May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

One rainy day in 1997, former Microsoft executive Richard Tait and his wife, Karen, spent an afternoon playing board games with another couple. First, Pictionary, where “we dusted them,” says Tait, then Scrabble, where “they trounced us.” Afterward, recalls Tait, “I wondered why there isn’t one game where everyone has a chance to shine.”

Call it an all-brainer. With the help of fellow Microsoft alum Whit Alexander, Tait, 36, created Cranium, a board game that doesn’t focus on just one skill but instead rewards such underappreciated talents as spelling words backward, humming tunes, sculpting clay and drawing with your eyes closed. (For traditionalists, there are trivia questions too.) That merry mix has led fans to snap up more than 400,000 sets of the $34.95 game since its launch in October 1998, making it the fastest-selling board game since Trivial Pursuit. “It is the most fun game,” Julia Roberts raved on the Oprah Winfrey Show recently. She and boyfriend Benjamin Bratt, Roberts added, “can’t stop playing it.”

Neither could the friends whom Alexander and Tait used as guinea pigs at test sessions in Tait’s home, during which the two men hid behind couches to eavesdrop on the table talk. “Some tried to take the games with them,” says Tait. But Alexander, 38, says it doesn’t take a genius to understand Cranium’s appeal. “People want to get together and connect,” he says. “They want to have fun.”

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