Game on! Cincinnati's Late for the Sky Production Co. makes serious business from Monopoly versions

CINCINNATI -- Sure, you can play games online with people around the world whenever you want. But sometimes playing an board game with real people around the kitchen table can be much more interactive.

The fun-loving, creative entrepreneurs at the Late for the Sky Production Company in Oakley believe that board games make great gifts for Christmas and year round. Now in its 28th year, Late for the Sky has sold more than seven million games, nearly all of them variations of that timeless classic, Monopoly.

Bill Schulte, one of the company’s founders, estimates that Late for Sky has produced more than 600 variations over the years, including Dutch and German versions.

“When we play games with kids today, they still really enjoy the experience,” Schulte said. Even kids accustomed to video games still get a kick out of the tactile experience of rolling the dice, moving the tokens, counting the money, and doing the math.

In 2013, the company designed and produced more than 50 unique versions. At any given time, Late for the Sky offers about 100 variations of the game, including titles such as Brew-opoly, Zombie-opoly, and Health-opoly.

He said customized versions of Monopoly enable gift-givers to show the recipient that “I know who you are and I know what you like.”

A play for the college crowd

The company began in 1984, after Robyn Wilson, a 1980 Miami University grad came up with the idea for Miami-opoly, a game that highlighted campus traditions and landmarks. 

Schulte, who was working in his family’s printing business on Reading Road, helped Wilson figure out how to get the game produced.They have been combining their design skills and manufacturing know-how ever since.

Miami-opoly sold so well that the young entrepreneurs decided to create versions for bigger schools, such as Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Michigan. Before long, Late for the Sky was producing games for about 80 different colleges, selling them through college bookstores, gift shops, and other small retailers that populated the college-town business districts.

While Late for the Sky continues to produce dozens of Monopoly versions for college campuses, they also make versions for cities, theme parks, corporations, hobbyists, and pet lovers.

Graduating to other custom games

For organizations that will order at least 250 games, Late for Sky can produce a custom "opoly."  A group supplies the ideas, images, logo, and information that Late for the Sky develops into a unique game. All board spaces, movement cards, deed cards, box images, box-bottom copy tokens, and game money are connected to the custom theme.

Clients can also connect their brand to one of the themed games that Late for the Sky has designed, such as Health-opoly, Cocktail-opoly, Chocolate-opoly, or Book-opoly.

The games serve different functions for different groups. Civic groups use city-themed games both as fundraisers and to boost pride in the community. Corporations use the games to commemorate anniversaries, incentivize employees, raise brand awareness, or provide educational information.

For example, Brew-opoly is an awareness-building platform for micro-breweries throughout the U.S. The board spaces progress from newest craft brewery to the oldest. In Brew-opoly, players buy or trade for favorite beers and increase property value by purchasing brews and kegs.

Waffle House created a Waffle-opoly game an employee gift to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. The 28 restaurant sites that appeared on the game board were the top scorers in a competition to meet corporate performance goals.

Health-opoly  can be custom-branded by companies who want to reward employees who help control health-insurance costs by losing weight or lowering their cholesterol. The game provides tips, strategies, and ideas that families can do to promote healthy living.

According to Schulte, playing Health-opoly as a family can be an effective way to encourage everyone to adopt healthier habits. 

Creating jobs is no game

When Late for the Sky began as four-person start-up on Reading Road, the company outsourced all of its production and manufacturing. In 1997, it moved into a 60,000-square-foot facility in Oakley, where it now has 44 employees working on everything from game design and printing to game-board manufacturing, assembly, and shipping.

“We employ a broad range of people,” Schulte said. Some have been with the company for more than 20 years and have been promoted to management positions.

Late for the Sky is one of the few companies at the International Toy Fair that doesn’t outsource its manufacturing to China. All game pieces--except for the dice--are made in the United States. 

“We enjoy the fact that we make something from beginning to end and that we control the whole process,”  Schulte said. One benefit of managing the production is being able to control inventory levels. The company prints small batches

of each game; when those sell out, it simply makes more.

Going to the dogs, in a good way

Dog-opoly  is the company’s best-selling game. It has sold more than one million copies, and spawned the creation of 17 versions focused on specific breeds, including pugs, beagles, and dachshunds.

“For no reason that we can figure out, the pug game is selling like crazy,” Schulte said. “I don’t believe that people love pugs more than they love poodles, but we can’t keep that game in stock. We have printed it four times this year, which is unusual for us.”

Instead of branching out into other games or services, Late for the Sky focuses its creative energies on constantly re-designing and updating variations of one core product.

Even as the popularity of online gaming has soared, Late for the Sky continues to find new audiences. Schulte attributes this to the timeless appeal of Monopoly. Before videos, cable TV, or the Internet, millions of people learned to play Monopoly at some point in their lives.

Schulte likens playing Monopoly to brushing your teeth. You may not recall when you learned it, but you probably didn’t learn it by reading the rule book. Someone you really cared about—a parent, sibling, or friend – showed you how to play Monopoly.

Another secret to the company’s longevity is an understanding of who buys the game and why.

“From the beginning, our thought was that we’re not selling a game, we’re selling a gift,” Schulte said. People who bought the first game gave them to graduates, team fans, or friends who wanted a memento of their time on campus.

“I’m not sure how many of those games were actually played," he added.

Connect with WCPO contributor Eileen Fritsch on Twitter: @Eileen Fritsch

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