'Jeopardy' Champion Ken Jennings on Creating "A Trivia Game That Will Make You Feel Smart"
As the all-time undefeated champion of Jeopardy! (and in other words, the recipient of over $2.5 million in regular play proceedings over 74 games), it seems only fitting that Ken Jennings launch a trivia board game.
Half Truth is an original game in collaboration with Richard Garfield, mathematics professor and creator of fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering (soon to be adapted by Netflix) that combines trivia with betting. The game is produced by Studio71 and Nighthawk Gaming, with art created by designer Ian O'Toole.
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Amid the game's launch on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Jennings about how the game works and its intended mass appeal. "To the wider audience, the pitch really is: Here’s a trivia game that will make you feel smart," says Jennings. "It’s a party game that doesn’t kill the party, which I think is often the problem with Trivial Pursuit-type games." The conversation also touched upon the challenges of growing up as a self-identified trivia nerd.
How did you collaborate with Garfield to create the game?
I’ve been a big fan of trivia games my whole life, as you can imagine. I was a 10-year-old boy when Trivial Pursuit came out, and that’s a very formative age for a know-it-all kid. I knew of Richard’s work from Magic: The Gathering and his other games, and he sent me an email once saying that he'd just read Brainiac [Jennings' book about trivia] and it really got him thinking about how all other trivia games are doing it wrong. [He said] "I think you and I should make a better trivia game." It was an amazing feeling, like Nick Fury showing up at my door and being like, "We need you for the Avengers, Ken." It was very flattering.
Studio71's success with the Kickstarter-funded model for its games was very appealing to us because we knew we had built-in fan bases. It was Richard's relationship with them that got the deal done.
Walk us through the game. What are the goals? What is the strategy?
The trivia in the game is a series of categories, like "Which of these animals has a blue tongue? Which of these movies is longer than three hours? Which of these is actually a Curious George book?" There’s a series of options on the card, and you’ve got to place your tips, your bets depending on your intuition about the category. It’s got a wagering element. But the fun thing about it is it’s not one of these trivia games that makes you feel dumb. There are not long pauses while everybody sits and stares at the poor guy trying to remember the capital of Romania. Our idea was, if you’re good at trivia, you would have a lot of fun and probably be good at this game. But even if you are kind of a rookie, you’re still going to have fun. It’s a trivia game for everybody.
How do you win?
You’re advancing your token along the board, depending on how many right answers you get. It’s very important to avoid guessing the wrong answers; if you get fooled by a wrong answer, you don’t get to advance on your turn. You advance your token by guessing as many answers as possible without a single wrong guess.
Will you be encouraging non-Jeopardy enthusiasts to give trivia a go?
Absolutely. Nobody loves Jeopardy! hardcore more than me. Those are my tribe. But like I said, there’s something about the obsessive trivia mind that I understand can be annoying, and so we worked very hard to make sure that there are questions in this game about everything. If you like gardening, if you’re a grammar nerd, if you know everything about the NFL; everybody today is a nerd about something, so no matter your weird level of expertise, Half Truth has a card for you. Everybody will feel like an expert at some point.
Do games have a common place in your household?
We are a big board game family. Right now my kids’ favorite game is another Richard Garfield game — it’s called Hive Mind, and he tested it with us many years ago when we were having a game night with his family.
At what age was your affinity for facts and figures discovered? Did you feel uncomfortable with your skills or did you own your talent for trivia right off the bat?
I think I must have been like this forever; most trivia nerds don’t remember being another way. Our family might have figured it out pretty early; I was one of these kids who was always carrying around The Guinness Book of World Records and rattling off facts about the world’s biggest pumpkin pie. It’s funny you mention owning it, because no, I remember the older I got in elementary school, [I realized that] socially it’s kind of a problem to be a know-it-all. It’s not a hit with girls to know Captain Kirk's middle name. And so I did go in the trivia closet for many years and tried to not highlight that part of my personality … until I went on Jeopardy! in 2004 and came out of the closet on national TV. I think it’s too late now to pretend I’m not the trivia nerd that I am.
Is there a piece of trivia that you picked up recently that you’re dying to share?
Oh, yeah. Just yesterday. I do a podcast called Omnibus!, and my co-host [John Roderick] told me that the woman who was the first named movie star in Hollywood history, Florence Lawrence, also invented the electric windshield wipers. After she retired from the screen, she became an amateur mechanic and she invented brake lights, turn signals and windshield wipers. But she was also, like, the Marilyn Monroe of the early '20s, so it’s a weird story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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