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Local inventor goes Banana-grams

Age-neutral, board-free and un-scored; fast-paced, portable and creative: These are just some of the words used to describe Bananagrams, a word game invented by Pawtucket native Abe Nathanson.

Nathanson, whose game won Game of the Year at the Toy of The Year Awards in 2009, spoke Saturday at Books on the Square, where he was praised as a "homegrown banana" by Andrea Bien, an employee.

Bien decided last August to place the Wayland Square bookstore's first order for Bananagrams. The small store has since sold 140 games and become a proud Bananagram retailer.

"That's pretty good in a little bookstore," Bien said. "We don't sell 140 of anything."

A crowd of 15 people sat around Nathanson as he explained how the inspiration for Bananagrams came after a two-hour-long Scrabble game with his grandson three or four years ago.

Frustrated with the length of time it took to play the game, Nathanson said "we need an anagram so fast it will drive you bananas."

"After I said the words," he said, "they all rolled together and then became a family project."

The game consists of 144 letter tiles, which the players combine to form individual crosswords. Letters are continuously added to each player's pile until the tiles run out. At this point, the first player to create a word-grid using all of their letters wins.

Although Nathanson has been making toys for his family his whole life, he never marketed them, he said.

"I do things when the time is right to do them," he said.

The Bananagrams company is based in Rhode Island, although the game itself is produced overseas. Located at 845 Allens Ave. in Providence, Nathanson said he has tried to keep the business as local as possible.

"We tried having them made in Providence, but when we priced it out, the game would have to sell for $70 or $80 dollars," Nathanson said.

Since Bananagrams was first released, Nathanson has created and sold two other word games: Appleletters, which is like Bananagrams but involves scoring, and Pairs of Pears, a simpler letter game for younger players.

At just over 80 years old, Nathanson has not lost his passion for games, especially those involving words.

"Letters become words, words become sentences and sentences become knowledge," Nathanson says.

He has continued to invent games and is planning on releasing two new words games soon: Oh Spell and Zip-It. His style of game-making — boardless, scoreless, fast and fun — has not changed, he said.

Zip-It, Nathanson said, was developed to be played within an eight-square-inch area and "is almost as fast as rock, paper, scissors." It involves 24 six-sided cubes and plays like a sped up version of Bananagrams, with players racing each other to complete ten word-grids first.

The simplicity and rapidity of Zip-It, says Nathanson, would make it a great drinking game for bars.

"I suspect that at bars it will start as Zip-It and wind up as Tip-It," Nathanson said.
His latest creation is based on the traditional card game "Oh Hell." Nathanson's version, Oh Spell, is a word-based card game that substitutes font patterns for suits.

"I don't know why no one has thought of this before," Nathanson said. "With numbers you are limited, but with words, creation is infinite."

Bananagrams breaks the mold of most word games, which Nathanson described as "fixed." Yet he is humble about his creation.

The concept "has been around for 200 years," Nathanson said. "I just gave it a spin that would attract young people."

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