BACK TO THE PLAYING BOARD:

Here's a trip around the track, with nods to some old classics, new classics and current favorites.

THE TRIED AND TRUE

CHESS -- The ancient game used to be taught in the schools, but now we don't hear much about it, apart from championship matches. Still, U.S. National Chess Champion Lev Alburt says he thinks chess is on the rise again, "thanks in part to the computer chess sets that will challenge you even when you can't find an opponent." And chess has taken to the streets -- with the bloom of spring, you'll see fierce matches resume at the permanent outdoor tables at Lafayette Park, Dupont Circle and George Washington University. (Chess is soon to become a major musical, too, premiering in January at the National Theater.)

MONOPOLY -- It's still going strong after celebrating its 50th anniversary last year. Pennsylvanian Charles B. Darrow invented it in the depths of the Depression, borrowing the street names from Atlantic City. After Parker Bros. bought the rights in 1935, Darrow, the first millionaire game designer, retired to become an orchid cultivator, and Monopoly became the best-selling copyrighted game in history, with an estimated 100 million units sold (more than three million last year), in 32 countries, and 19 languages. It is outlawed in East Germany, Cuba (Castro seized and destroyed all sets) and the Soviet Union, where it is denounced as a "decadent instrument of capitalism." It has its own world championship -- the 1985 title holder is an Englishman, 25-year-old Jason Bunn.

Along with Monopoly's own variations -- the deluxe 50th anniversary editions, the computerized Monopoly Playmaster and the new Advance to Boardwalk, "the game of risk-taking and fast falls" -- the game has spawned a host of imitators, includin Anti-Monopoly I and II, and Medical Monopoly, which gives you the license to practice medicine, while you try to fill your hospital with patients.

SCRABBLE -- The crossword game now comes in many variations, including a compact travel edition, a pocket set, a deluxe edition with a revolving game board, a large-type edition, a duplicate edition in which all players use the same letters each turn, a junior players set, a Braille version, plus foreign language sets in Italian, Russian, German, Spanish, French and Hebrew. Coming soon: Scrabble Rebus, with international symbols, and Turntiles Scrabble, using giant tiles.

OLD RELIABLES -- Other durable games include Go (at 5,000- plus years, the world's oldest board game); the simple, classic Indian game Parcheesi (and its American variation, Sorry); checkers, Chinese checkers, backgammon, mah-jong (or Mhing, a simplified card game variation).

CLASSICS NOUVEAU

Americans have spent much of their leisure time indulging in games that for a time seem to captivate the entire country.

TRIVIA GAMES -- Trivial Pursuit is credited with rejuvenating America's thirst for games, and has given rise to umpteen offspring: Celebrity Trivia, College Pursuit, Tot Trivia, Biblical Trivia, BlacFax, Adult Trivia, and Vices, which features unspeakable questions, a printable example of which is: "Q: Where did Warren Beatty hide the diamond he gave Joan Collins? A: In the chopped liver." Selchow & Righter is still inventing new TP variations; up next are the Walt Disney Family edition and the Statue of Liberty-inspired "Welcome to America" edition.

Even non-gamers are getting into the trivia act. Dixie Cups is making "Trivia Time" 5 oz. kitchen cups, with trivia questions printed on the sides.

Another branch of the trivia-related games encourages socializing and interpersonal communication by having players answer and discuss questions such as, "The people who discover your beloved cat injured in a ditch pay $150 for veterinary care and adopt it. You discover what happened three months later. Do you let them keep the cat?" Leaders in this field are A Question of Scruples, Ethical Pursuit and The Ungame.

Scruples, in particular, has caused some controversy -- one woman recently returned it to the store because it brought "so much violence" into her home. Others prefer to stay safely on the sidelines and watch others play the game.

IT'S A MYSTERY TO ME -- Other intriguing newcomers are the mystery games and "dinner party/murder mystery" kits (dinner is optional, of course). Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective was a best-selling game of 1985, and other hot games are the several variations on the How to Host a Murder packages. Also popular: 221B Baker Street, a Sherlock Holmes spinoff; and Murder to Go, Ideal's "murder mystery participation game."

Parker Bros. developed Clue VCR Mystery Game, the first of its kind, which includes a 60-minute videotape with three stories (narrated by Didit the Butler) and 18 individual games. It sold out so fast at Christmas that other game companies are racing to come out with their VCR games.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

As with magazines, there seems to be a game for the most specialized tastes, from the tame to the outr,e. For example, there's 16th Avenue: The Country Music Game by Grabbit & Hyde -- it's similar to Careers, but players try to go from undiscovered songwriter to become the King or Queen of Nashville.

Smokers and non-smokers can try Smoker's Wild by Avalon Hill, in which players start as healthy non-smokers, but "once hooked, financial and medical oblems pile up. The winner is the player who avoids a nicotine fit and manages to survive the longest." Avalon Hill also makes Drinker's Wild, a similar game about alcohol.

For the architecturally inclined, there's Cathedral, "the game of the medieval city," inspired by architecture of the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Players build a sprawling cathedral city with beautiful wooden pieces; it's as much fun to look at as it is to play.

CURRENT EVENTS -- One game that should be particularly popular at this time of year is Stick the IRS, which is described thusly on the back of the box: "The player who manages to best use his income, his CPA and his shelters, and therefore who manages to pay the least tax, is the winner, having successfully been able to stick the IRS."

An unusual new game for the environmentally conscious is Toxins, a Monopoly-like game about toxic waste disposal.

IT'S YUP TO YOU

There's a slew of Yuppie games around: Parker Bros.' Go for it!, "the game where you can have it all," will be available in April. Out now: The Yuppie Game for 2-4 Yupwardly mobile adults), and Mid-Life Crisis, in which "all those playing against you will, quite naturally, be out to drown you in a sea of emotional, marital and financial troubles."

OFF THE SCREEN -- If it's on TV, people go for it, which may explain the popularity of Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex (Victory Games). Superstar Wrestling has muscled in on some of the action, too.

The Soap Opera Game (Euro Games) is aimed at those fans. And there are countless other "tie-in" games, related to TV shows and movies and products. Most of these games, including Dallas and E.T., "the extra-terrestrial board game," are nothing more than variations on Parcheesi or Monopoly.

And in the children's arena, with all the Care Bears and Wuzzles and Rainbow Brite games, it's getting hard to tell which came first: the Saturday morning cartoon or its corresponding board game.

ON A ROLE -- Since Dungeons and Dragons exploded on the scene, the world of role-playing games, war games and science fiction games has expanded exponentially. Just about every war -- past, present and future -- is available for gaming, and the complex rules for some of these games make Monopoly's directions seem as simple as Candyland.

Along with D&D the most popular of the new games seems to be Avalon Hill's Diplomacy ("a game of political power, shifting alliances, backstabbing and psychological intimidation"). And if that sounds like fun, you'll probably enjoy Avalon Hill's Paranoia. But the hands-down weirdest title so far has to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, a best-selling role- playing game by Palladium Books.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

Sometimes simplest is best, and there are plenty of games that require only a pencil and paper, including the classics Hangman, Battleship and, of course, Tic Tac Toe.

And there will be those days when you can't find anyone to play with. Just remember, there's always Solitaire. -- Joe Brown.