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Friends paid back in spades

Oregon men ready to cash in as Hasbro set to ante up $325 million

The Associated Press

PORTLAND-- It was a Friday night in 1993, and a group of high school friends gathered to play some cards. After a few games of hearts and poker, they broke out a game that wasn't even in stores yet.

Filled with sorcerers and wizards, the game was Magic: the Gathering.

Amid the shuffling and the dealing, Alex Lamb made his pitch: Their friend Richard Garfield, who created Magic, needed money to market the game to the masses -- primarily the young, brainy and male, just like Lamb's friends.

Lamb and friends anted up: $125 from some, $250 from others. In exchange, they received shares in the new Garfield Games, which, in a stock swap, later would be absorbed by Wizards of the Coast Inc.

That late-night investment helped launch what would become the world's all-time best-selling trading card game.

Wizards shareholders are expected to vote to sell the company to Hasbro Inc., the nation's second-largest toy-maker, for about $325 million. That means Lamb, Richard George and Bill Brumm, all 1980 grads of Benson and all with regular jobs in the Portland area, were about to hit the jackpot. Add three zeroes to their 1993 investment, and that's roughly what each will reap when Hasbro buys them out. It's not like it's going to make us millionaires. But heck, it's not bad, Lamb, a systems analyst in Vancouver, Wash., told The Oregonian.

The friends' windfall is only one small by-product of the game's success. Right after Magic hit the market in late 1993, Garfield Games merged with Wizards of the Coast, a small but established game company in Renton, Wash., headed by Peter Adkison, a former systems analyst for Boeing Co. With Magic, Wizards took flight, soaring to the top of the adventure games' industry.

More recently, trading card game sensation Pokemon pushed Wizards to new heights. Wizards, under license with Nintendo, produces and distributes the Pokemon trading cards.

Alex Lamb first met Richard Garfield at summer school in 1979. Lamb needed to make up a course, and Garfield, a math whiz, was enrolled in advanced pre-calculus class.

The two hit it off. Lamb invited Garfield, a Lincoln High School student, to meet some of his friends, who got together on Friday and Saturday nights to play games.

Garfield was a fan of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and more traditional offerings, such as chess and Go. Sometimes they created their own games. The group would deem a new game a success if we went all night, Lamb explained.

College and jobs interrupted the friends' card-playing nights. Yet Garfield, deep into his math studies at the University of Pennsylvania, couldn't stop thinking about games.

With new-found friends at the university, Magic: the Gathering, a card game with a magical theme of battling creatures, sorcerers and territories, began to take shape.

Whenever Garfield returned to Portland for vacation or summer breaks, he'd call his old friends and introduce them to Magic's latest permutation. He'd pull these hand-drawn cards from his pocket, Lamb said. There was always something new. He was like Santa Claus.

During a trip to Multnomah Falls, he suddenly realized what he needed to do. There, at the scenic wayside, he had what he calls probably my only `Eureka.'

Garfield's epiphany? That players would construct their own decks, trading and collecting cards until they had accumulated not only their own menagerie of creatures and spells but a particular strategy and method of play.

In that stroke of genius, the trading card game genre was born -- before anyone heard of Pokemon.

Then, Garfield hit up family and friends for money. He figured he needed about $100,000 to launch the game. He scraped together the dough he needed and introduced Magic to the real world in August 1993. Sales were instantaneous and explosive. Within six months, Garfield Games sold out of the initial print run of 10 million cards.

Once the game was a success, Garfield merged his company with Wizards, retaining one-third ownership. A year later, in 1994, Garfield left a teaching job at Whitman College in Walla Walla to become Wizards' chief game designer.

Within a year, they became the biggest in the industry, said Rick Loomis, president of the Game Manufacturers Association, a trade group for the adventure games industry.

Just as Magic sales began leveling off, Pokemon entered Wizards' fold. Wizards develops and produces the Pokemon trading card game, under license with Nintendo of America. The game hit the market in January and became an unequivocal must for almost every 6- to 14-year-old.

Garfield never expected Magic or Wizards to become so successful. Nor did he expect to gain a certain celebrity status among game players.

I have a pretty good imagination, but I never could have imagined this, he said.

Alex Lamb, from left, Richard George and Bill Brumm, card-playing friends and 1980 Benson High School grads, hit the jackpot when toy giant Hasbro offered to buy Wizards of the Coast Inc., of Renton Wash. - Photo fromAP