The Dumbing Down of Trivial Pursuit

Is Trivial Pursuit getting easier or harder? It depends on which Genus edition you buy.

The Dumbing Down of Trivial Pursuit

A book released in 1983, How To Win at Trivial Pursuit by Robert J. Heller, gives a number of different ways to consistently whoop your friends at the world's favorite trivia game. Chief among these suggestions is the Rain Man-esque idea that a Trivial Pursuit fanatic memorize all 6,000 answers before his opponents arrive. Sure, no problem, I'll just put a pot of coffee on and memorize 1,000 Trivial Pursuit cards.

Heller goes on to suggest that top-notch Trivial Pursuit players should "be prepared to contest the validity of any question in which their answer is deemed to be wrong." In other words, the creators of Trivial Pursuit inserted just enough incorrect or out-of-date information to give a true Trivial Pursuit buff some wiggle-room when it comes to "correct" answers. For example--early editions of Trivial Pursuit included the following question: "What is the largest diamond in the world?" Most people, those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Trivial Pursuit, would offer an answer like "The Hope Diamond" when in fact, Trivial Pursuit expects you to enjoy a little bit of wordplay and answer "A baseball diamond." Oh, those tricky Canadians.

Heller goes on to suggest that "correct answers not be read aloud," especially if your Trivial Pursuit opponents are people you may play against with some regularity. If that doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, consider his suggestion that a true trivia buff (armed with a dictionary, I assume, since 1984 was pre-Google) "throw his opponents into a tizzy by providing extra bits of information or alternative correct answers they will have to look up, only to grudgingly agree that he is right." Look, any board game fan worth his dice knows that there are lots of Trivial Pursuit questions and answers that can be contested, but what fun is rubbing your friend's nose in the fact that Gordie Howe is actually no longer the NHL's highest-scoring player, no matter what the card says?

Of course, all of these tactics are meaningless now. We have Google to fact-check Trivial Pursuit's questions, and besides, our newest editions of Trivial Pursuit are so dumbed-down, there's usually no reason to quibble over the details.

Trivial Pursuit Genus III & Genus IV

The appearance of Genus III in 1994 was big news for Trivial Pursuit geeks. The game was going out of style in a big way. It had been years since the revelation that Baby Boomer heroes like Gregory Peck and Kevin Costner were in love with the game, and most people had already shelled out the requisite $40 (twice the price of most board games of the time) for their tastefully dark blue copy of Trivial Pursuit. Parker Bros., now the proud owner of a once-proud gaming franchise that had fallen on hard times, needed some way to pump new life into the game that the 90s forgot.

Unfortunately for true Trivial Pursuit dorks, Genus III represented a new gaming philosophy, namely: let's make the game so easy that only people with an IQ similar to room temperature won't be able to win. Pop culture references and even a box labeled Baby Boomer Edition did nothing to increase sales--according to reports, a huge percentage of Trivial Pursuit's billion-dollar revenue came from sales of the original edition.

Genus III (and to a slightly lesser extent, Genus IV in 1996) included more fluff questions than a GOP Vice Presidential debate. Trivial Pursuit has this annoying way of inserting the answer (or a clue to the answer) into the question, a trick I'm sure we'd all have rather seen on the SAT or some other standardized test that our entire future hinges on. But in a trivia game? What's the fun in figuring out that "Cole Porter" is the songwriter "not to be confused with the spoils of Pennsylvania mines? Trivial Pursuit is meant to be hard, damn it, otherwise how can we show up our girlfriend's dads or argue endlessly with college roommates over cheap beer and Funyuns?

Genus III is infamous for its "number questions." You know the ones: "How many out of every 5 women say they've faked an orgasm?" There's an easily recognizable pattern for questions like this--the answer is always either 1 or 5. Almost always. Figuring out which of these two numbers Trivial Pursuit wants requires you to crawl inside the Trivial Pursuit editor's heads and live there for a while, not a nice place to be.

Had Parker Bros. been aware that their fan base was made up mostly of fanatical trivia hounds who wanted, if anything, a harder version of Trivial Pursuit, and not a version that their brother-in-law Cletus could play along with them, they'd have done what Genus V did just a few years later.

Trivial Pursuit Genus V

"Thank God for Genus V." So says my Trivial Pursuit-obsessed neighbor if I pour enough frothy beers down his throat. Here's a guy who faithfully buys every edition of Trivial Pursuit, even versions aimed at kids or at a fan group of which he is not a member. "Thank God for Genus V." Considered by many to be the toughest Genus edition in Trivial Pursuit history, the creators of Genus V went out of their way to toughen up Trivial Pursuit's soft image.

Genus V, not the most recent edition but certainly the favorite contemporary Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit fans, returned the game to its former glory. This is a game for adults, a game for trivia buffs, a game that Ken Jennings himself may have trouble defeating. The brains behind Trivial Pursuit heard the accusations of dumbing down and responded in kind. We can only hope that the next Genus edition, rumored to be under way as I write this, lives up to Genus V's example.

New versions of Trivial Pursuit, like the Wits & Wagers rip-off Bet You Know It edition, are pumping a little life back into this once-proud trivia game franchise, but it may be time for Trivial Pursuit's creators to face a tough reality. "What game used to be culturally relevant, played at cocktail parties and over Hollywood cocaine buffets, but is now in its twilight years, and is probably not worth the price of the cheap card stock its printed on?" I think we all know the answer to that one.