3 Million Bought in ’87 : Pictionary Turns Bad Art Into a Best-Selling Game

Times Staff Writer

Quick. How do you draw a dictator? Or an anchovy? And how would you sketch a snort?

That’s the sometimes frustrating goal of Pictionary, a charade game played with paper and a pencil that has become the hottest board game since the legendary Trivial Pursuit broke all the sales records in 1983. Thought up by a Seattle waiter at a party seven years ago, Pictionary sold an impressive 3 million copies last year.

Game retailers say the secret to Pictionary’s success is its simplicity. The game comes with a pack of word cards that represent places, objects, actions or sounds. Instead of acting out clues as in the game of charades, Pictionary players draw their clues on sketch pads--with no letters or numbers allowed.

Last Christmas, toy and game merchants said they couldn’t keep Pictionary in stock, and the games are still in short supply. One day last December, for example, Toys International in South Coast Plaza sold a shipment--about 260 games--the day it arrived.


Charles Kirby, a district manager for Game Keeper stores, recalls a San Francisco couple who drove 1 1/2 hours to the chain’s Oak Ridge outlet to buy Pictionary. He said the chain’s Thousand Oaks store sold 84 games in four hours during the Christmas season. It retails for around $30.

Kirby says a few reluctant customers protest that they can’t draw, but eventually try the game anyway. “With this game, the worse you draw, the better,” he says.

Thomas McGuire, the head of Pictionary’s sales effort, admits that he underestimated the game’s popularity. His marketing firm, the Games Gang, is six to eight weeks behind on orders, he said, a delay that irritated some merchants at Christmas. One toy retailer said he received a long-awaited shipment only after he threatened to cancel it.

The delays haven’t hurt the game’s appeal, at least not so far. McGuire expects to sell 8.5 million games this year, including foreign-language editions in Europe. MCA, the Los Angeles entertainment company, has acquired an option to produce a television game show based on Pictionary.

Even so, Pictionary sales don’t approach the record set by Trivial Pursuit. The trivia game amazed the industry in 1984 when 20 million games were sold, and it continues to be one of the best-selling games. But by game industry standards, Pictionary is hot.

Milton Bradley, a unit of Hasbro and the nation’s biggest game company, considers a new game a hit when sales top 600,000. “Anyone who uses Trivial Pursuit as a benchmark is crazy,” says George R. Ditomassi Jr., Milton Bradley’s president. To the makers of Pictionary, he says, “My hat’s off to them.”


Pictionary competes with a number of similar board games. Milton Bradley has Win, Lose or Draw, a charade game that is also a syndicated television game show. Helped by the game show, Milton Bradley sold 900,000 Win, Lose or Draw games--its entire stock--last year, and expects to sell 1.5 million in 1988.

Another toy company, Worlds of Wonder, didn’t do very well with Get the Picture, its version of a charade game. But Worlds of Wonder, which is in bankruptcy proceedings, intends to “relaunch” the game with advertising support this year, a spokeswoman said.

Pictionary inventor Rob Angel, now retired from waiting on tables and enjoying his success (he traded a 1977 Mercury for a new Alfa Romeo and reports he now has an “almost perfect bachelor pad”), isn’t fazed by the competition. “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’m a pretty flattered guy,” he says

Source of Inspiration

Pictionary got its start seven years ago at parties in Seattle. During a lull, Angel, then a waiter, would randomly pick a word from a dictionary, draw it, and make party-goers guess the word.

The game was “just something to do at a party,” says Angel, until--inspired by the success of Trivial Pursuit--he decided in 1985 to get into the game business.

Angel picked such words as “clink” and “lobster” for the game, while Gary Everson, 39, a friend who also was a waiter in Seattle, designed the word cards and the board. An uncle who owns a chain of fabric shops in Canada loaned Angel $35,000--enough to get several thousand games printed.


Angel took the game to Seattle retailers. Most stores agreed to buy a case, or six games, because, Angel says, “I was a local boy.” Angel’s big break came when Nordstrom, the Seattle department store chain, agreed to order 167 games.

Meanwhile, Pictionary had attracted the attention of McGuire, 58, who, as a salesman for game company Selchow & Righter was always on the prowl for a new game idea. He played the game with his family in mid-1986, and was so impressed, he quit his job at Selchow & Righter--the company that markets Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit--to sell Pictionary.

With orders for 60,000 games, McGuire’s newly formed marketing company, the Games Gang, approached Western Publishing, the Racine, Wis. publisher of Golden Books. Western bought the license to the game and agreed to manufacture and promote it.

Pictionary sold 350,000 games in 1986, a solid but not explosive start. With a full year of promotion and a $2-million television campaign at Christmas, the game took off last year.

In marketing Pictionary, McGuire borrowed from his experience at Selchow & Righter, a unit of Coleco. Its plain black-and-white box is similar to Trivial Pursuit’s plain package. And, like Trivial Pursuit, the Pictionary game is promoted as the “first edition.” (The second edition is a box of word cards, including blank cards for players to fill in with their own words.).


The best-selling toys in December, according to a survey of 3,000 retailers by Toy & Hobby World magazine. Sales figures not available.


Rk Toy Maker 1 Entertain. Sys. Nintendo 2 Pictionary Games Gang 3 G.I. Joe Hasbro 4 Barbie Mattel 5 Ghostbusters Kenner 6 Alf Coleco 7 Fun With Food Fisher-Price 8 Cab. Patch Kids Coleco 9 Win, Lose Draw Milt. Bradley 10 Kitchen Fisher-Price