As Trivial Pursuit celebrates its thirty-fifth anniversary during Canada’s 150th-birthday year, I’m not sure what I find more amazing: that over three decades have passed since the game became a hit, that it sparked (or at least enabled) a worldwide zest for knowledge-based games that even transformed my own family gatherings and Christmas parties, or – more remarkably – that it was created in Canada, by Canadians.
The original concept was developed in 1979 by Montreal Gazette photo editor Chris Haney and Canadian Press sports editor Scott Abbott, who decided to come up with their own game to ease the boredom when they couldn’t find all the pieces to the board games at their cottage in Niagra-On-The-Lake, Ontario. From these beer-soaked humble beginnings came Trivial Pursuit, originally distributed by the now-defunct company Selchow and Righter in 1982 before the granddaddy of game companies, Parker Brothers, picked it up six years later, after Trivial Pursuit had already become a marketing bonanza. In its peak sales year, 1984, a whopping 20 million copies flew off the shelves; in the 33 years that followed, another 80 million Trivial Pursuit sets became part of homes around the world.
Now, by the time my family and I discovered Trivial Pursuit, a year after its release, we had grown up on the typical all-ages board games – roll-the-dice-and-press-your-luck affairs like Snakes and Ladders, Sorry!, or Pop-O-Matic Trouble, or games that involved actual strategy such as Monopoly (which I inexplicably loved, even as a child, especially when a Canadian version appeared in 1982) or Risk (which completely intimidated me and, to a degree, still does).
But Trivial Pursuit represented our first exposure to the kind of knowledge-testing game that we’d usually only see on TV game shows, particularly American-made game shows. And even those were few and far between; Jeopardy! had been off the air for several years and wouldn’t resurface in its current Alex Trebek-led incarnation until 1984, likely spurred on by two solid years of Trivial Pursuit sales.
So there we were, children and adults alike, attempting to pick up the coloured pie pieces that indeed confirmed that we were experts in geography (blue), entertainment (pink), history (yellow), arts and literature (brown), science and nature (green), and sports and leisure (orange).
Even though the game was designed by Canadians, its original version included very few Canadian questions, and with my sixth-grade mind not even remotely exposed to the very adult trivia tidbits compiled by Haney, Abbott et al, I usually bombed on most of the questions with the exception of a very small cross-section of the pink/entertainment queries. Mind you, this was also the case for most of my cousins and even several of my older relatives, which could explain why most Trivial Pursuit games launched by the Cooke/Mombourquette family in L’Ardoise tended to last twice as long as the 90-minute timeframe originally suggested by the instructions included in the Square Box of Doom.
Mind you, we soldiered on, and while it took us a little while to get the hang of Trivial Pursuit, the game still launched a lifelong love of board games for both me and my family. Every Christmas, one of our relatives would have either a new edition of Trivial Pursuit or a new board game in general (or both). For years, my mother and father hosted the annual Mombourquette Family Boxing Day Board-Games-Darts-Beer-and-Fishcakes Extravaganza, and I often found myself among the few male relatives staying upstairs while the majority of the uncles and male cousins gravitated to the darts-and-beer portion of the day in my parents’ basement/rec-room. Pandemonium generally ensued as we attempted to sift through the rules of the latest board game craze, or simply fired off the questions for the latest incarnation of Trivial Pursuit.
As the years went by, our family tended to have less patience to wait until we landed on a “pie-piece square” to attempt to fill up our game tokens, so we just awarded a pie piece for every correct answer. Finally, we just collectively shrugged and read the questions to see who could come up with an answer, without going through the formalities of setting up the game board. After all, in a way, we were still fulfilling the Haney-Abbott dream of pursuing trivia, weren’t we?
Still, my parents, my younger sister and I played Trivial Pursuit and various similar games on our own for many years. To this day, I still have fond memories of Dad insisting he was the trivia master (and regularly getting his comeuppance from either me or Mom) and his often-comical reactions to questions he had no idea how to answer. Cathy and I still bring board games to my folks’ place in Grand-Greve at Christmas time, and within our nearly-nine years marriage we’ve developed a holiday tradition where one of us will buy a game for both of us to enjoy. I can’t help but think that Trivial Pursuit helped to plant the seeds of these modern-day Yuletide joys many years, even decades, ago.
Now, I should point out that Trivial Pursuit is certainly not the only Canadian trivia-game success story, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, it isn’t the most Canadian, either. In 1984, during Trivial Pursuit’s most successful single-year sales period, my parents brought home Tour de Force, co-created by legendary Canadian author and broadcaster Pierre Berton and one of his Canadian radio contemporaries, Charles Templeton. The game’s 5,000 questions, in categories ranging from Biblical Quotes to Comic Strips to Flora and Fauna, shook up the limited range of Trivial Pursuit’s categories and offered random opportunities to jump ahead (or fall back) 10 points at a time as the players moved their pegs around a track to the finish line. The questions eventually became dated as Berton and Templeton never issued a follow-up edition of Tour de Force. (According to this CBC article on Berton, “the game sold well and the pair made about $100,000.”) Still, my folks and I truly enjoyed the game and I wouldn’t be surprised if we dug it out again someday, just for old time’s sake.
Over a decade later, in 1997, The All-Canadian Trivia Game made its debut, and it only took another ten years for my girlfriend (and now my wife) Cathy and I to track it down. Sending players on a cross-country trivia trek, the game is well-produced, bright and colourful in its design, and – as any good trivia game should be – informative as it entertains. In its first ten years of sales, The All-Canadian Trivia Game sold over 100,000 copies and became a hit for the fledgling Outset Media company, featuring over 2,000 questions and several Discover Canada Cards that take players to various parts of our beautiful country. (These cards don’t always work for the best, however. Cathy has winced at playing the game for several years because, for whatever reason, she continually draws a card that announces, “Your car has broken down in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Miss a turn.” I’m amazed I can even convince her to go back to the Highlands these days.)
Fortunately, like the makers of these other trivia games launched in Canada, the folks behind Trivial Pursuit (now owned by Hasbro as a result of the company’s purchase of Parker Brothers) were also savvy enough to realize that a board game’s longevity is helped dramatically by looking beyond six basic categories. So there are now special Trivial Pursuit games for younger players, for fans of everything from Star Wars, Saturday Night Live and The Lord of the Rings to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and for folks fixated on the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000’s. (For my money, the advertising campaigns for the Trivial Pursuit ’90s Edition produced two of the best board-game commercials of all time; here’s the North American ad and here’s the UK ad.)
There are also several electronic versions of the game, available in a DVD format and as video-game options for the various incarnations of the XBox and PlayStation systems, and a handful of TV versions have also emerged in markets as diverse as the U.S., the UK and Spain over the past quarter-century.
Apart from my own enjoyment of the game, Trivial Pursuit and its various editions have helped me develop a long-running side business as a “Trivia Night” host for local pubs, community groups and corporate events around Cape Breton and northeastern Nova Scotia. Because confession is good for the soul, I’ll come clean and admit to freely raiding several years’ worth of Trivial Pursuit game cards to add questions to my own trivia categories over the past decade. (I’ll also take this opportunity to mention that the actual writing involved in the latter-day game cards is vastly improved from the prototypical, occasionally quite dry, prose found in the earliest editions of Trivial Pursuit.)
Even if I wasn’t getting a hand from these game cards, I’m grateful to Trivial Pursuit for inspiring me towards a lifelong love of trivia that helps me entertain others to this very day. And it’s introduced me to some pretty incredible people, too. One night in 2007, veteran CBC investigative journalist Hana Gartner showed up at a regular trivia contest I was hosting at The Rare Bird Pub in Guysborough, Nova Scotia. Hana Gartner! Seriously! One-third of the people I grew up admiring on The Fifth Estate! THAT Hana Gartner!
And to think I owe it all to a couple of guys who were depicted as fun-loving goofballs in the 1988 CBC-TV movie Breaking All The Rules: The Creation of Trivial Pursuit. To think that, as you’ll see in this 1982 TV news clip, they sold the first 100,000 units of Trivial Pursuit by word-of-mouth, basically out of the trunks of their cars.
Thanks, Scott. Thanks (and rest in peace), Chris. You guys will always be more than the names on the back of a game card to me, and to millions of other Canadians.
(No joke: The Canadian Mint issued this real commemorative coin to mark Trivial Pursuit’s 35th anniversary earlier this year. More details at this link.)