What Canadian game is going to make more money than a big Ottawa phone company? Answer: Trivial Pursuit. And, unlike the game that always answers, but never explains, here's the reason.
Trivial Pursuit, the Canadian board game, will almost certainly bring in more money this year than Mitel, the Canadian telecommunications company. The people who own Trivial Pursuit estimate that their boxes of 6,000 questions each will bring in $1 billion worldwide; Mitel projects its computerized telephone switches and other high-tech gadgetry will net about $425 million for 1984.
Trivial Pursuit, the best-selling board game since Monopoly, is expected to sell 30 million copies this year. There are six versions, with more in the works , including British, French, and German versions. Even gold-plated playing pieces are available. Negotiations are under way for a network game show in the United States patterned on Trivial Pursuit, described as ''a cross between 'Hollywood Squares' and 'Saturday Night Live.' ''
The game was invented in 20 minutes in December of 1979 by two journalists in Montreal who were tired of playing Scrabble. Chris Haney was photo editor at the Montreal Gazette and Scott Abbott, a sportswriter at Canadian Press. It took them two years to dream up all the questions and raise the money to finance the project and get it into the stores.
One of their first moves was to bring John Haney into the business. He was a former professional hockey player in Europe and was working at the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake. Mr. Haney, along with his brother Chris, and Mr. Abbott started compiling the first list of 6,000 questions.
''It all has to do with news value for sure,'' says Chris Haney, who scans papers every day looking for material for new questions. ''I skim them until I find what I'm interested in. I can only write about what interests me and hope that my interest represents other people.''
The game sold quickly when it was first introduced in Canada in November of ' 81. It was never advertised. It's such a simple game that it makes one ask: ''Why didn't I think of that?''
The game's inventors say its success depends on the urge people have to show how clever they are. Its prime appeal is to members of the baby boom who think they can answer ''What was unsafe at any speed, by Ralph Nader's reckoning?'' and come up with ''the Corvair.'' There's even a special edition called ''Baby Boomer,'' aimed at the trivia generation. (A little piece of trivia that isn't in the game: Baby Boomer was originally to be called ''From Howdy Doody to Gordon Liddy,'' but Mr. Liddy wanted too much money for the use of his name.)
Like many other Canadian entrepreneurs, the men who devised Trivial Pursuit did so with an eye on the American market. The game sold 100,000 copies in the United States in 1982 and 2.4 million last year. Now it is selling worldwide.
''It's now the top-selling game in Britain and Australia,'' says Chris Haney, ''and it has just been released in France, Holland, and Germany, and it it looks as if Germany is going to be a volcano.''
Next the game is coming out in Japanese.