Trivial Pursuit Trivia

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During a game of Scrabble in December of 1979, Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott decided to create their own board game. They sketched out the basic concept in a single evening, and they doodled several game board designs before settling on a "ship's wheel" with six spokes leading to the center winner's circle. Keeping with the wheel theme, they also decided that the game tokens should be round and should double as "scorekeepers" "“ that is, the tokens should immediately reflect the player's status without having to refer to a separate score pad.

Putting a team together

trivia-teamHaney and Abbott had no prior retail experience, much less any knowledge of promoting and selling a board game, so they enlisted the help of Chris' brother, John, and an attorney friend, Ed Werner. In January 1980, the four formed Horn Abbot Ltd.; the company name was based on Chris Haney's nickname, "The Horn," and an abbreviated spelling of Scott's surname.

Once Horn Abbot was incorporated and actually started investigating the ins and outs of selling a board game, the partners realized that they needed about $75,000 to create a prototype game board, the necessary game pieces and the question cards. They enlisted the help of family members, friends and co-workers in order to raise the necessary capital, offering them shares of their company in exchange for their investment. A lot of folks naturally turned them down (how many of us have heard from friends and relatives with a "million dollar idea"?), but eventually they managed to convince 34 people to buy into their dream. Four years later, those 34 investors were each receiving five-digit dividend checks.

Designing on a budget

trivial-pursuitThe quirky, archaic images that gave the original Trivial Pursuit game board its unique character came from the mind of graphic designer Michael Wurstlin. Wurstlin was 18 years old and unemployed when Horn Abbot approached him to use his artistic expertise to create not only a game board, but also a logo and a design for the question cards. Wurstlin took the job because his unemployment insurance had run out and he desperately needed the $1,000 they offered him. His budget for the project was almost non-existent, which is why he turned to archival art books that provided free clip art.

When he turned in the finished product, Haney and Abbott asked whether he'd prefer five shares of stock in their company over the mere $1,000 they'd originally contracted for. Wurstlin only capitulated and took the stock after much cajoling of the "What are you, chicken?" variety. He earned enough from his investment to found Wurstlingroup, a very successful Toronto-based marketing company.

Keeping up with demand

game-piecesOne of the many problems Horn Abbot encountered when Trivial Pursuit began gaining popularity was manufacturing the components quickly enough to meet demand. In 1983, only one company in the U.S. had the special card stock (10 point Carolina Coated Bristol, covered with clay on both sides) used to print the question cards, and Federal Paper Board could only afford to dedicate 20% of their machine capacity to the Trivial Pursuit job, since at the time they also were the major supplier of the nation's cigarette cartons, record album covers and laundry detergent boxes. Delivery of completed games to distributors was often delayed as a result.

They had better luck with the injection molding company that produces the game tokens. Northern Plastics in Elroy, Wisconsin, had three presses and four full-time employees when Horn Abbot came calling in 1983. Horn Abbot advanced Northern the cash to buy the plastic and the molds. One year later, Northern had 140 employees and eight presses working seven days per week.

Coming up with the questions

Ever wonder where the Trivial Pursuit folks get their ideas for all those questions (6,000 per edition)? Many of the topics come from the recesses of their complex minds, of course, but they also got some outside help, as Fred L. Worth discovered. Worth was a fellow triviot who'd published three exhaustive volumes of a "trivia encyclopedia" prior to 1981. Worth knew that legally one could not "own" facts of public record, but one could copyright the form of one's own material.

Worth used a common mapmaker's trick to trip up anyone who dared copy information from his books verbatim—he purposely included an erroneous fact. In this case, his "bunny" (as such red herrings are called in the industry) was to state that the first name of TV's Columbo was "Philip."

(Peter Falk's character's first name was never actually mentioned during the run of the series.)

Lo and behold, a Trivial Pursuit question in the Genus Edition included the Columbo question along with the "Philip" answer. Worth jumped on Horn Abbot like a rabid wolverine and on October 23, 1984, filed a $300 million lawsuit against them. Judge William Byrne tossed the case before it came to trial, stating that Trivial Pursuit was "substantially different" than the Super Trivia encyclopedia.

"You always get the nuts coming out of the woodwork who say they've invented this before," patent attorney Jim Carson stated in a 1984 interview (his firm represented Horn Abbot at the time). One such "nut" was Buddie Miller of Trinidad and Tobago, who invented a board game called Brainstorm in 1977. Brainstorm was a trivia game of sorts, and Miller's contention was that because his game featured cards printed with questions, Horn Abbot had copied his idea. He wasn't able to pursue the case very far legally, because he'd only copyrighted his game in Trinidad and Tobago. How similar are the two games? Check out Miller's website (yes, he's still pretty bitter to this day) and make your own decision.

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August 24, 2009 - 9:04am
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