Trivial Pursuit was still a hot game in 1986, when Coleco Industries Inc. acquired its U.S. producer, Selchow & Righter Co. What Coleco didn't get were some of the key people who had made Trivial Pursuit a success. Too bad for Coleco. Today's hot board game is Pictionary, of which some 8 million copies will be sold this year -- enough to make its producer, The Games Gang Ltd., a $150-million company just two and a half years after its founding. And The Games Gang? You guessed it: they're the people who got away.

Tom McGuire, for one -- former West Coast manager of Selchow & Righter. "It was insane back then, the numbers were so ridiculous," he says, recalling the 12-month period when as many as 15 million units of Trivial Pursuit were sold. "It was hard to come back to reality." It was so hard, in fact, that McGuire went hunting for another big game. Through friends, he learned of a Canadian who had invented Pictionary and, in one year, sold 6,000 copies in Seattle -- at $35 a pop. He visited the inventor and conducted a little market research, asking his three grown daughters to play. As he watched, he says, "I thought, 'This is Trivial Pursuit all over again.' '

With that fond hope, McGuire teamed up with another Trivial Pursuit alumnus to form The Games Gang and market Pictionary. Joseph Cornacchia, who became president, had handled production of Trivial Pursuit. Doug McFadden, who later joined as marketing manager, had marketed the game abroad. The result: sales of almost $5 million in its first six months and $57 million in its next year. "Trivial Pursuit could have been a case of us being in the right place at the right time," says Cornacchia. "But doing it again, we've got to believe it's not just luck.'

Lucky or not, The Games Gang is trying hard to avoid the mistakes that Selchow & Righter made with Trivial Pursuit. For one thing, it is staying lean. To date, it has hired just 16 employees, 9 of them salespeople. Meanwhile, The Gang may already have its next hit: Balderdash, "the hilarious word bluffing game," which is selling even faster than Pictionary did in its first few months. And Coleco? In July, it began Chapter 11 proceedings.

* * *

The Canadian Pipeline
For some odd reason, Canada has emerged as the world's leading developer of hit board games. Before Pictionary, there was Trivial Pursuit, Scruples, and Therapy -- all created north of the border. With that in mind, The Games Gang Ltd. has stationed marketing manager Doug McFadden in Toronto, where he hunts up games for export to the States. So far he has come up with Balderdash, the number-one game in Canada for the past two years, as well as a prospect called Quest for the Philosopher's Stone.

Of course, no game is a sure thing, regardless of its country of origin. Recently, for example, McFadden watched a demonstration of a game called Fur Out, in which players become fur traders. He passed. "You never know what's going to be the next hit," he says. "But I just didn't think it would reach that common denominator in the marketplace." Sounds like a smart move, Doug.