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Inventor has ties to toy in hall of fame

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Toy inventor Hansan Ma holds one of his Playskool Play Family toys that has put him into the Toy Hall of Fame.They may be small in stature, but Fisher-Price’s Little People have just been awarded a huge honor. On Nov. 12 they were inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame by the Strong National Toy Museum of Play, in Rochester, New York.

The Little People have been finalists for the honor six times before, but this year they joined Dungeons & Dragons and the swing as the Class of 2016 Hall of Fame inductees, and Portland resident Hansan Ma couldn’t be happier about it.

Although Ma did not invent the Little People, he did design the house, fire station and hospital where they lived and worked.

He wasn’t invited to the ceremony, nor does he profit financially from the honor, but he still feels good about it.

“Fame and fortune never appealed to me. When I started doing design work I just wanted to see if I could bring my innovation out. That’s how I was attracted to toy and game design,” Ma says.

Little People

The tiny, brightly colored Little People were designed in 1959 by Herman Fisher, one of the founders of Fisher-Price Toys Inc.

Ma graduated from Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio, in 1966 with a degree in industrial design. He was just about to accept a position designing cars for General Motors when Robert Ostrander, director of research and development at Fisher-Price Toys, came to interview him.

“It was the first time a U.S. toy company attempted to recruit for a toy design position,” Ma says.

“I met with Herman Fisher and I don’t know what he saw in me. I was 24 and just out of college.”

After he was hired at Fisher-Price, one of Ma’s first tasks was to come up with other environments for the Little People to inhabit.

“The boss and I talked about what type of house we liked, and I put dormers on the roof to make it really interesting,” Ma said.

It was important to make the house self-contained, so it could be closed up and carried by children from one place to the next, so Ma built a handle into the design.

He worried about where to put the hinge on the house so the two halves could close, and then realized that the chimney could conceal the hinge. He also added a garage with a door that could open and close.

Next, Ma designed “the fire station to protect (the Little People) and the children’s hospital to take care of (them).” He also made the toilet in the bath-and-utility set, and noted that it was hugely popular with children.

Fisher-Price was the first major company to provide an in-house nursery, Ma says.

“The teacher would invite children of different ages to come to the nursery and play with the toys we wanted to test,” he adds.

In 1972 Ma left Fisher-Price and to become a senior product designer for Playskool in Chicago until 1984; he then worked as a principal product designer at Parker Brothers Inc. from 1986 to 1993.

PORTLSAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Toy and game inventor Hansan Ma, left, and Paula Myers play a game one of the games he invented, Sneaky Statues.It was at Parker Brothers that Ma first saw a Nerf ball.

“They had a basketball that was a bestseller, but the Nerf football was not selling well,” he says.

Ma carved grooves into the surface of the football making it easier to handle and throw, and “that turned the whole thing around.”

The football then became a best-selling item, proving that “just one tiny change can make the whole thing better,” Ma says.

Ma went on to design a Nerf bow-and-arrow set and a slingshot that held and shot three Nerf balls. These also became huge sellers.

Born in Hong Kong in 1939, Ma returned there in 1994 to work as a freelance design consultant for 13 years; he eventually moved to Portland in 2007.

Even though he is officially retired, Ma continues to design games.

Several years ago, he came up with the idea for a game of strategy where two players move numbered pieces in numerical order.

As the game is played, “you know your opponent has the next move, but you don’t know where he is going to move to,” Ma says.

Since the object of the game is to get four pieces in a line, he called the game Four in Line.

He looked on the internet and found Mark Fuchs, president of Maranda Enterprises, a company that makes board games, based in Mequon, Wisconsin.

Ma flew to Wisconsin and showed Four in Line to Fuchs, who liked the concept but thought the overall game needed more work.

“He started brainstorming and came up with the theme of Easter Island. And when I looked at a map of Easter Island, I realized it was shaped like a triangle,” Ma said.

His original game board was square, but when Ma started sketching it as a triangle, the whole concept changed.

Fuchs came up with a new name, Sneaky Statues, and suggested that the game pieces be made to look like Moai, the human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island.

Sneaky Statues is now available at Sears, Kmart and online at marandagames.com; it is suitable for ages 8 and up.

Ma recently sent two new board game ideas Fuchs, suggesting that all of the games be played with the same statues.

“My mind keeps on going, thinking of how I can transfer my innovation into reality,” he says.

Ma adds, “When you can see what you dream of become a solid thing, it’s really good.”