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By David Templeton
LATE IN THE FALL of 1994, Michael Harris of Santa Rosa was traveling on business when he found himself stranded in an airport in Jacksonville, Ark. With his flight canceled, and no other flight available until the next day, Harris suddenly faced a rare and unexpected opportunity. "I had nothing to do and nowhere to go," he recalls. "I had a lot of time to just sit there and think."
And what did he think about?
"Oh, the future," he nods. "Mine and my family's." With a B.A. in communications and another in business, Harris was already a successful businessman, running a Santa Rosa mortgage company and hoping to one day run for public office.
"That takes money," he smiles. And to get money, "you need a good idea." There in the airport, in the early hours of the morning, Harris pulled out a notebook, produced a pen, and waited for inspiration to strike. It struck. Much to his surprise, Harris, who has an admitted dislike for most tabletop games, suddenly flashed on an idea for just such a thing.
A board game. It would be called Murphy's Law, and would play on the famous notion that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It should be educational, he thought, possibly with a black-history theme or perhaps focusing on American politics. It must be bright and simple to learn, and--cliché or no cliché--it would be fun for the whole family.
Right then and there, he opened his notebook and drew a rectangular outline on the page, followed by a flowing pattern of intersecting ribbons. This, he knew, was it. The man who disliked board games had just invented one.
"Yesterday we shipped our first order to Toys R Us," Harris says. "Enough for 83 stores in two market regions. It's only a test, but we are very excited."
Murphy's Law--The Game, with the subtitle "An Exciting, Fast-Moving Game of Luck, Strategy, and Knowledge," hardly sprang up fully grown from Harris' head. The complex developmental process from his initial idea to its final, shrink-wrapped reality took over a solid year, a great deal of cooperation from friends and family, and no little sweat and effort on the part of the game's inventor.
"In fact," Harris laughs, producing a shiny new copy of Murphy's Law and placing it on the table, "if I'd known how much work it would be, I probably wouldn't have done it."
The finished product resembles a clever hybrid of Trivial Pursuit and Parcheesi, with a little Chutes and Ladders thrown in.
"At first glance it looks a bit like other games," he offers, unpacking the brightly colored board and removing the various dice and plastic playing pieces. The objective of the game, in the tradition of numerous classic board games, is to maneuver your playing piece from the starting point at one corner of the board to the winner's circle at the center.
"You can use strategy to take shortcuts and to trick your opponents into losing ground or starting over. Then you have to answer questions," says Harris, producing a box of 3X5 cards, separated into age-appropriate categories. "The thing about this game, unlike Trivial Pursuit, is that a 6-year-old has the same chance of winning as an adult has.
"After deciding to orient the game in an academic direction," Harris says, "I decided not to make it specifically about politics or black history, but to use the California state educational framework. One thing I didn't want was just a lot of trivia. I wanted questions with answers that are worth knowing. Practical, applicable information."
And Murphy's Law? How does that notion fit in?
"The thrill of the game is never knowing what's about to happen," he grins. "You might be ahead, just about to win, and suddenly--you've lost. Just like that."
"The very first version we made," he says, "was a piece of cardboard covered in wrapping paper. I'd design different parts on my computer, then print them out, and my wife and I--sometimes the children helped--we'd color it in with felt-tipped markers." There were repeated trips to the copy shop, he explains, with endless full-color copies made of various portions, which would be pieced together again and again as the product slowly developed.
"Then when we had a working model, we started having Murphy's Law parties. In secret, you know. Friends and family would be over, we'd all play and play and then talk about what worked and what didn't." After several months of such clandestine R&D, and some exhaustive research into various printing and packaging processes, Harris invested a portion of his savings to print up the first batch of games, which were placed in various Sonoma County toy stores.
"Then Consumer Reports did a write-up on [the game]," Harris relates, "and suddenly I was getting calls from all over." It would be another year until he hammered out the deal with Toys R Us. Enthused by positive early rumblings, the fledgling game mogul is now clearly optimistic about his future. "If a game like Pictionary sells 25 million games," he says happily, "we should do 50 or 75 [million]."
Murphy, Murphy, Murphy. You crabby old pessimist. It seems that you were only half right.
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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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