THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Bananagrams has quietly become the game of the year

(Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / December 5, 2009

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. - Had a lightning bolt struck Abe Nathanson between the eyes that day, the outcome could hardly have been more, shall we say, fruitful. Four summers ago, a frustrated Nathanson was sitting at his dining room table, having lost yet another Scrabble game to his 11-year-old grandson, Aaron. It wasn’t the loss that bothered Nathanson so much. It was the two hours it had taken to play the game.

Staring at his letter tiles, Nathanson said, “We need an anagrams game so fast, it’ll drive you bananas.’’ As the words came tumbling out, he began rearranging them in his head. Anagrams. Bananas. Bananagrams.

Bingo.

In a flash, Nathanson had conceptualized one of the hottest games to hit the toy market in years. Simple in design - no batteries, control sticks, cards, dice, or game board - yet challenging enough for grown-ups to play, Bananagrams is a fast-paced family word game packed inside a banana-shaped yellow pouch. Named “Game of the Year’’ at the 2009 Toy Fair, it’s expected to sell 2 million units this year in the US alone. Worldwide, Bananagrams is currently available in 21 countries and six languages. It even boasts its own iPhone app and Facebook page.

Can you spell P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-O-N?

“It’s a juggernaut,’’ says Nathanson, who turned 80 this Thanksgiving and who looks and sounds like a character from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,’’ his favorite television show. Nathanson expects sales of the game to double next year, eyeing markets like Brazil, where, as he puts it, “they’re crazy about bananas.’’

Don’t bet against him. Capitalizing on word-of-mouth marketing, Bananagrams has climbed the charts without benefit of heavy advertising, a national sales force, or exposure in retail giants like Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, whom Nathanson refuses to do business with. (“It’s a personal animus on my part,’’ he admits. “They force too many small guys out of business.’’)

Don’t get him started, either, on the toy companies that regularly approach him with seven-figure buyout offers. “Obnoxious’’ is about the mildest term he uses for them. “They treat me like I just fell off a banana truck,’’ says Nathanson, sitting at the very table where Bananagrams first ripened four years ago. “We didn’t do this to get rich. It’s been a labor of love for my family, and we’d rather leave it that way.’’

Nathanson, who sank $50,000 of his own money into launching the game, attributes its runaway success to four factors: the catchy name, clever packaging, how much fun it is to play, and the family history behind it. Rena Nathanson, Abe’s daughter, who has been instrumental both in refining the game and bringing it to market, adds a fifth and sixth: modest cost (about $15 ) and portability.

“The price is magic,’’ Nathanson agrees. “It’s a game that practically sells itself, which is why it makes no sense to discount it. That’s a stupid, greedy American mindset I don’t agree with.’’

What Nathanson may be guilty of underselling is his own lifelong passion for game playing and game design. Following his initial brainstorm, he spent nearly a year working out the details of what makes Bananagrams so addictive, from its rules to the design of its tiles. Whenever discouraged, he’d phone Rena at her home in London and have her test out his latest version. Rena’s two children, Aaron, now 15, and Ava, 11, also provided valuable feedback, making Bananagrams a true family enterprise.

“If they’d been here, they’d have been my focus group,’’ Nathanson says with a slightly naughty wink. “But since I live alone, I spent many hours playing by myself.’’

Credit for the packaging goes to Rena and her mother, Sandy Nathanson, Abe’s ex-wife, a talented seamstress who made the original banana-pouch template. It was Aaron, meanwhile, who selected the letter font, then gamely donned a banana costume at the 2006 London Toy Fair, where Bananagrams debuted to rave reviews. The reception was just as warm, if not warmer, at the 2007 New York Toy Fair.

The family history behind Bananagrams lore is more a mixed bag. His father, a Pawtucket fruit peddler, certainly knew his way around apples, pears, and bananas, Nathanson recalls. However, he was “a disreputable, dishonest person’’ who disappeared on his wife and children for decades at a time, leaving them to a “Dickensian existence,’’ as Nathanson puts it. In growing up to be a graphic artist and photographer by trade, Nathanson filled that void by also becoming a talented toy and game designer. Nothing he’d invented before Bananagrams made it to the commercial marketplace, though.

With two more games coming out - Appleletters, a cross between dominos and Bananagrams, and Pairs in Pears, a spelling game aimed at slightly younger players - the Nathanson empire continues to expand. The family has also signed a publishing deal for a series of books featuring Bananagrams-inspired word challenges.

Getting Bananagrams accepted in America’s classrooms as a fun (and inexpensive) teaching tool is high on Nathanson’s to-do list. After that, he hopes to start a foundation similar to Paul Newman’s for kids with cancer.

“We’re almost at the point where we have more money than we need,’’ says Nathanson, adding that he’s drawing the line at creating any more fruit games. Bananagrams will always be the gold standard, he says, “and we don’t want to kill a good idea.’’