Originally created 09/13/98

Women's board game a sounding board for life



SAN DIEGO -- They mosey past Emotional Ocean, Pregnancy Pass, Career Move Hill and Menopause Mountain before riding into the sunset at Paradise Ranch.

They talk of sex, families, relationships along the sometimes bumpy trail of life.

But the real reason women saddle up for a game of "Cowgirls Ride the Trail of Truth" isn't just for the campfire chatter.

"It brings out common experiences that we all share and makes you talk about them," says Prasuti Kirk, the game's creator.

"Some women just want to tell their best stories. Others just want to answer with a yes or no, but eventually they all reveal something about their joys and sorrows of life, and how they feel about themselves."

Kirk, who turns 60 this month, drew on many of her experiences when developing the game: Young widow with children in Hollywood. Showgirl in Las Vegas. Publisher of an environmental newspaper. Stand-in for Mary Tyler Moore in the '70s sitcom.

"I've had a full life," she says. "It's made me who I am."

"Cowgirls" crosses Trivial Pursuit and Truth or Dare, but with no wrong answers. "Only you know the truth," says Kirk. "But even if you lie, the truth will gnaw at you on the ride home."

With the roll of dice, players move miniature horses around a game board that looks like a map of the Old West, and draw cards at each stop.

Each features a photo of a real cowgirl and an entry from her diary. "The way to avoid housework is to live outside," recommended Nellie Braken in 1887. "Age doesn't matter to me, but it seems to matter to my body and face," observed Jody Bell in 1886. "To see a handsome cowboy riding high on his horse gives me a tickle in a very funny place," Elinore Samson confided in 1885.

They also pose questions from six categories: sex and body, experience and history, family and friends, spirit, shadow, and taste.

Many aren't for the faint of heart: Have I ever thought of suicide? How many men have I slept with? Have I ever had an abortion? Would I ever put a parent into a nursing home?

Kirk wrote almost all of the 1,200 questions, based on what she'd like to ask friends or to talk about herself. And she encourages husbands and partners to play.

"Some men get so into it because there are questions that they've never asked," she says. However, she doubts men would ever play it among themselves because it isn't competitive.

The object of the game? Make it to Paradise Ranch with the most tokens -- pewter miniatures of 10-gallon hats, guns, longhorn steers, saddles, boots and spurs.

Kirk said the idea for the game was inspired by observations that women would get together for cards and wine, but they spent most of their time chatting about what was going on with their lives.

"I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there were a game that asked specific questions to get women to open up on topics that they wouldn't ordinarily discuss and share those common experiences?"' Kirk said.

The cowgirl theme was inspired by Melody Swan, a "real cowgirl" friend from the few years Kirk lived in Taos, N.M. (She moved to San Diego in January.) Swan also owned a business, Cowgirl Designs, and together the women developed the game board and started a company, Side Saddle.

After two years of test-marketing the game and pitching it to investors, Kirk was ready to sell the game. She moved to the San Diego community of Carmel Mountain Ranch, where she runs Side Saddle out of her home with a full-time employee and two part-timers.

She said she wanted to be closer to her children in Southern California, but she also needed to be near a major airport. She travels nearly weekly to gift and game trade shows to spur interest in "Cowgirls." Since debuting in May at specialty stores, the $49.95 game has sold thousands of copies. Neiman Marcus has just bought a batch to sell in its stores for Christmas.

While the big board game companies were interested in her game, Kirk wasn't convinced it would make it to store shelves with the beautiful details of the prototype.

"I felt it needed a little mothering before I let it go," she says, comparing it to Trivial Pursuit, created in 1982 by a group of Canadian friends who sold it only after it created a craze through word-of-mouth advertising.

Kirk is already working on two other games. One is a "Cowgirls" version for teen-agers; the other is a secret.

Lifetime, a cable network for women, is also planning a daily half-hour game show based on "Cowgirls." The pilot was taped and the show is undergoing fine tuning.

"I'm starting a whole new career at an age when most people are retiring," she says.

Kirk's life has been anything but pokey.

She married at 17. Eight years later, her husband died in a plane crash, leaving her with four children under the age of 9 and no life insurance. She began fending for herself and her family.

She joined the Screen Extras Guild and worked as an extra. A producer of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" hired her as Moore's stand-in. And when Mary's friend "Rhoda" got her own show, Valerie Harper hired Kirk as a costume designer because she liked Kirk's trademark head scarves.

To help her cope with her husband's death, Kirk began studying Hinduism and changed her name from Millicent to Prasuti, "mother of divine children." She later remarried, but recently divorced. She's a grandmother and has a new boyfriend, a Baltimore doctor she met on an airplane who played a round of "Cowgirls" and became an investor.

"Raising my family was my biggest accomplishment, but this game is my second," she says. "I'm having a great time."