By Michael Grasso / September 8, 2016
As a child, I spent a lot of time in the manageable, organized worlds that board games offered. Rules, a sense of order and fair play, and brightly-colored game pieces and boards appealed to me: they were a safe haven from the uncertainty of the outside world.
My board game tastes were eclectic and ecumenical, and I was fortunate to grow up in a period in which the industry was in a period of expansion, wedged in between the recessions of the 1970s and the decisive triumph of video and computer games in the 1980s. At the center of this boom period was a game—created in Montreal, Canada, and released in 1982—that would become an emblematic artifact of a decade that catered to the young, urban professional: Trivial Pursuit. Trivial Pursuit’s developers, two Canadian journalists named Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, purportedly invented the game because their copy of Scrabble was missing a few tiles. Haney and Abbott had always loved the kind of barroom “know-it-all” trivia contests that had inspired Guinness Breweries to release its first Book of World Records (1955), and so they decided to invent a tabletop game that would transport the exhilaration of the tavern contest into the living room.
Trivial Pursuit, of course, became a runaway worldwide success. First, it looked like no other board game on the shelves in 1982. Second, the modern-yet-classic design and styling of the “Genus I” edition (1982), featuring a deep navy blue box with “Trivial Pursuit” in script, and a game board described by Victorian public domain images in a kind of baroque 1880s-meets-1980s aesthetic, became almost aspirational, a veritable status symbol. Its success massively assured by 1984, specialized expansions featuring new game questions and categories were released throughout the remainder of the decade. There was no end to the possibilities, it seemed.
But Haney and Abbott didn’t want to rest on their laurels. Horn Abbot, the company they’d founded with their lawyer, Haney’s brother John, was the kind of entrepreneurial success story that filled the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney mediasphere in the 1980s. Why couldn’t lightning strike twice? Haney and Abbott’s established love of trivia led them to develop a new game, one that wasn’t merely a topical expansion of the Trivial Pursuit rule set.
Trivial Pursuit’s original six categories were burned into my brain at an early age. I can still list them, in the order they appeared on the cards, with corresponding colors: Geography-blue, Entertainment-pink, History-yellow, Arts & Literature-brown, Science & Nature-green, Sports & Leisure-orange. Geography was undoubtedly my favorite and best category (it and astronomy were my early childhood obsessions). So in 1986, when I saw the advertisements on television and likely read the reviews in Games magazine (to which I was a dedicated subscriber) that the makers of Trivial Pursuit were releasing a new, geography-focused game, I was fully on board. It was to be called The World According to Ubi.
I’m sure I saw the television advertisement more than once in 1986; it tacks pretty clearly to the “wacky non-sequitur neon clip art” aesthetic going on in children’s entertainment of the time, mixed in with the unique iconography of Ubi itself. Again, as an 11-year-old geography nerd, the ad seemed like it was made just for me. I believe Ubi was a Christmas gift that year, and I was ecstatic to see the distinctive eye-ensconced-in-pyramid box under the tree. It was likely on that very day that I asked my parents to play. God bless them, they tried.
The gameplay appears quite simple on the surface: the box contains instructions, a map of the world (with America and Europe detail insets), two boxes of questions, a “Rubicon Reticule,” a pair of dice, and bases for pyramids to be built in the manner of the Trivial Pursuit pie wedge game pieces. Each player rolls the dice and answers a riddle-like question starting with the titular word “Ubi” (Latin for “where”). The idea is to find the location asked for on the map using the Rubicon Reticule. Read off the coordinates of the hexagon your location is in, get the question right, and roll again. Couldn’t be simpler, right?
You’d think so, but there are loads of complicating factors. First, the questions contain wordplay that obscures the actual point of the question, and, as if that weren’t enough, some questions actually have no answers. To these questions, the player is supposed to answer, “That’s a Red Herring.” Second, precisely finding locations on the map is super difficult, even if you’re a geography whiz kid! Third, in order to get one of the four sides of your Ubi Pyramid, you have to find the location within one of the six constituent triangles that make up each of the map’s hexagons, a level of precision six times more difficult than the normal-level difficulty questions. (The inset maps mentioned above are provided if you are masochistic enough to want to play the game in “expert mode”). Furthermore, every now and again a question will be pulled out of the box with the following text: “Beware the Ides of March! Et tu, Brute, I was buried not praised—your Ubi be razed! You’re still in the match, but start from scratch.” If you chanced upon one of these gems, you were flung back to zero sides of your Ubi Pyramid, Wheel of Fortune bankruptcy-style. The laissez-faire, trickle-down, social Darwinist cruelty of the Reagan era extended even to children’s board games.
Put simply, it’s a super difficult game, for both an 11-year-old in 1986 and a 41-year-old in 2016. My wife and I played when I got a used copy for this review (my childhood copy having vanished mysteriously in the ether). We played for about an hour and a half and we gave up at 1-0, nowhere close to getting to put the Ubi Rubi at the top of one of our pyramids.
Decades later, Ubi is remembered as a flop, the game that proved that Horn Abbot did not have the Midas touch and that the company’s particular brand of witty trivia did not provide an inexhaustible well of marketable games. It’s remembered now, if it is at all, as a game that everyone tried once based on the creators’ reputation, and then put back on the shelf—only it wouldn’t fit due to the oddly-proportioned triangular box.
But that triangular box, and that eye-in-pyramid! Back in 1986, it probably didn’t raise too many mainstream consumer eyebrows, but today, in the 2010s, the Illuminati are everywhere. Yes, Ubi’s cover is a huge Eye of Providence within a pyramid. This iconography predates the creation of the Great Seal of the United States, and today is best known as the putative emblem of the Illuminati conspiracy hatched at the birth of the U.S., found everywhere from dollar bills to Masonic aprons. Millennials for whom the Illuminati is now part and parcel of pop culture look at the Ubi packaging and commercial with wide-eyed wonder, if the YouTube comments for the Ubi commercial above are any indication.
The Eye of Providence fits with Ubi’s themes and goals, of course. The Eye, meant in emblem and allegory to evoke the watchful yet beneficent eye of Divine Providence, sends its rays anywhere on the globe. The Ubi player is, in this schema, one of many divine beings floating above the Earth, sitting at the helm of a veritable panopticon, trying to divine the meaning of mortal political boundaries, listening to the cryptic utterances of questions sent up from the jabbering mortal masses (“why do they always start their prayers with “Ubi,'” the players might ask themselves), trying desperately to home in on where the message is coming from and for whom it’s meant using the Rubicon Reticule.
Let’s move on from the idea of Ubi as some kind of ritualized enactment of the confusion of base matter in the eye of the Gnostic archons that rule over us. The Ubi pyramid also evokes classical architecture, which ties in neatly with the game’s overall Roman aesthetic. References to the murder of Caesar, the crossing of the Rubicon, and the good senators who sought to preserve the moribund Republic are rife within the actual gameplay (the gamemakers’ excitement at getting to dress up as goofy, handlebar-mustachio’d Roman senators for the packaging, as seen above, is obvious). The eye itself, within Ubi‘s universe, is deemed to be “Great Caesar’s Ghost” himself, and the game Caesar’s revenge on the world, which is pretty funny given the frustration most players experience while playing. The board is also haunted with literal “Ghosts,” as the map’s legend marks the sites of mysterious vanishings and deaths, including the disappearances of Amelia Earhart and D.B. Cooper.
So why choose this specific theme for a geography trivia game? The Romans’ imperial power did rule over a large portion of the Western world at its height (including conquering the Great Pyramids in the aftermath of the chaos caused by Caesar’s assassination). Naturally this panoptic power lends itself well to imperial imagery. But I feel like there’s something deeper here, something in choosing imagery and iconography that evokes Caesar’s failed bid at imperial power and that power’s later consolidation under his ward, Octavian/Augustus.
Was the setting of The World According to Ubi, poised teeteringly and liminally at the hinge point between the dying Roman Republic and the Roman Empire ascendant, meant as a cheeky rebuttal of late Cold War imperial posturing on both sides of the Iron Curtain? Was the Ubi eye-in-pyramid meant as a coded warning against Cold War satellite warfare? Were Haney and Abbott dressing as Senators not as a goof but as a final plea and tacit dramaturgical rebuke of the very hypercharged neoliberal decade that made them rich and famous? Was this why Ubi ultimately failed in the marketplace? All these questions about the psychogeography of the game are best laid at the feet of the creators, or perhaps at the grave of Great Caesar’s Ghost himself.
Michael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.