How a 20-something waiter made millions creating Pictionary: 'I had no idea what I was doing'

Rob Angel, the creator of Pictionary in 1987 during the game's launch in France.
Credit: Rob Angel

Since the mid-1980s, charades-inspired game Pictionary has sold over 38 million copies in 60 countries, making it one of the bestselling board games in the world. It's even been licensed by popular sitcoms like "The Simpsons," "Friends" and "The Facts of Life." 

But what most people don't know is that the game wasn't originated by a toy giant, like Mattel or Milton Bradley, but rather by Rob Angel, a young waiter from Seattle – with no "toy experience" – who simply had a big idea and went for it. 

Angel turned a weekly game night tradition into a bestselling board game and it made him and his partners multi-millionaires when they sold the game to Mattel for $29 million. Now 62, Angel recently told the story of Pictionary in his book "Game Changer."

"I really just think I'm an average guy," Angel tells CNBC Make It. "But I followed a dream and I took the first steps and made it happen."

A wild game night

After graduating from Western Washington University College of Business and Economics in 1981, and unsure what he wanted to do for a living, Angel moved in with some high school buddies in his hometown of Spokane, Washington and waited tables.

One night, one of his roommates suggested they play a game that he described as "charades on paper."

"Two players to a team. One teammate sketches a random word to his or her teammate, while the other player does the same to his teammate... The first person to guess the word from the sketch wins a round," says the description in "Game Changer."

Angel and his roommates liked the game so much they started playing "almost every night," according to the book, and their game nights grew larger and larger.

"[T]he games got even louder and crazier, with all of us yelling our guesses [about the word] at the same time — sometimes until three or four in the morning," Angel writes. "We became game-night junkies."

Eventually Angel says he had an "epiphany" that the concept would make a cool board game, and he even came up with a name. His inspiration came from a Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary he kept on his nightstand and used to think of new words for the game: "Pictures + Dictionary = Pictionary," he told his friends, according to the book.

The name stuck.

Making Pictionary a reality

Though Angel couldn't stop thinking about turning Pictionary into a board game, "I wasn't ready to try," Angel tells CNBC Make It.

Then, in 1984 when Angel was 25, his mom sent him a care package (he had moved to Seattle) with the game Trivial Pursuit inside. Seeing how a trivia game could translate into a board game with cards and moving pieces made him realize he had been on the right track with Pictionary.

"I could already see Pictionary on a store shelf. It was easy for me to visualize it sitting right there next to Trivial Pursuit," he writes.

Angel recruited two partners to help him launch the company — his co-worker Gary Everson and a friend of a friend, Terry Langston. He says he asked his old roommates from Spokane if they were interested in getting involved, but they all passed.

With a $35,000 loan from Angel's uncle, Angel, Everson and Langston formed Angel Games, Inc.

For months, Angel, Everson and Langston huddled in Angel's tiny Seattle apartment — which they dubbed "Pictionary Headquarters" — to work on developing the game and the packaging. They prototyped scores of game pieces and overcame various manufacturing and design delays. Finally, Pictionary was set to launch on June 1, 1985.

But a week before the launch party at a local cafe, their printing company said it wasn't able to sort the 500,000 game cards it had produced. So Angel and his two partners had to do it by hand.

"We rented five eight-foot folding tables and placed them in the apartment in a maze formation," he writes. They sorted the cards, numbered one through 500, into spare shoe boxes Angel had convinced the local Nordstrom to give him.

"We lived on beer, pizza and little sleep. It took 16-hour days for six days but we got it done," Angel wrote of the incident on Instagram on May 25.

Angel also remembers getting the first big check from Pictionary. In the fall of 1986, about a year after launching Pictionary, sales were climbing. At the time, Angel and his partners were filling orders for around 10,000 games at a time.

Angel was still waiting tables, making $500 a month and was driving a 10-year-old Mercury Monarch. Then his partner handed him their first royalty check — for $179,000, Angel says. (That would be equivalent to over $420,000 today.) 

At first Angel thought it was a "joke." "I was like, 'Holy Mother.' This is just getting started," he says.

Time to sell

Angel and his partners grew Angel Games and Pictionary for 17 years.

"I wasn't going to let anybody have sway over me and my financial future. So we stayed involved," Angel says.

In 1994, Hasbro purchased the North American rights to Pictionary as part of a deal to acquire Western Publishing, one of Angel Games' licensing partners.

Angel and his partners had licensed Pictionary rights early on, while also producing TV game shows based on Pictionary, along with 10 iterations of the board game, including Pictionary Jr. and spin-off versions based on "The Simpsons" and the "Austin Powers" film franchise.

But by the year 2000, Angel and his partners were getting older, and they wanted to spend more time with their families. (Angel was 42 at the time and married with three children.)

They were finally ready to sell.

After weeks of negotiating, Mattel bought Pictionary for $29 million.

Angel believes that his story should serve as an inspiration to anyone else who has an idea, but just needs a push to get started.

When he created Pictionary, he "had no assets. I had no knowledge. I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "If I can do it, I guarantee you that anybody else can."

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