Highly profitable pursuits

DIANE BRADY December 20 1993

Highly profitable pursuits

DIANE BRADY December 20 1993

Highly profitable pursuits


By now, the story has become the stuff of legend, handed down from dreamer to dreamer in a heady haze of dollar signs. It was a rainy December afternoon in 1979 when roommates Chris Haney and Scott Abbott settled down to play yet another game of Scrabble. Haney, then the photo editor at The Montreal Gazette, noticed that four pieces were missing and ran out to buy another game. It cost $16. When Haney returned, he threw the Scrabble box on the kitchen table and complained about the high price. ‘These guys must make a killing,” he said to Abbott, then a sports writer at Canadian Press. They decided to invent their own game and, 35 minutes later, Trivial Pursuit was born. The premise was simple: players would move around the board by answering trivia questions in six color-coded categories. But it took years of begging, along with help from Haney’s older brother John and lawyer Ed Werner, to get the project off the ground. In 1983, after some initial tests in Canada, they launched it in the United States—and the rest is board-game history. “It’s like we became rock stars,” says Haney. “People still shake in their boots when they meet us.”

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then the Trivial Pursuit tycoons are used to thinking big. Question: just how

big has the game become 10 years after its explosive debut? Answer: more than 60 million have been sold in 33 countries and 19 languages, generating estimated revenues of more than $1 billion. Russian and Chinese versions are now in development. The game has spawned a feature film, several TV shows, dozens of ripoffs and hundreds if not thousands of trivia pub leagues. Moreover, its success sparked a flurry of creativity in Canada, where board games have been a traditional staple of lazy cottage summers and long, cold winters. By the late 1980s,

Canada had become a global hub of board-game invention, with hits like Balderdash, Scruples and MindTrap. Even Pictionary was created by a Vancouver native living in Seattle. Those successes owe much to Trivial Pursuit, which revolutionized the entire industry, taking games from the kitchen tables of family fun to the latenight living-rooms and bars of adult entertainment. “Before Trivial Pursuit, there were simply no adult-oriented board games,” says Michel Dupuis, director of marketing for Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, makers of classic family games like Monopoly and Clue. “They created a whole new market.”

Canadian holiday shoppers can choose from hundreds of board games on store shelves. A survey of some of the homegrown favorites:

Absolute Balderdash ($35): What is the meaning of G.C.C. (Garden Cat Club)? What happened on May 1, 1967 (Elvis married Priscilla)? The beauty of this popular game, created by a young Toronto couple in 1984,

is that players do not have to know the answers; they just have to bluff other players into thinking they do. It is the board game for con artists: call it Trivial Persuasion. Scruples ($19.99): A Manitoba college professor invented this disturbing game in 1984 to test people’s ethics. Would you squish a beetle in your kitchen? Would you lend your car to a friend while you are out of town? Did George really want to know that Harry would

covet his neighbor’s wife, if Harry is his neighbor?

Funny You Should Ask ($29.99): In this new release from Northern Games, the shortest player automatically becomes the game boss. Unfor-

tunately, that is the funniest part of the game. Players have to guess opponents’ preferences: if you had an Italian son, would you name him Gino or Pasquali? Who cares?

MindTrap ($29.95): First released in 1991, this intriguing game forces players to solve puzzles, murder mysteries and trick questions. How could Sid Shady shoot his wife at the movies and sneak out with the body? He shot her at a drive-in theatre. The answers often seem painfully easyafter they are revealed.

Pictionary ($34.99): Players have 60 seconds to draw pictures that will make their partners guess particular words. Stick figures are more effective than works of art. But what exactly does an ingrown toenail look like? A good time-passer: charades with pencils.

10th anniversary edition offers the best general knowledge questions of the past 10 years. For winners, there is no better game for feeling superior to friends. For losers, it just tests a bunch of useless knowledge anyway. D. B.

Trivial Pursuit ($29.99): The special

It is a market that Trivial Pursuit continues to dominate, accounting for an astonishing 37 per cent of all adult board-game sales. For Haney and Abbott, now multimillionaires, victory is sweet. When they offered $1,000 share packages in the venture to workmates, most of them laughed. “I heard people call them small-time shysters,” says Derrick Ramsey, the only person at the Gazette who chose to invest. He cashed a savings bond and wrote a postdated check to cover his $1,000 gamble. Haney and Abbott also convinced a designer to accept shares instead of payment, using the prototype to market the game at toy shows and small retail stores, before

Toronto-based Chieftain Products Inc. picked it up for national distribution. In total, the pair recruited 32 investors, none of whom put in more than $2,000 apiece. By the mid-1980s, all were rich—although just how rich is not clear. Ramsey, who still edits the Gazette’s weekly entertainment listings, allows: “Let’s just say I’ve made more than six figures and less than one million.”

For Canadian entrepreneurs, making board games suddenly seemed like a licence to print money. After watching TV host Alan Thicke interview Trivial Pursuit’s founders in 1983, Bruce Downs, an unemployed oil rig supplier, decided to launch his own game in Edmonton. “I thought that if this crazy bunch of guys could do it, so could I,” says Downs. His first effort, a casinobased game called Lady Luck, sold 2,500 copies. He later started Northern Games Co. Ltd., which was almost immediately overrun with ideas from other entrepreneurs. ‘We still get at least 10 calls a week,” says Downs, who has since launched 15 other board games.

“Seeing average guys strike it rich makes people want to take some risks.” Richard Fast, then a Toronto bartender, was another of the risk-takers: his game, MindTrap, sold more than 100,000 copies last year and is now being licensed in Europe. In carving out a new market, though, Trivial Pursuit made success look deceptively easy. For most boardgame inventors, the way to department store shelves is a boulevard of broken

dice. More than 1,000 board games are launched in North America each year, with only a handful lasting beyond one season. Thousands more die at various stages of development. In 1985, Mark Barnes decided to create a spelling and definition board game with a friend at the University of Western Ontario. The students worked for two years on Orthocon, raising $30,000 to develop and test it. In the end, they sold fewer than 500 copies—mostly to family and friends. “It needed some changes,” says Barnes, adding that the game became a little too complicated. “But we didn’t have the financing to fix it.”

Toy manufacturers say that humor and simplicity are the key ingredients of a good adult board game. “I’m looking for a party in a box,” says Kenny Albert, a vice-president of Bramalea, Ont.-based Canada Games Co., makers of Balderdash, a multimillion seller that was created in 1984 by Toronto actress Laura Robinson and her then boyfriend, advertising copywriter Paul Toyne. Albert says that win-

ning games stick to a basic formula: they create interaction between players; they mix enough skill and luck that everyone has a chance to win; their rules are easy to understand; they can wrap up in 90 minutes or less, and they are entertaining to play. The latter, says Albert, is where Canadians have the greatest advantage. “I think Canadians are generally funnier than Americans or a lot of other cultures,” he says. “The weather forces us to amuse ourselves.” Although video games and movies now dominate home entertainment, older board games remain popular. Monopoly, developed in 1933, still sells about 300,000 copies each year in Canada alone. “Parents often choose games they remember playing as children,” says Julie Creighton, an independent toy consultant. Games bring families together. You can’t play a board game and watch TV at the same time.” And, unlike TV-watchers, game players are active participants, and the entertainment value changes with the cast of characters.

So, too, does the level of interest—a fact that the Trivial Pursuit founders have exploited for further profits. They have created special editions for children, sports fans, movie buffs and current affairs junkies, as well as for individual countries. They have also added new trivia questions each year to the standard game. Other companies have jumped on the trivia bandwagon, creating games in subjects ranging from the Bible to bug types. “People love to test their knowledge,” says Jim Ware, president of Horn Abbot Ltd., the company created by the game’s founders. “Everywhere you turn now, there’s another trivia-contest.”

A decade later, Trivial Pursuit continues to make money and inspire imitators

Well, almost everywhere: although Trivial Pursuit is a hit throughout Europe, it has not taken hold in Japan—a fact that Ware blames on cultural differences. “I think it’s considered rude to invite people to your home and then beat them in a board game,” he says. Haney agrees, adding that competing for fun “seems to go against their social mores.” The intensity of competition in Trivial Pursuit has bothered some critics at home as well. “There seem to be so many fights when people play,” says Jim Deacove, a Perth, Ont.-based games inventor. “After shrugging your shoulders a few times and muttering ‘I don’t know,’ a big chill descends on the evening.” In response, Deacove came up with UnTrivia, in which players discuss different ways of dealing with issues, such as a child misbehaving in public. After they agree on an answer, they turn to see what experts suggest. Although Deacove sells his products largely through

mail order, he recently agreed to let a Swedish company manufacture 10,000 copies for sale in Europe. “People want a game that is pleasant to play,” he says. “Losers rarely have a good time.”

Maybe. But with Trivial Pursuit continuing to win over new consumers, Haney and his team of investors are having a good time indeed. The former photo editor now lives in a rambling home in Caledon, a well-heeled Toronto suburb, and he spends the better part of most days at one of the two golf courses he and Abbott own, Devil’s Pulpit and Devil’s Paintbrush. “I had nothing to lose when I started this,” Haney says of his board-game gambit. “But I didn’t think there was this much to gain.” Ten years and countless imitators later, among the only questions left unanswered is: since when do the nicknames of U.S. college football teams qualify as general knowledge?