Inspired by a popular board game, some entrepreneurs are profiting from ‘Bible trivia’

In Pharaoh’s dream, do the fat cows eat the skinny ones? Which book of the Bible records an ax head floating on water? In what city did Eutychus fall from a window? Where was Ish-bosheth’s head buried?

More and more, Christians throughout North America are sitting around kitchen tables asking each other questions like these, finding out how much they don’t know about the Bible, and loving it. The first “Bible trivia” game appeared in time for Christmas last year. Today, Christians can choose from at least 13 such games, with names like Treasures in Heaven, Revelation, His Coming, The Bible Game, Bible Search, Bible Bafflers, Bible Trivia, Bible Challenge, Biblical Trivia, and Biblical Quest. People associated with most of the games report that business is booming.

Douglas Bolton, president of the Chicago-based Cadaco Games, which manufactures Bible Trivia, would not specify how many copies of his game have been sold, but he said it’s in the hundreds of thousands. “This was the best decision of my career,” he said, “except for the one to join this company in 1945.”

According to Bolton, the phenomenal success of trivia games is related to the cyclical nature of the market. A question-and-answer game, he says, represents the pendulum’s swing to simplicity “after four years of the so-called electronic madness.”

The trivia craze gained momentum in 1979 when two Canadians, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, invented Trivial Pursuit, the best-selling board game since Monopoly. Haney and Abbott say it took them all of 20 minutes to come up with their invention, a game that consists mostly of questions and answers.

Not long afterward, Haney’s brother, John, joined the venture, and the trio set out to write 6,000 questions about insignificant matters. That took a little longer than 20 minutes. The questions had to be challenging, but fun; hard, but not too hard. They had to be questions that, given wills of their own, would choose never to be answered but to dance gleefully forever on the tips of tongues. And of course, the questions would have to address matters totally unimportant and irrelevant to the survival and flourishing of the human race.

Even with no advertising, Trivial Pursuit was an immediate hit in Canada. The game is now selling worldwide and is expected to bring in close to $1 billion this year. Retailing in the United States for as much as $40, it sold 100,000 copies here in 1982 and 2.4 million copies last year.

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The popularity of Trivial Pursuit at church retreats and young couples’ meetings did not go unnoticed. Entrepreneurs, Christians and non-Christians alike, developed a renewed appreciation for the importance of Bible study. They had a hunch that if they could make it fun, they could make it profitable. And they were right.

Bible games, of course, feature questions based on the Bible. Most manufacturers are coming out with editions geared for children, with advanced questions, and with various other editions of their games. That is where the similarities end. Some games include boards; some don’t. Some have dice (often called selectors); others have spinners. Some boast about how their game differs from Trivial Pursuit; others boast about how similar their game is to Trivial Pursuit.

But most manufacturers have been careful not to get too close to the grandaddy of trivia games. Selchow & Righter Company, manufacturer of Trivial Pursuit in the United States, has spent more than $100,000 in legal fees to warn or sue would-be imitators, according to Money magazine. The legal action includes a complaint against Bible Challenge, produced by Bible Games, Inc.

“Their [Bible Challenge] board is identical to ours. It’s a virtual duplicate of our game,” says Selchow & Righter spokesman John Nason. Bible Challenge hit the market in April. Two months later, its manufacturer replaced the original game board. A spokesman for Bible Games, Inc., said he felt the change would be enough to appease Selchow & Righter. However, Walter Ames, an attorney for Selchow & Righter, said he has heard nothing about the new game board. “If they’ve changed their board and want to get out of litigation, the smart thing for them to do would be to call us up,” Ames said. “Maybe this thing could have been settled long ago.”

Bible games range in price from about $17 to $30. Cost depends largely on the number of questions in a game and on whether it comes with a board. Despite all the diversity, manufacturers agree on one thing: their particular version of biblical trivia is the best money can buy.

Grace Betzold, who with her husband, Ken, and their two children produce and market Revelation, says their game has more questions (5,000) than any similar game on the market. She advertises that Revelation has been endorsed by Charles Colson, astronaut James Irwin, and even radio personality Paul Harvey.

Ron Poyntes, a spokesman for Truth and Triumph, emphasizes the quality of his game’s questions. “We’ve gone out of our way to make sure we had interesting questions, not just dry Bible facts.” Poyntes says his Canada-based company had a chance to distribute a number of Bible trivia games, but chose Truth and Triumph.

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Terry Balkan, one of the creators of Bible Search, makes an issue of the accuracy of Bible trivia answers. He points to the careful research that has gone into his game. He notes also that two “significant Christian evangelists, Rex Humbard and Jim Bakker, have now ordered Bible Search to be marketed by their fine organizations.”

Costas Demetriades, one of two missionaries who produced The Bible Game, maintains that theirs is the true family game, “designed for all ages and all levels of education.” Each card comes with five questions of varying difficulty, so that children can play in the same game with seminary professors. A percentage of the profits from The Bible Game (more than $40,000 so far) goes to a variety of missions agencies.

Doug Auld speaks of the “smooth design” of the board he created for Treasures in Heaven. “The game runs very easily,” he says, “and it has a few wrinkles in it to make it exciting.”

Treasures in Heaven has 4,662 questions, and is one of the games that uses a spinner instead of a die. “Anyone who has done research of the Christian market knows that a die is not the way to do it,” Auld says.

Despite their popularity, Bible trivia games have their share of critics. Some say the games have little if any educational value. Others fault the producers of the games for adopting secular business practices for the purpose of financial gain.

But criticism has not hampered the games’ profitability. Spring Arbor Distributors, the world’s largest distributor of Christian books and gifts, handles seven Bible trivia games and is expecting a lucrative Christmas season. Critics of the games can only sigh and be thankful that no one has come out with a Christian Cabbage Patch doll … yet.

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