Serial-Killer Board Game Draws Fire -- Canadians Act To Stop Sales; Creator Says It's Not For Kids

His gentle speech, Dutch-boy haircut and job at a downtown Seattle day-care program notwithstanding, Tobias Allen admits to being obsessed with serial killers.

So Allen, 25, thought it only natural that his passion for art and his fascination with criminals would come together in a serial-killer board game with heavy doses of black humor.

Little did he realize the game, "Serial Killer," would cause a protest in Canada that has prompted a move to change laws there governing free expression.

Many of those up in arms across the border haven't even seen the game. But a description in a distributors' catalog of its "bag of babies" and body-bag packaging caused an uproar several months ago.

Now, with Allen preparing to ship 200 orders to distributors and stores in the U.S., some Canadians are trying anew to keep it from crossing the border.

The $49.95 game features a giant board with a silk-screened map of the United States criss-crossed by highways. (States without the death penalty are colored orange.)

Players - "killers" - travel from one end of the country to the other, picking cards that describe various types of murders:

"An old woman walking home with her groceries is almost too good to pass up."

"Hitchhiking is dangerous! Someone should have told this girl!"

"A quiet dorm could turn into a house of horrors when you visit! This campus is crawling with cops, though; beware."

"Outcome" cards tell the player whether he pulled off the crime. A high-risk murder earns three plastic-baby tokens, medium-risk two, and low-risk one. The object is to amass more such "victims" than anyone else.

Lena Cleroux, a grandmother of 13 from Rockland, Ontario, heard about the game through a local newsletter and immediately lobbied the Canadian government for help. "It's distasteful and it shouldn't be allowed," she said.

Don Boudria, a member of Parliament from the Ottawa area, has been sending out petitions to any constituent who calls to protest the game. He said he has had dozens of calls and requests for petitions, "and not one demanding his rights to buy a serial-killer board game."

"If this isn't promoting hate against an identifiable group - that is, children - I don't know what is," Boudria said.

Allen said that's not his intention at all. He points out that the game is labeled as being for adults 18 and over, in contrast to a doll he has of the horror-movie character Freddy Krueger, with a label saying it's appropriate for 3-year-olds.

Allen's Capitol Hill apartment is filled with posters from horror movies, detective magazines, a "road-kill calendar." On the kitchen table is a holiday card from John Wayne Gacy, on death row in Illinois for killing 33 men and young boys. Allen has corresponded with Gacy for years.

"I find criminals, murderers, absolutely fascinating," Allen said. "So many people want to think Jeffrey Dahmer and John Gacy are oddities, but they're not. They're everywhere, often because of bad childhoods. More attention needs to be paid to the subject."

New Jersey-based Comic Zone Productions originally agreed to mass-produce the game, said company spokeswoman Patricia Rankin. But the item in a Diamond Comic Distributors catalog didn't spark enough interest to make the venture profitable, so Comic Zone stopped the project and told Allen he could distribute the game on his own.

"A few people on my staff have played it," said Rankin. "They thought it was amusing. It's very primitive, just some outcome cards and a game board. It doesn't really say, `Oh, now you're (serial killer) Henry Lee Lucas!' "

Rankin said she knew of 20 to 25 customers who buy serial-killer books through Comic Zone who had ordered the game directly from Allen. Other orders are from distributors in the U.S. that could conceivably send games to Canada. Several stores in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago have ordered games.

Diamond Distributing marketing director Roger Fletcher said by telephone from Baltimore yesterday that the game was removed after the protest in Canada.

But Don LaBelle, senior communications adviser to Canadian Minister of National Revenue Otto Jelinek, said there may not be much the government can do. Canada has laws prohibiting obscene material, but it's unclear whether the game would meet the definition.

LaBelle said, for example, that serial-killer trading cards a California company began marketing this year have been allowed into Canada under existing law.

"If (the game) comes in and we happen to spot it, we will stop it and look at it," he said.

Member of Parliament Dawn Black has written a letter to the Ministry of Justice asking for a change in the criminal code to prohibit violent material as well.

Allen says the Canadian firestorm probably has given the game more publicity than it ever would have gotten on its own. Taken aback by all the controversy and nearly out of money, he may stop producing the game.

He suggests that those upset by his product focus instead on the violence in everyday society, in everything from soldier toys to cops-and-robbers television shows.

"This game is black humor and it is a spoof," Allen said. "A lot of people in Canada are looking at it in a very different way."