Ever since it was introduced in 1985, Pictionary has been a party game that requires artistic ambition but not necessarily any artistic talent. In this twist on charades, players take turns trying to guess the word or phrase being drawn on a sheet of paper—often ideas that are difficult to sketch, like “anchovy” or “snort.” More than 38 million copies were sold through 2001, when the rights to the game were purchased by Mattel. For more on the game that people seem drawn toward, keep reading.
1. Pictionary was invented by a bored waiter.
Robert Angel was a waiter working in Seattle in the early 1980s when he struck upon an idea to liven up social parties. Angel would pluck a random word from a dictionary and then attempt to illustrate it, making partygoers guess the word. When Angel saw Trivial Pursuit take off in 1983, he decided to see if his game had any potential on the mass market. Working with friend and fellow waiter Gary Everson, Angel designed a prototype game. Under the Angel Games banner and joined by a third partner, accountant Terry Langston, Angel borrowed $35,000 from his uncle to produce a starting inventory and distribute the game himself.
2. Pictionary was produced in an apartment.
Angel Games rolled out Pictionary in 1985, but without corporate backing from a major distributor like Milton Bradley, it wasn’t easy. They were unable to afford the molding process to make different game pieces, so Everson used blank dice with different colors. To put the package together, including the game board and playing cards, Angel moved everything he owned into his bedroom so he had room for eight banquet tables. The apartment assembly line produced 1000 games, including 500,000 cards that had to be hand-collated.
Business took off when the Nordstrom department store decided to place an order. (The game was soon produced by Western Publishing, makers of Golden Books.) By the late 1980s, stores could barely keep the game in stock. In 1987 alone, Pictionary moved 3 million copies, becoming the second biggest-selling “toy” in December of that year behind the Nintendo Entertainment System.
3. People got into fights over Pictionary.
Demand for Pictionary crested in 1988, when stores were low on inventory. According to Gannett News Service, shortages prompted one fistfight over the last copy of the game in a California store, while another copy was plucked from a shopping cart at a Target in Minneapolis.
4. Pictionary hosted a celebrity auction.
In 1988, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society hosted an auction tied into Pictionary by offering the chance to bid on celebrity renditions of words and phrases. George and Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Lily Tomlin all participated. A self-portrait of Lucille Ball netted $750 at the charity event.
5. There were two Pictionary game shows.
Like many board games before it, Pictionary was eventually adopted for game show purposes. The first iteration aired in 1989 and was hosted by actor Brian Robbins (Head of the Class). A second Pictionary premiered in September 1997. Hosted by actor Alan Thicke (Growing Pains), the show featured celebrities playing against contestants. During the taping of one episode, actor Erik Estrada (CHiPs) got a bit too overzealous celebrating a correct answer and threw his arms out, knocking guest Bill Maher to the floor. The series could probably have used more of that energy: It was canceled after one season.
6. You can play Pictionary with artificial intelligence.
In an effort to explore the ability of artificial intelligence to recognize images, the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence in Seattle debuted a picture-guessing game called Iconary in 2019. Modeled after Pictionary, the software allows humans to depict a word or concept from a selection of icons. If they draw them, Iconary will “auto-complete” the image into something the machine would understand. The machine, AllenAI, tries to guess the meaning of the image. Players can also try to understand what images AllenAI is displaying. You can play on the Iconary website.
7. You can also play Pictionary in the air.
In 2019, Mattel introduced Pictionary Air, which allows players to use a stylus to draw in the air and have their illustrations appear on a television or other monitor via a Chromecast streaming device. Because people can’t actually see what they’re drawing, it adds a different dimension to the game.