Wild Cards

The creators of the popular You’ve Been Sentenced! board game just might have an instant classic on their hands–as well as instant profit.

The minds behind McNeill Designs for Brighter
Minds are (from left) Don McNeill, Martin Uniacke
and Paul Cooper.

Photograph by Thom Thompson

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Three grown men sit in opposing corners of a tiny North Wilmington office, grins wiped across their faces and strange things escaping their mouths.

“Ted Knight cares about Pluto,” announces stocky, bespectacled Paul Cooper. He offers no follow-up regarding the late actor or the frozen pseudo-planet.

Martin Uniacke, hunched in front of a laptop, speaks next.

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“Count Dracula nurses ours larger, moodier— No! Our. I meant our.” He looks at the words printed on the cards before him. “Where’s our?”

The others chuckle, but a hush falls quickly over the room as Don McNeill takes his turn.

“You guys ready for this one?” he asks, and then: “She dumps a stinky load on the playground.”

The guys explode into laughter. McNeill, president of their company, just scored 35 points to win a round of the game they all helped create.

These giggling men are demonstrating You’ve Been Sentenced!, a family board game McNeill invented, Uniacke marketed and Cooper refined. They’ve earned this bit of workday leisure. After all, they might have the hottest game in the country. And it’s getting hotter, with special versions made with such partners as Reader’s Digest and NASA.

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Its creators share a not-so-quiet confidence that You’ve Been Sentenced! will land one day among the Mount Rushmore of board games, alongside Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. They have good reason.

In its short lifespan, the game has captured six major toy and game awards, including the prestigious Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Toy Award. It’s sort of the Oscars for toys.

Retail stores have trouble keeping You’ve Been Sentenced! on the shelves, literally and figuratively. The game’s five-sided box makes things awkward for display stands, but it has sold extraordinarily well. More than 500 stores nationwide carry You’ve Been Sentenced! An estimated 51,000 copies were sold by the end of 2007. In the game world, that’s a gold record.

“You find the population that plays games in the U.S. is about 16 percent—not a tremendous number,” Uniacke says. “But when you look at people who play Scrabble and Boggle maybe once or twice a year, this game fits that genre of people perfectly.

“Since it’s so new and different, it has just got a stranglehold on the industry right now, and it’s going through the roof.”

So how did this merry band of goofballs—known as McNeill Designs for Brighter Minds—pull it off? It’s simple: Their game is funny, it’s novel and, believe it or not, it’s educational. Teachers buy YBS! to help students learn sentence structure. Serious game enthusiasts dig the fast-paced action. Retail vendors love its novelty and marketability.

To play, 10 five-sided game cards are dealt to each player. Printed on each card are five words and corresponding point values. The players try to layer the cards to form grammatically correct sentences. A gem like, “Pablo Picasso blasts nudist pirates on the beach,” silly as it sounds, is perfectly acceptable. It earns a player 40 points.

The sentence has to be grammatically correct, but doesn’t have to make sense. If that’s the case, you have to justify your sentence to the rest of the players. “That’s where the game becomes hilarious,” McNeill says.

Late in 2004, McNeill and his family were playing with Madlibs printed on the back of a restaurant kid’s menu.

“I’d never seen language as a game before,” he says. “There are word games, sure, but never a sentence-forming game. I searched the Internet, but couldn’t find anything. I got excited. I knew we were onto something.”

McNeill already had a name picked out, but putting together a game proved difficult.

In the recent history of board games, “There were six major attempts to make language a game,” McNeill says. Yahtzee tried to make one using words on dice. But the choices were so limited, it was tough to form diverse sentences. The replay value was nil.

After five weeks of laboring to find a prototype, McNeill realized why nobody had been able to craft a good language game: It was impossible.

“I was ready to quit,” he says. Then, one early morning, after weeks of studying language, he realized most verbs conjugate no more than five times. Run becomes ran, runs, running and so forth. “All of a sudden it dawned on me, if you could put these words on five edges of a card, you can create a 50-word lexicon in just 10 cards,” McNeill says.

“I studied newspapers, magazines, children’s books to figure out the number of nouns, verbs, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, adjectives and adverbs. Believe it or not, figuring out the balance of language was all about math. From the geometry of the pentagon shape to the percentages of the words used in language, everything boiled down to the math.”

McNeill showed his idea to Uniacke, a 20-year veteran of toy and game marketing who had experience with Ty Inc., creators of the once-ubiquitous Beanie Babies. Uniacke was sure the game would sell.

The pair hand-wrote 500 cards, then got busy playing. Before long, they had worked out basic layout and rules for You’ve Been Sentenced! McNeill went about finding investors. Then an initial pressing of 1,000 games found their way only to local stores like Happy Harry’s and Mitchell’s.

Feedback was overwhelmingly good, with the exception of an especially stinging email. It read, “I played your game with my family, and everybody left the table after two rounds. Your rules are terrible.”

The message came from Cooper, a man who not only possesses a game closet in his house, but an entire game room. “I called Paul within the hour and said, ‘You’re right. We need to talk,’” McNeill says. “Paul is our true professional gamer. He writes the rules, figured out how to better the gameplay. Basically, Paul made it better.”

With his team assembled, McNeill hit the phones and pounded the pavement. His crew hit gaming expos, teachers’ conventions, inventors’ competitions—anyplace that would take them. They hawked, devoured and studied industry information: consumer reports, industry analyses, trends and news.

The perseverance and energy, McNeill says, came from selling books door-to-door in Louisiana after college, at a time when the state unemployment rate was 28 percent.

“You learn a lot about staying positive when you’re being chased off someone’s lawn by an alligator,” he says. “To me, that means always following up with people, always being sincere and honest, being polite and having fun.”

As their returns expanded, so did their game. They added an officially licensed Reader’s Digest word power challenge deck. It was the first time in 86 years the magazine lent its name to a licensed product. A space-themed add-on deck for NASA soon followed, as did sets on sports, food, science fiction and pop culture. Uniacke believes ESPN, Rachel Ray, the Sci-Fi Channel and MTV would have no reason to turn down licensing the packs.

“A typical day for me now involves talking with Reader’s Digest, Weekly Reader, NASA, Bella Sara and Merriam-Webster,” McNeill says. “It’s gone from this little company into something that’s very important to a lot of people. The fact that the real craze is just starting to take off is even more bizarre.”

The guys never miss a phone call. One such call, from a distributor, says it has sold 4,500 out of 11,000 copies of You’ve Been Sentenced! that arrived from overseas two weeks ago.

McNeill and Uniacke reeled when Apples to Apples, a popular game created by Out of the Box, was sold to Mattel—which holds the rights to Barbie dolls, Matchbox cars and Scrabble—for $25 million.

“We think Mattel got the deal of a lifetime. They’re claiming the game is selling a million units a year. Why would you part with something that is making at least $12 million a year. They should’ve sold for $125 million. I think in the long run, that game is going to produce a lot more money.”

Perhaps even more startling is the fact that the YBS! creators could soon find themselves in a similar situation. Their game’s market trajectory is similar to Apples to Apples, another word game that uses cards to create silly results.

Selling YBS! for millions might be in the immediate future. The only roadblock is awareness, McNeill says. “Games are typically taught virally. People don’t read the rules. Somebody teaches them, then they go to the store and buy a copy.”

“At this point, the goal is to build this thing up to be as big as possible,” Uniacke says. “Along the way, we’re having a heck of a lot of fun.”

And they have confidence. McNeill and Uniacke possess the same upbeat energy of former Philadelphia 76ers president and self-help mogul Pat Croce. Success to them is certain. Uniacke even reveals that Croce might be an idol.

“Croce would get out of bed every morning and say, ‘What can I get into today?’” Uniacke says. “That’s like us.”

McNeill says the company is close to a distribution deal in New Zealand and Australia. He gets just as jazzed talking about international distribution as the shrink-wrapping on their game’s box. (“Look, there’s no dog-earred cellophane,” he says.)

“We are up 600 percent from last year at this point,” McNeill says. “I believe this will be one of the greatest-selling games ever.”

Says Uniacke, “The challenge now has been to have a vision of a corporate entity. But here we are, three guys goofing off in an office. What corporate image do we need?”

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