Richard Tait, Co-Inventor of the Board Game Cranium, Dies at 58

Richard Tait, an entrepreneur, business executive and venture capitalist who helped invent the board game Cranium, a familiar part of American family life in the late 1990s and 2000s, died on July 25 at his home in Bainbridge Island, Wash. He was 58.

His son Finn said the cause of death was complications of Covid-19.

In 1997, Richard Tait and his wife at the time, Karen Fries, were vacationing with another couple on Long Island, in the Hamptons, when someone suggested they play a board game. But they could not find a game everyone could enjoy. One couple dominated when they played Pictionary. The other won handily when they switched to Scrabble.

Then Mr. Tait had a thought: What if there was a game that let everyone play to their strengths? His friend Dan Katz, who won the Scrabble game that day, remembers Mr. Tait telling the room: “There has to be a way for everyone to feel comfortable.”

He soon designed a game that was part Pictionary, part Scrabble, part Trivial Pursuit and part Hangman. After sharing the idea with a colleague named Whit Alexander, the two expanded the game, adding mini-competitions that involved charades-like playacting, sculpting shapes from clay and humming popular songs.

“We knew it would not be enough to just ask questions about music,” Mr. Alexander said in an phone interview. “We needed activities that allowed people to show their musical intelligence.”

The result was Cranium. Over the next decade, with help from two novel means of distribution — and the Starbucks coffee shop chain — they sold more than 44 million copies of the game and its sister titles in 22 countries before their company was acquired by the game and toy giant Hasbro.

“Cranium was — I am going to say it — a game changer,” said Chris Byrne, who was part of the team that launched Pictionary and is now a game and toy consultant known as The Toy Guy. “It revolutionized game play — and the social aspects of game play — for much of a generation.”

Richard John Tait was born on Jan. 17, 1964, at his home in Broughty Ferry, Scotland, a village on the north bank of the River Tay as it flows into the North Sea. His father, Thomas, was an executive at the Polaroid camera and technology company. His mother, Kathleen, worked part time as a secretary and receptionist at medical offices in Broughty Ferry and later in Helensburgh, about 90 miles to the southwest, where the family moved in the 1970s.

Mr. Tait studied computer science as an undergraduate at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh before moving to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. When he finished his M.B.A., he took a job with Microsoft, in the suburbs of Seattle, just as that software maker was growing into one of the world’s most powerful corporations. Not long after, he hired one of the company’s most notable employees: the future chief executive and chairman Satya Nadella.

In the 1990s, during the heyday of multimedia CD-ROMs, Mr. Tait oversaw Microsoft’s catalog of reference titles, including the Encarta encyclopedia and Bookshelf, a catchall collection spanning Roget’s Thesaurus, The American Heritage Dictionary, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and The Chicago Manual of Style. He eventually became a kind of entrepreneur-in-residence at the company, launching five new internet businesses inside Microsoft within four years, including Carpoint, a car-buying service, and Sidewalk, an online city guide.

He left the company in 1997, hoping to become a radio disc jockey on the strength of his Scottish brogue. But after a failed audition, he decided to develop Cranium, building a new company, Cranium Inc., with Mr. Alexander, a former Microsoft colleague.

When they finished creating the game in late 1998, game stores and other traditional retailers had already stocked their shelves for the holiday buying season. But one afternoon, when they met for coffee at a Starbucks in Seattle, Mr. Tait had another thought: What if they sold the game through the coffee shop chain?

“His idea was to sell the game not where games were sold but where our customers were,” Mr. Alexander said. “Most of the people we were going for would never set foot in a game store.”

Through an acquaintance, Mr. Tait arranged a meeting with Starbucks’s chief executive, Howard Schultz, and soon Starbucks was selling Cranium in shops across the country. Later, Mr. Tait and Mr. Alexander arranged similar deals with and Barnes & Noble, both of which were then known for selling primarily books, not games.

“All successful games break the rules, and this one did, too,” Mr. Byrne said.

After the success of Cranium, their company released dozens of other games and toys, including the children’s games Cadoo and Cariboo. They sold the company to Hasbro for $77.5 million in 2008.

After the sale, Mr. Tait, a lifelong soccer fan, created a soccer-themed energy drink called Golazo — Spanish for “super goal” — but it did not find the same success as Cranium. He later became an entrepreneur-in-residence at Starbucks before joining the Seattle venture capital fund Valor Siren Ventures.

In addition to his son Finn, Mr. Tait is survived by another son, Deacon, and a daughter, Remy, all from his marriage to Ms. Fries, which ended in divorce; two sisters, Louise Tait and Gillian (Tait) Heard; his partner and fiancée, Amy Paron; and her daughter, Bella Paron.

As Mr. Tait envisioned Cranium, he began sketching pictures of the brain. He saw the game as a way of reaching both right-brained people (creative, intuitive types) and left-brained people (analytical, logical types).

That is why he called it Cranium. As the box said, it was “the game for your whole brain.”

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