Saturday, June 8, 2013

Trivial Matters...

Am I the only one that thought it was the "genius" edition?
In a recent IM conversation with my friend Paul Owen, the subject of Trivial Pursuit came up.  I think we had been talking about making loads of money as a game designer (which, far and away, most game designers do NOT), and I said something like "If only I'd had the brilliant idea to come up with a game where you race your friends to answer trivia questions".  If you don't catch the sarcasm there,  most aficionados of today's hobby boardgames would likely consider Trivial Pursuit an inferior game - the game is just roll and move, and answering random questions - you hope to get lucky in that you know the answer to the questions you get.  There's no real strategy, and you can't "learn" the game, other than going out and trying to learn all sorts of trivia.

Interestingly, Paul brought up another trivia game he had owned, called Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz.  On the face of it, while still just a trivia game, IASQ offers a little more in the way of "strategy".  When answering a question from a specific category, you can choose to answer an "easy", "medium", or "hard" question, for 1, 2 or 3 points respectively.  The objective is to be the first to get to 35 points.  So, that sounds good - you can go for easy questions in subjects you are not strong in, and go for the gusto in your favorite categories (I'm unsure if you have to get a minimum score in each of the categories).  So, why then was Trivial Pursuit such a run away success, while IASQ was virtually unheard of (well, I hadn't heard of it, was successful enough to spawn two more editions)?

3 point Question:  What are the 3 laws of Robotics?
My first thought was subject matter - I assumed from the name on the title, that the game might be all science fiction, or at least "sciency" type questions.  Wrong...the categories are Geography, History, Movies, Science, Sports & Games, and Words - very similar to Trivial Pursuit's Geography, Entertainment, History, Arts & Literature, Science & Nature, and Sports & Leisure.  However, I still wonder if Isaac Asimov's name on the cover did in fact turn some people off - people who were familiar with Asimov might have assumed, just as I did, that the game was science fiction based.  On the other hand, perhaps Asimov's name did nothing at all for most people - even considering he's once of the most famous science fiction writers...sci-fi is still a niche subject in the grand scheme of things, so John Q. Public may have seen the box and simply said "Isaac who?".  Apparently Asimov had a running newspaper column called "Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz", from which the board game was derived...but I never recall seeing that particular article in any papers I picked up when I was younger, so I'm unsure that was enough to guarantee brand success. 

My next thought fell to game play and/or components.  IASQ appears to be just several boxes of cards in different categories, and a score sheet (I'm unsure if you just get to pick which category you want every time it's your turn, or how that works...).  In TP, you roll a die to see what space you land on - now most hobby boardgamers decry random roll-and-move mechanics these days, but to most of general society, that mechanic is almost mandatory in their definition of a "board game".  And, it does add some chance and randomness to the game ("come on, come on...I really need a 5 here....").  Add in the "roll again" spaces, and you do get a certain amount off tension in the game. 

But what about components?  As I mentioned, IASQ appears to be just cards, pen&paper.  Trivial Pursuit had, of course, their famous "pie" scoring token, which served as both a score keeper, and your pawn to move around the board.  As I told Paul, there was something innately satisfying about seeing that little empty shell slowly fill up with the different colored pie pieces.  I don't think you can mention Trivial Pursuit without people immediately thinking of the pie pawn.  The circular pie pawn, or a triangular pie piece seems to be depicted in some sort of fashion on the box of nearly every version of Trivial Pursuit - it is the iconic symbol of the game, and it seems to have caught the imagination of the public.

May the Pie be with you.
Speaking of "versions", Trivial Pursuit appears to be second only to Monopoly in creating specialized versions of the game.  Beyond it's generic "Genus" versions, there is everything from decade specific (the 1980's) to Disney to a "World Cup" edition.  From my vantage point right now, I can see the "Star Wars" version sitting on my shelf.  So, they definitely had a handle on marketing...although if the original game had not been so popular, I'm not sure they would have had the chance to expand so much. 

So, what am I to conclude from this?  I'm not entirely sure.  I definitely think components matter in a game.  Given two games that are very similar, superior components can help turn a good game into a great game.  Was that the case with Trivial Pursuit?  From my conversation with Paul, I had the impresstin that IASQ was out concurrently or even prior to TP.  Not the case - Trivial Pursuit was first, in 1981, IASQ in 1982.  So perhaps TP really did tap into an unmet need first - a casual, easy to learn social game, and IASQ just tried to capitalize on that that.  I welcome any further thoughts on the matter...but right now, I'm craving a piece of apple pie for some reason...

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