How Cranium Works

By: Kate Kershner  | 
cover of Cranium board game
Even shy folks might warm to this brainy game.
Spencer Platt/News/Getty Images

When I'm in a social situation and one of those fun "party games" is pulled out -- you know the ones, where you team up to act out movie titles or make up meanings of nonsense words -- my first inclination is fear. I'm the kind of person who fears forgetting her name under pressure, for instance, and I'm as artistically inclined as your average preschooler.

But a funny thing happens when the game pulled from the shelf is Cranium. Instead of putting on a brave face while breaking out in a flop sweat, I find myself narrowing my eyes and sizing up my competition. Because while in a lot of ways Cranium is your standard party game, complete with elements of Pictionary, Charades, Trivial Pursuit and even Scrabble, that's also what sets it apart from the competition. In theory, everyone who plays Cranium can find a category to excel in, helping your team and boosting your own ego.


So if sculpting a teapot out of clay will have your team guessing you've created some sort of stork, no worries -- maybe you'll do better with the Word Worm card, where you might have to spell a word backwards correctly on the first try. Or perhaps you're more the Data Head type, where you'll be asked trivia and knowledge questions. And if you're a born ham, you'll find yourself jonesing for Star Performer cards, which might have you humming a tune or speaking in the plummy accent of a famous British actor.

You might have noticed that none of these tasks is necessarily for the shy or meek. Because while Cranium does give everyone a chance to shine (as the game often points out in marketing and promotional literature), the truth is that it's definitely designed for those who want to shine. That is, those who don't mind performing in front of a group, showcasing their skills in a pretty outgoing way.

But what do you expect from a company started by two guys who chose to christen themselves the Grand Poo Bah and the Chief Noodler, throwing out the stale and demure CEO and president titles? And you're right to expect some serious outside-the-game-box thinking from the company that created the game. For instance, Cranium was the first game to be sold both in Barnes and Noble stores as well as on

More surprisingly is where it sold first. Use your brain power to maneuver over to the next page to find out how Cranium made selling your game at a toy store an option -- and not a necessity.

Origins of Cranium

Cranium founder Richard Tait showing off a new version of Cranium at a Toy Fair in 2004.
Richard Tait (the Grand Poo Bah himself) shows off a new version of Cranium at the Toy Industry Association & Toy Wishes Holiday Preview show Oct. 5, 2004 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/News/Getty Images

In the deep, dark underbelly of Seattle lives the genus "Microsoft Millionaire." You might recognize them by their joie de vivre and, well, money. They are the lucky few who started with Microsoft when it was just a promising software company, only to find themselves -- within a few years or a decade -- blessed with stock options boasting bottom lines that looked like Swiss bank accounts. Free to retire at absurdly young ages, these men and women were left to roam the Northwest thinking of awesome ways to spend --and make -- money.

Richard Tait and Whit Alexander belonged to this West Coast tribe in 1997. Both former Microsoft employees who shared an interest in beginning a start-up that veered from the glutted tech market, Tait convinced Alexander that a board game where everyone's skills were celebrated was missing from the market. Using $100,000 of their own money (or Bill Gates', depending on how you look at it), the pair came up with a prototype and began the process of shopping it around [source: Bick].


Although initial tests were positive (so positive, in fact, that a tester tried to sneak off with the prototype), it was still probably a bad idea that Tait and Alexander asked their Chinese manufacturer to produce 27,000 games ... and then missed Toy Fair, the annual purchasing convention for toy retailers [source: Cook]. No doubt feeling a little less like Star Performers, the two were sitting at a Starbucks when they realized that people could buy the game outside of a toy store. Luckily, they had a connection with Howard Schultz (who used the more traditional CEO title in his role at Starbucks) and struck a deal to sell the games in the coffee shops [source: Bick]. More importantly, they gave copies to the shops for customers and employees to play when hanging out. Turns out that people are much more likely to buy a game when it's been recommended or already played.

So before Cranium had ever seen the inside of a toy store, Starbucks was selling its first ever board game like hotcakes (or nonfat vanilla lattes). As we already mentioned, Alexander and Tait continued their unorthodox selling strategy, meeting with Barnes & Noble representatives despite protestations from the company that "we don't sell games" [source: Bick]. What changed their mind? The company's director of gift merchandising played the game with staff, and they agreed it was worth stocking.

The Cranium honchos also launched a marketing campaign in which radio DJ's read trivia questions from the game and gave away free copies, once again making the bet that once you played it, you'd recommend it.

Cranium Game Rules and Instructions

Playing Cranium
What's in the box? Fun!
Spencer Platt/News/Getty Images

Cranium is a team game, so you'll need at least four people to play. Each team puts their game piece at start, which is a Planet Cranium (marked by the purple brain). This means that the team gets to pick their category, and it happens four times in a game. Using the timer to determine when guesses must end, the first team chooses from one of four categories to draw a card from:

  • Creative Cat: This involves some sort of drawing/sculpting activity. For example, it might be a Pictionary-like activity where you draw a clue. (To up the ante, there are also clues that must be drawn with your eyes closed for your team to guess.)
  • Word Worm: These are for the language nerds among us. Activities include spelling difficult words (sometimes backwards), defining words, solving anagrams or Wheel-of-Fortune-type fill in the blanks.
  • Data Head: Reach for this card if you're a general know-it-all. You'll be asked about general knowledge trivia, including multiple choice and true or false questions.
  • Star Performer: For the overdramatic or thwarted child-stars, these cards are where those who excel at charades, celebrity impersonations or Humdingers (humming a tune for your teammates to guess) come in.

If the team is successful on the first card, they get to roll the 10-sided die and proceed to the correct color on the "fast track. (A purple roll lets you skip ahead to the next Planet Cranium and the card of your choice.) If they weren't successful the first time, they stay on Planet Cranium until a fruitful turn, then roll the die to proceed on the "scenic path" (a longer trail to the final destination). At each Planet Cranium space, success or failure will decide whether you're fast-tracking it or meandering along scenically until the next Planet.


Along with regular cards, you might also pull out a Club Cranium card on your turn. These require that everyone does the activity, and the first team to get the answer scores a bonus roll (you get another card right after for your team).

Keep in mind that apart from a successful Club Cranium activity, your turn ends after one card. Unlike other games where you roll the dice and move your piece to determine what the activity will be, in Cranium you roll the die and move your piece after completing a successful turn.

Once a team arrives at Cranium Central, members roll the due to determine which deck of cards to start on. On each turn, complete one activity from each four decks. (If unsuccessful on the activity, stay on the deck to try again next time.) After each four activities are complete, the other team will pick a final card for you from any deck. If your team is the first to complete all four activities in Cranium Central plus the other team's choice, congratulations, smarties -- you've won Cranium.

Now let's roll our colored die to the next page, where we'll learn some more about the psychology of Cranium and how some of us can actually -- gasp -- learn from the game!

Not Just Fun and Games (But Mostly)

Cranium took the game world by storm in the late '90s and early 2000s, and it wasn't just due to everyone's enthusiasm for impersonating Clint Eastwood characters, or a strong unspoken desire to draw a greenhouse with eyes closed.

Several groups have noted that Cranium (and some of its offshoots explored in the sidebar) is a terrific tool for autistic children. Notably, they cite board games that teach social skills and language in a collective context [source: NAR]. With an emphasis on team building and "shining moments" for all players regardless of who "wins," Cranium could be a good fit for older children who need a little help with socialization, following rules and competition.


The founders of Cranium weren't just looking for pure fun when they dreamed up the game; they've cited the writings of psychologist Howard Gardner as a source of their theory behind the game [source: Dojc]. The Harvard professor wrote the book "The Theory of Multiple Intelligences," which stated that there are nine areas of intelligence (like spatial, linguistic or kinesthetic intelligence) in which every person can excel or lag. "The essence of it [the theory] is that humans have multiple talents and skills that aren't recognized in today's academic environment, which is largely based on numbers and letters," Cranium founder Richard Tait said in an interview with Mike Dojc of

Speaking of psychology, Cranium was famous for its fun and casual office mindset when it first took off in Seattle. Cranium adopted the acronym CHIFF (Clever, High Quality, Innovative, Friendly and Fun) as its motto for how to succeed in business. Taking it to heart, Cranium's office was known for its perks: 10 games a month to employees (and five to be donated to charities of their choice), all corner offices set up as communal spaces, afternoons off for a company-wide movie party and an office space designed like the Cranium game. In the spirit of their employers, anyone could make up his or her own job title (as long as it applied to the job -- no "Princess of Power" on any business cards) [source: Horowitz].

But Cranium's popularity also proved to be the independent, small-minded company's undoing. In 2008, the game company was a hot commodity, and Tait and Alexander agreed to sell it to Hasbro for a tidy $77.5 million [source: Martinez]. Shortly after the sale, the Seattle office was closed down, and all Cranium operations were run from other Hasbro offices.

But Cranium is still going strong and has a cult of devoted followers. If you're one of them, check out lots more information about Cranium and its board game competition o the next page.

Originally Published: Feb 27, 2012

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Autism Teaching "Social Skills and Board Games." 2003. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • "Cariboo Cranium: A Great Communication Game." Jan. 17, 2008. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Bick, Julie. "Inside the Smartest Little Company in America." Jan. 1, 2002. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Broom, Jack. "Brain Trust--Local Inventors Bring an Array of Cerebral Elements To Hit Game Cranium." Seattle Times. Aug. 30, 1999. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Cook, John. "Cranium founder Richard Tait's 8 tips for entrepreneurial success." Nov. 12, 2010. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Dojc, Mike. "Big, Buzzy, Brand Idea Flashback: An interview with Cranium's Creator." Mar. 27, 2008. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Dunnewind, Stephanie. "Seattle's Cranium is winning awards with innovative, entertaining play for all ages." Seattle Times. Feb. 28, 2004. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Hasbro. "Cranium." 2012. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Horovitz, Bruce. "Cranium guys have inner child on speed dial." USA Today. May 9, 2006. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • James, Andrea. "Hasbro decapitates Cranium's Seattle office." Seattle Post-Intelligencer. May 20, 2009. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Maital, Shlomo. "Key Lessons From the Inventor of Cranium." TIMnovate. Mar. 6, 2012. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Martinez, Amy. "Nice Move: Cranium's $77 million sale." Seattle Times. Jan. 5, 2008. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • National Autism Resources. "Fun Developmental Toys for Boys & Girls with Autism, PDD-NOS & Aspergers." 2011. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Public Broadcasting System. "Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory." (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Tait, Richard. "Let's Play." Parade Magazine. Jul. 30, 2006. (Feb. 16, 2012)
  • Thompson, Clive. "The Play's the Thing." The New York Times. Nov. 28, 2004. (Feb. 16, 2012)