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The History of Pictionary (from Humble Beginnings to a Best-Selling Game)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

While you may have thought you invented this game in your backyard amongst a couple of friends, it turns out Rob Angel created Pictionary in 1985. Playing a version described as “Charades on paper,” Rob realized that he could convert this addictive game into a profitable board game. Let’s take a look at the beginnings of Pictionary – how it came to be. 

The beginning of Pictionary

In 1981, when Rob Angel had graduated from Western Washington University, he was still unsure about the direction to pursue a career. He decided to wait tables when he moved in with some high school buddies in Spokane, Washington. 

They played “charades on paper,” and they had so much fun that it turned out to be something they played every night. They would play in teams, draw a picture, and have their teammate guess what they were drawing. With everyone yelling their guesses, the game continued well into the early hours of the morning. 

Their game nights progressed rapidly, and Rob would have described him and his buddies as “game junkies.”

The development of Pictionary

Rob realized that he could develop this game they played into a board game. In 1984, when he was 25, he moved to Seattle, and his mom sent him a care package. 

This package contained the game Trivial Pursuit. Seeing how a trivia game translated well into a board game, he discovered his idea of turning Pictionary into a board game wasn’t so far off. He could already begin to visualize his board game on shelves in stores. 

Without wasting time, ROB reached out to his roommates, but none were interested in helping him develop this game. So he got two people to help him – a co-worker, Gary Everson, and an acquaintance Terry Langston.

Rob and his two partners set to work on Pictionary 

Rob Angel and his two partners set to work in Rob’s one-bedroom apartment dubbed as “Pictionary Headquarters.” With a $35,000 loan from his uncle, they formed Angel Games Inc., intending to develop the game themselves. The loan was enough to print several thousand Pictionary games. 

Since they could not afford to fashion different game pieces, Gary Everson came up with an idea. He suggested they use blank dice of various colors for game pieces. Producing this game was by no means a small task. They came up with prototypes of game pieces and designs for the game. 

They had to deal with manufacturing and design delays. Worst of all, a week before they set out to launch the game at a local cafe, the printing company could not sort the 500,000 game cards that it had produced. 

Angel Games had to overcome a significant production issue

When the printing company couldn’t deliver what Rob and his team expected, they had to deal with the matter themselves. Rob rented five tables, each eight feet long, and arranged them in a maze-style formation in his apartment. 

They sorted the 500,000 game cards by hand, arraying the game cards from one to five hundred, and placing them in shoe boxes. They worked 16 hours a day for six days straight to meet the launch deadline, June 1, 1985. With beer and pizza to keep them going, they successfully managed to assemble 1000 games. 

Marketing Pictionary 

Angel took the game to retailers in Seattle. Many retailers would support him, buying a case of Pictionary games because he was a local boy. However, Angel Games’ big break came when a chain store, Nordstrom, agreed to buy 167 games. 

Eventually, they started getting orders for around 10,000 Pictionary games at a time. From there, Pictionary caught the attention of Thomas McGuire, a salesman for a game company. He quit his job to market Pictionary. 

McGuire, who formed his own marketing company, the Games Gang, began marketing Pictionary. He underestimated the popularity of the game as orders of more than 60 000 games came in. 

One year since the launch

A year after launching Pictionary, when Rob received their first royalty check from his partner, he was stunned to see $179 000! He thought it was a joke. Rob had grown accustomed to making $500 a month from waiting tables. He knew they were just getting started. 

Rob and his partners decided to be actively involved in producing their game for the next decades. He said he did not want anyone to be in control of his financial future. 

Popularity for the game increases

When McGuire took over marketing Pictionary, he applied his knowledge from his previous sales job at Selchow and Righter, where he sold games like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. Soon the company was flooded with orders. 

One chain store had reported that they had sold 84 Pictionary games within four hours during the Christmas period. They were unable to meet the supply as they could not produce enough games in time. They were six to eight weeks behind on orders. The delays left suppliers of the Pictionary game frustrated, with some stores being in constant short supply. 

Unable to keep up with the demand, McGuire approached Western Publishing, which agreed to produce and distribute Pictionary. They sold three million copies of the game within a year. A toy company that received a shipment of 260 games reported that they had sold out all their games the day stock arrived. 

In 1994, Hasbro acquired Western Publishing, and along with that, the rights to produce Pictionary. 

Angel and a few others hosted a game show

At that time, Angel and his gang hosted Pictionary game shows. The show saw celebrities compete in two rounds and a bonus round while citizens guessed their sketches. Here’s how contestants played the game show:

  • Round 1 – Here, teams were given some phrases and had to identify the connecting word in each of those phrases. For example, red would be the connecting word in terms like “Red Necks” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Later games changed this round to celebrities drawing as many words and phrases as possible in 45 seconds. Each correctly guessed word was worth $100.
  • Round 2 – Here, players would sketch and have their teammates identify different connecting words within three minutes. Words were worth $100 each, and had the drawer found themselves stumped; they could pass the marker to another player in their team. Players with the most money at the end of this round would advance to the bonus round.
  • Bonus round – Here, the winning team selected a teammate to draw single words instead of phrases. Every term had a connection to the previous one. For example, “peanut-butter-bread-basket.” The first four words players guessed were worth $100 each. The following three words were $300 each. Every word correctly suggested afterward was $1000! 

Pictionary Spin-offs

While Pictionary was in production, it began competing with several spin-offs. Angel and his team had also created alterations of the game, including Pictionary Junior and spin-off versions based on The Simpsons and the Austin Powers Franchise. Angel said he was flattered that his game inspired other variations.  

Mattel acquired Pictionary in 2001

By the year 2001, Rob Angel and His partners were ready to sell. Angel, who was now 42, was married with kids. He and his partners decided that they wanted to spend more time with their families. 

After several negotiations, they agreed to sell to Mattel for $29 million. Angel believes that he is an ordinary person who had a dream and went for it. He hopes his story can inspire others to do the same.

Last Word

You now know more about the history of Pictionary – from humble beginnings to a best-selling game. While Angel and his partners have encountered struggles, the simple idea of diving into the games industry turned out to be well worth it. 

Hopefully, this story has inspired you to take action and pursue your dreams. Who knows whether you may come up with the next biggest thing?

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.