow-in-the-dark decorations and the BePuzzled puzzle line.

Last month, it acquired Upstarts!, a United Kingdom board game company that created the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” board game after the UK launch of the television show. The purchase will allow University Games to import several electronic games that require kids to move and be active.

That’s just the beginning, Moog said. The firm hopes to start or buy companies in Japan and China within the next 18 months. Japan has traditionally been a difficult market for American toy and game companies, Johnson said.

The total U.S. toy industry was $22.3 billion in 2006, a slight increase over 2005, according to research company The NPD Group Inc.

kwilliamson@examiner.com


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