By Robin Roenker
RISMEDIA, November 21, 2008-(MCT)-They say necessity is the mother of invention, but Louie Stotz feels God’s hand was there, too, that Thanksgiving day 31 years ago when he came up with the idea for The Thanksgiving Game.
Stotz was doing what he could to hold off dinner until his wife’s parents arrived, but everyone was growing hungry and restless.
To pass the time, Stotz whipped out pencils and scraps of paper and declared, “We’re going to play a game.” He told all the players to write down what they were thankful for that year, and then afterward had them try to guess who wrote what. Players earned points for guessing correctly.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Stotz, a retired entrepreneur and airline sales agent. “You just don’t start Thanksgiving without your mother-in-law.”
The game was such a hit, it became a family Thanksgiving tradition.
Now the family has professionally developed the game and hopes to share it with the rest of America.
For its first year on the market, the game has met considerable success, earning rave reviews from merchandise buyers wherever it’s been tested, said Stotz’s son-in-law, Tim Lester, who left his job with Kentucky state government to become the game’s full-time marketing director.
Retailing between $14.99 and $19.99, The Thanksgiving Game is available at 100 Kroger locations in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee as well as all of the nearly 600 Cracker Barrel stores nationwide and at Amazon.com and many Christian bookstores across the country.
On Friday a crew from The 700 Club filmed the Stotz family-Louie and his wife, Jo Ellen, and their children Maria and John and their families-at Louie and Jo Ellen’s home in Lexington for a segment to air on the show on Thanksgiving Day.
The family thinks their game is the first and only Thanksgiving game on the market. They feel it epitomizes the call of Ephesians 5:20 in the Bible, which encourages the faithful to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Lester said.
Although no data is in yet on sales figures for this year, Stotz said there are literally tens of thousands of games on the shelves this year available for purchase.
If each one is taken home and played by a family of three or more, it will “add up to millions of expressions of gratitude to God and others,” he said. “That’s a lot of thanksgiving. We are completely convinced that this is not our game, but God’s. We give him all the credit for any success that it has.”
It was two years ago, at the close of the family’s 2006 Thanksgiving dinner, that the family got serious about developing and marketing the game. Tim Lester, married to the Stotzes’ daughter, Maria, stood up from the table and urged Stotz to “share the game with the world,” Stotz said.
In 1992, the family had made an initial attempt to formalize the rules of the game and have it produced for the marketplace, but those plans never got off the ground and were shuffled aside while John pursued an MBA and Maria attended seminary for a career in music ministry.
The second time around, everything seems to have fallen into place.
Last October, with only seven prototypes of the game to their name, Lester earmarked one for the Cracker Barrel seasonal merchandise buyer in Lebanon, Tenn.
He was told that the company’s buying for the Thanksgiving 2008 season had already been done, but he sent the game anyway-only to have it lost under some Christmas merchandise at the Cracker Barrel offices where it went unopened for months. When it was finally found, the buyer had her staff members play they game. They loved it so much, she replied to Lester immediately, informing him that Cracker Barrel would carry the game at all stores if he could have it ready by June 8.
It was a nearly unheard-of success for a game in its first year of production.
“The signs are abundant that God has a purpose for it,” said Stotz, an active member of Calvary Baptist Church and longtime youth volunteer there.
Stotz and his wife are donating a portion of the proceeds of the game’s sales to both Mission Arlington, a ministry in Arlington, Texas, where youth of Calvary Baptist have often done mission work, and Mission Lexington, begun locally by Calvary Baptist and modeled after the larger Arlington ministry.
Even unexpected twists and turns in the development process have had a higher purpose, Stotz believes _ for example, when the initial Wisconsin distributor suddenly bowed out of development, leading the family to search for another company in Chicago to develop the game.
And the downturn in the economy might actually bode well for the game, Lester said, as people reconnect with the simpler, more affordable pleasures of just spending time together. Families are looking for ways to spend less money on things with short-lived value, but are willing to spend on things with lasting value, he said.
The game “will create fond memories for years to come for everyone who plays it,” Lester said. “It provides a forum or a format to open the door to discussions about what we’re thankful for _ so appropriate for Thanksgiving Day _ a dialogue that might be unnatural or forced without the game.”
‘It never gets old’
Maria Lester, Stotz’s daughter, knows the game must offer something worthwhile to have stayed fresh and fun for her own family for 30 years running.
“It never gets old,” she said. “I want to play. I want to win every year.”
Sometimes the entries are funny: During years when there were new babies, parents have listed that they were thankful for pacifiers or late-night TV to keep them company during feedings. Others are predictable: Louie’s mother-in-law, Peryda Pike, always includes “a warm house” as one of her answers. Everyone always knows that one’s hers.
When the game is over, usually after about 45 minutes to an hour when ten people play, the family awards a small prize, such as a Christmas ornament or next year’s calendar or even the largest piece of pumpkin pie, to the winner.
For Jo Ellen, Louie’s wife, the game represents an easy, fun way to include everyone-close family and guests alike-gathered together during the holiday.
Playing the game “gives you a chance to feel you’ve connected with everybody that’s there. It’s fun and it’s meaningful,” she said.
Jo Ellen has kept the Thanksgiving share cards from every game the family has played for three decades, and she often pulls out entries from past Thanksgivings to reminisce about family members who have passed away.
“The game is so simple,” said John Lester, Louie and Jo Ellen’s son. “But people these days are so busy that they just don’t stop and tell each other how much they appreciate each other. To me that’s the reason we’ve played the game all these years. It gives you the opportunity to say thank you to the people who mean the most.”
© 2008, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.