Interview with an Icon, Stuart R. Kaplan

Mark Simmons of Games Quarterly Magazine interviews industry pioneer Stuart Kaplan, founder of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT.

CQM: Hello

Stuart:, I have been in the games industry since 1976, therefore regarded as a veteran. Your professional career spans a couple of decades past mine, making you, er, much older.... Seriously, though, would you tell our readers when and how you began as a publisher of games?

Stuart:: The first game I created was called "Student Survival" which I published during the Vietnam War in the early '60s under a company I started called Gamemasters. In 1965, John Wiley published my first book, Mining, Minerals & Geosciences: A Worldwide Source Directory, which won a Library Journal Award. My career as a games publisher began in earnest in 1968. While working on Wall St., on a whim, I visited the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany and found a tarot deck with artwork that intrigued me and I brought back a sample. Henry Levy, a buyer at Brentanos in New York, placed a small order for the deck and I started printing and importing them from Switzerland. Because a booklet of instructions was required, I researched tarot which led to my writing the first of my five books on tarot cards, including the three volumes of The Encyclopedia of Tarot which describe and illustrate more than 1,000 different tarot decks from the 15th century to the present. These five books to date have sold over one million copies. Volume IV of The Encyclopedia of Tarot will be published in Summer 2005 and features another 850 tarot decks not included in the previous volumes. When I realized the potential for tarot, I decided to leave Wall St. and start the business full time under the name U.S. Games Systems. It was always my desire to be a writer. There is something about the perpetuity of books that has always fascinated me. I own books from the 18th and 19th centuries and after reading them I feel like I personally know the authors. I lived in Paris on the Left Bank for one year while attending the Sorbonne University and before going to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where I graduated in 1955. Thus I have been fortunate to combine writing with a business career.

CQM: How would you characterize the general public's interest level in games during the first decade or so of your career?

Stuart:: In the 1960s and 70s, board games were the main interest. There were many games which were driven by throwing dice and moving pawns as well as some word games. In my mind, there wasn't really a breakthrough in a new major game concept until Wizards of the Coast came along with Magic the Gathering.

CQM: What games were popular when you started that have held interest up to the present? Also, which games do you think ought to still be in print that are not?

Stuart:: Some of the popular games from years ago which I liked and are still in print today are Monopoly, Clue, Chutes and Ladders, Yahtzee, Authors and Scrabble to name a few. My collection includes several thousand card games from the 1800s to pre 1950. Many of these games are classics and, based upon the graphics alone, it would be nice to see some of them in print again such as the Peter Coddles series, Dr. Busby, Touring and Conundrums for example.

CQM: What drove you in the early days, and what drives you today? Do you have any particular interests, as publisher, and, separately, as a player of games?

Stuart:: There is a sign in the offices of U.S. Games Systems which reads, "We don't look for people who never fail. We look for people who never give up." I encourage employees of U.S. Games Systems to try new things without the fear of failing. No one bats 1000, even Babe Ruth's career average was .342.

There are also a number of principles or paradigms that I follow. For example, the popular Creative Whack Pack by Roger Von Oech, which we publish, contains card No. 49 which reads, "Take a Whack at It. You can't hit a home run unless you step up to the plate. You can't catch fish unless you put your line into the water. You can't make your idea a reality, unless you take a whack at it." The card ends with the quote from Adman Carl Ally which says, "Either you let your life slip away by not doing the things you want to do, or you get up and do them."

Coupled with the idea that one should live life to the fullest and, as the Fool in a tarot deck, be willing to step out beyond the precipice into new adventure, people should not be held back by the fear that they might not succeed. My philosophy is to go for it and I try to instill this attitude at U.S. Games Systems.

CQM: Are there any products that U.S. Games publishes that serve as a personal inspiration to you?

Stuart:: U.S. Games Systems publishes a deck of cards called Ulysses S. Grant's Strategies for Leadership based on the book by Al Kaltman. One card describes the fear that some Union officers held when planning an attack against Robert E. Lee because Lee's praises were touted both in the South and North and he had come to be regarded almost as invincible. Grant met with his officers before the battle and reminded them that that very same morning Lee had put on his pants one leg at a time just as they had and they should not overestimate Lee to such an extent that they lack the will to beat him. Sometimes we overstate the obstacles facing us.

Another card describes the burning by the Confederates of the bridge over the Big Black River in May 1863. Grant ordered the construction of a new bridge for his troops to cross the river. Lieutenant Haines built a raft bridge, General McPherson a pontoon bridge using cotton bales and General Ransom fell trees on opposite banks of the river, cutting only one-half of the trees so their tops would fall interlacing in the river. The point is that many times there is more than one way to get the job done and people should try new ways and not be afraid to think out of the box.

CQM: I gather you believe people should never give up on their ideas?

Stuart:: In all the interviews I've had, this is the first time I've been asked this thought-provoking question which I would love to answer.

There is a poem which hangs in our office for all employees to see entitled, Don't Quit. And part of it reads:

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
Don't give up though the pace seems slow
You may succeed with another blow.
Often the struggler has given up
when he might have captured the victor's cup;
And he learned too late when the night came down,
How close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out--
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit,
It's when things seem worst that you mustn't quit.

As Chairman of U.S. Games Systems, I have the overall responsibility for making the company successful. Nevertheless, I recognize the single most important thing I can do everyday is to try and motivate my employees to pull together as a team and do the best they can. And, as a side light, and you will appreciate this as a magazine publisher, we are just adding a new sign in our offices that reads, "Everyone in this company is a proof reader."

CQM: You have seen numerous new types of games come to prominence; war games, role playing, miniatures both historical and fantasy/science fiction, and collectable card games. What have you thought of the innovations, as a player, or as a publisher, or just as an experienced observer?

Stuart:: I am in constant admiration of the collectible type card game that Wizards of The Coast published more than 10 years ago because it was a departure from anything seen previously. Much credit needs to be given to Peter Adkinson and Richard Garfield for creating, publishing and marketing a collectible card game that captured the imagination of so many young people. Another game creator I admire is Mike Fitzgerald who has created many games for my company including Wyvern, the Mystery Rummy Series, Lord of the Rings Card Game and Pez.

CQM: Name a few companies that are active today that you admire, and tell us why.

Stuart:: Wizards of the Coast, certainly. I personally also like the work done by Alison Yada of Gamewright. The games are fresh, interesting, timely with clean, bright and attractive packaging.

CQM: Your collections of playing cards and tarot cards is legendary- I understand there is even a museum established for your collection. Tell us about the scope of your collection.

Stuart:: I have been collecting antique card games and related ephemera for 30 years. The collection includes over 60 Napoleonic P.O.W. bone boxes containing dominoes and playing cards. These were hand carved by French P.O.W.s who were captured between 1794 and 1814 and incarcerated mainly at Dartmoor Prison in England. They made these boxes from cow bones from their meals. Some of the boxes were colored with vegetable dyes and sold at Friday marketplaces to the local British residents usually for tobacco. In 1997 Art & Antiques Magazine chose the collection as one of the 100 treasures in America. The collection also contains hundreds of early card games both British and American and many rare tarot decks. My library has over 6,000 books on tarot and the history of playing cards. Part of the collection has been exhibited twice at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT, which included a full-color catalog featuring many of the rare items. Sotheby's exhibited two year's ago much of my collection at their headquarters in New York.

CQM: Amazing! Do you have some favorites amongst the massive variety of your collection?

Stuart:: I particularly like the three tarot cards in my collection that are gold illuminated from the 15th century. These cards originated in Milan and bear the heraldic devices of the Visconti-Sforza families. During the American Civil War, a game was published, circa 1863, called The Jolly Exempts, which contained jigsaw puzzle pieces and 12 faces of individuals and the ways they could escape serving in the war including one picture that said, "I'm off for Canada."
Another favorite in my collection is the Carey Tarot from Strasbourg dating from 1795. In accordance with the 1793 decree by the French National Convention, all royalist symbols were removed from playing card designs. Thus the Emperor and the Empress were renamed Grandmother and Grandfather; the Hermit became the Poor; and Kings and Queens had their crowns removed. Another favorite deck is the Soldaten-Tarock from 1918 which depicts scenes during WWI from German and Austrian viewpoints. For example, card No. XXI depicts a German U-Boat in New York harbor sailing victoriously in front of the Statue of Liberty. Frequently, tarot and playing card images reflect the social events of the times during which the cards were published.

CQM: Do you have plans to add another type of game to your collection?

Stuart:: I am always looking for more card games called Authors. The original Authors Card Game was invented by a group of young ladies in Salem, Massachusetts, and published by Whipple and Smith in 1861. The object of Authors is to collect sets of literary works by the same writers. During the past 30 years, I have been fortunate to find 200 versions of this game published by different manufacturers including Parker Bros, McLaughlin Bros, Clarke & Sowden, Cincinnati Game Co., Milton Bradley, Noyes, Singer, Russell and Selchow Righter to name a few.

CQM: I know you still have passion for your work- it's clear when we have spoken to each other, and it's clear in your answers in this interview. What are your current projects? Tell us of recently released products and especially what's on the list for release in the next six or twelve months.

Stuart:: US Games Systems will publish in 2005 a series of motivational card decks suitable for daily inspirations. In cooperation with the History Channel, we are publishing a game called People's Choice, a presidential card game. Mike Fitzgerald created game rules for a fascinating Alienz Card Game and we are releasing a series of collector playing cards featuring Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers. We are also publishing a number of new tarot decks with unusual artwork including Lover's Path Tarot Set by Kris Waldherr, artist of the popular Goddess Tarot. Other new tarot decks include Medieval Cat, Celestial Tarot, Forest Folklore, Royal Thai Tarot and Gummy Bear Tarot.

CQM: How has the game and tarot industry changed for you in the past several years?

Stuart:: Quite a bit. Important customers have gone out of business and during 2002 and part of 2003, stores were very conservative in their purchasing. Additionally, we sell to many traditional game and toy stores and a good share of our market in the past has been bookstores who are being swallowed by the chains. The remaining book stores need to buy side lines to stay competitively in the business. One marketing program we are pushing is game tournaments in stores. We are also offering attractive displays for some of our products. Shelf space in stores is at a premium and it is important for companies like U.S. Games Systems to continue to offer high quality products at reasonable prices. We are also branding with important names such as the History Channel.

CQM: When you are not working or playing games, what do you like to do?

Stuart:: Tennis and antiquing. Last month I spent 10 days in Argentina and Uruguay where I was able to purchase 55 tarot books in Spanish, which I never knew existed. Someone once asked me what I like to collect and my answer was, what I don't have. Hopefully, at least within the confines of my specialty. One game I love playing as much as possible is the Wizard Card Game, which we publish and was created by Ken Fisher, a talented Canadian game inventor. To date, over one million Wizard Card Games have been sold. The annual World Wizard Tournament took place last July in Toronto and the 2005 Wizard World Tournament will take place at the end of June in Stamford, CT.


Stuart:, I've steered this interview so far. It's time to just let you tell our readers what you'd like to tell us, on any topic.

Stuart:: I have been asked what I would like to see happen to my collection. When I have traveled to various museums to visit their collections, notably the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Vatican, Pierpont Morgan in New York, the Bienecke Library at Yale, it is always difficult from a time and accessibility standpoint to have access to many of the items in the collection. For that reason, I have decided that my collection will not be donated to a museum and I would rather see that eventually it would be acquired piecemeal by many people who have interest in a particular item or items. During the past several years, I have offered some items for sale on eBay and and when collectors contact me because they have a specific interest, I have, in general, been willing to part with the item so it might go to their collection. In this way, I know that other people will have many years of enjoyment with the rare items I have been fortunate to own.

CQM: Thanks very much for taking the time,

Stuart:, and for giving us all such a wealth of games to play.