How Pass the Pigs brought home the bacon: David Moffat on olives, beer and 74 million swine
With over 37 million sales, Pass the Pigs is classic, popular and instantly recognisable. Having launched in the 1970s, it also benefits from a feeling of nostalgia.
On one of his rare U.K. stopovers, we met with David Moffat, the man behind the pigs behind the game that counts, among its many fans, actors Jeff Bridges and Kevin Bacon. Yes, seriously…
So David, just before we sat down you were saying, “Pigs have always been close to your heart… Now one’s in it!” How come?
I had a condition that meant I needed open-heart surgery. The surgeons discussed with me which kind of heart-valve I could have: cow, pig, human, artificial… I asked for a pig valve. Couldn’t really be anything else, could it?
No; it’s meant to be! So now you say two pigs changed your life, and one pig saved it. In terms of the game itself, how did it come about? How did this little piggy get to market?
It’s really a strange, convoluted story, starting when I was going to university in the sixties – U.C.L.A., Los Angeles. My friends and I, we used to go to this bar downtown in the village; they served beer martinis. All it was was draught beer with an olive in… We played this game where we’d see whose olive would float up and down in the glass the most times…
The olive floats up in the effervescence? Then sinks, then floats up, then sinks?
Yeah! And if your olive started to slow down, you’d sprinkle a little salt in the beer and that’d get it going again.
See, this is already an education. Salty beer is fizzy beer…
As you might imagine, I wasn’t too studious; I was playing games and – well, doing a lot of parties… And my counsellor said maybe I should join the military because I might mature a little bit. So I joined the army for three years and got sent back to Maryland. And from there I got a military hop to Spain because I wanted to go over to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, which is on the 7th of July.
It always starts on 7th of July?
Yeah. Seventh day, seventh month; there’s a lot of sevens in this story… So that trip kind of got me hooked on Europe. When I finally went home, I finished university and thought: I’m going to go and travel Europe some more before I get involved with a career. So this time I went over there for twenty-two months, working two winters at a ski resort in Berchtesgaden, south of Munich. I was a ski-lift operator, but every night we’d go to this restaurant downtown. Always sat at Betty’s place; Betty was always good to us…
Betty is a waitress that works there? Or she owns it?
She worked there; at the Neuhaus – a restaurant near the centre of Berchtesgaden. We always sat at her section so she’d get the service tip from our bill. There were a lot of foreigners there from New Zealand, France, Canada, and sometimes – if they didn’t finish their food, and you didn’t have money that night – Betty would pick up their leftovers on the plate and give it to somebody who’d not eaten. Anyway, every time we did pay our bill, she’d open up her change purse and she had a little pig in there with her coins… A little pig, all black and dirty from being with the coins. It was her glückschwein…
Sorry; what’s that now? Glückschwein? What’s that? Lucky pig?
Glückschwein, yeah; lucky pig… There’s normally a custom in Bavaria, maybe all over Germany, to give people cookies and candies in the shape of pigs on New Year’s Day. Well, she knew we were interested in her little plastic pig, so that New Year’s Day she gave all of us a plastic pig each. And that’s when we started putting little pigs in our beer glasses, to see who’s pig would float and sink the longest! Eventually – after we started taking the pigs out of the beer, we were like: “Mine’s standing on its nose!”; “Mine’s fallen on its back…”
Ah! So now – and this isn’t a sentence we ever imagined saying – beyond just having a pig, we’re seeing recognisable gameplay.
Right! I told you it was a convoluted story… Well, when we saw that there are all these positions, we put two pigs together and realised, too, that some positions are more difficult to throw than others… So I gave them higher points and made it a pastime.
Wow. At this time, though, you’re just throwing the pigs around for fun? At what point, though, did you think, “This might seriously be something…”?
That’s probably… Let me think… It’s not until ten or eleven years later.
Ten or eleven years?!
Yeah. Remember: we were in a group, and each of us only had our one lucky pig… And I soon lost mine. So for three or four years, I didn’t even have a pig!
Which in most contexts isn’t really a problem, but here it’s high drama!
When I went home after travelling for – oh, 22 months – I said I’ve got to get a job that means I can still travel… Eventually I got a job as a ticket agent with American Airlines at LAX. That meant I was able to travel anywhere I wanted to, first class. And one time I went to the Oktoberfest with a group from the west coast to visit friends. I stayed on longer, and when I went back to Berchtesgaden I thought I should get some of the little pigs. So I went to a toy shop and they had this box of all these animals, made by Schleich. I waded through them all and found about thirty pigs. And I was very happy to have my pigs again!
Right… You’ve got a sort-of game and thirty of these little critters…
But I didn’t do anything! I’ve got the travel bug, you know? So I went travelling again, and I had a free pass… I lived in Australia and New Zealand – that trip was 26 months, and the pigs were at home in a drawer. When I came home, I didn’t want to live in L.A. anymore so I went to Bakersfield and opened a little soup-and-sandwich restaurant. I didn’t want a dice cup at the bar, for people to roll for beers, but I thought, “I’m gonna bring my pigs down here!” And when people asked for dice, I said “I don’t have dice. I’ve got these pigs…” and showed them how you throw. Before long, people started coming in just to throw the pigs.
This is – what – a number of years after you first started playing it?
Yeah. And one day somebody was in there from a pub in San Francisco, and he asks if he can buy some pigs. He was gonna give me five dollars, then ten… Fifteen, twenty dollars! And I think, “Gee, if someone’s prepared to pay twenty dollars for two little pigs, maybe I shouldn’t have them out on the bar anymore!”
In case someone used the idea? So the penny’s dropping: this might be a thing!
Yes, I wanted to protect it. The wife of a good friend of mine was a corporate lawyer with Walt Disney, and she drew up a contract and everything… Because I didn’t know anything about that, you know?! Then there were two other friends; fraternity brothers from U.C.L.A. One was an advertising salesman for Reader’s Digest; calling on corporations… The other was a director of design so he came up with our prototype packaging and everything.
But it’s not Pass the Pigs at this point?
No. It’s called Pigmania! I came up with the idea of a pigsty – which is the dice cup – and a pig pen to keep score on a pig pad… Just to embellish; make it look bigger. Otherwise… You know? Just two pigs… Anyway, once we got a prototype, the sales guy approached the head buyer of a major department store in Los Angeles and he said yeah, we’ll carry it. As it happens, the vice president of a greeting-card company in Chicago started talking to the buyer in Los Angeles about extending their line to include games. So they came to us, and that meant we felt we had more leverage… We negotiated back and forth – but eventually things came to a stop. Meanwhile, I’d already started the 777 club…
The 777 club? More sevens?
Yeah… At seven O’clock on the seventh day of the seventh month, people would meet in Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. At our original meeting, 85 people showed up. And while I was over there in 1977…
At 7 on 7.7.77?
Yeah! I got a call from the lawyer in Los Angeles to let me know that the company finally agreed to our terms. The company wanted to start producing immediately. They met me to sign the contract at the airport when I flew back at the end of July. In those days you could walk right up to the plane; you didn’t have the security worries we have now. By October, the company had the game on the market. We gave a one-month exclusive to the department store, and they put a full-page ad for it in the Los Angeles Times.
It went from contract to shelves in three months?
Yeah! And one of the clauses in our agreement with the company from Chicago was that if they didn’t produce 20,000 units on the international market within a one-and-a-half-year period or something, then the international territorial rights would revert back to us: they’d only have the United States and Canada.
The partner who worked for Reader’s Digest went over to the Nuremberg fair and was talking to the wife of somebody from Milton Bradley and the lady says, “Why didn’t you bring it to Milton Bradley?” So my friend says, “We still have the rights for Europe! We can talk…” They didn’t like the name so they changed it to Pass the Pigs, and I figured they know what they’re doing – and they started doing it in Europe and England for about…
Don’t say it… Seven years?!
It was! When I flew out to Nuremberg Toy Fair one year, I still hadn’t seen the European packaging. So I stopped off in Frankfurt to go to the department store and see what the game looked like. I couldn’t find it anywhere… So I finally asked a lady. She says, “We sold out! It’s a great game; we sold thousands of them at Christmas…”
What?! From a shop assistant, you find out you’re a hit? That’s bizarre! No one called to say, “Your pigs are a sensation!”?
No! But anyway, when I got to Nuremberg, I went to the marketing people and said I had an idea to promote the game in Germany. I said I’d go back down to Berchtesgaden and present a real pig to Betty – the waitress who gave me that first pig – in front of the press! It took some effort to set up, but that’s exactly what we did.
In 1990, I think, The British Toy Retailers Association voted Pass The Pigs the best game of the year. The following year, we got back the contract from the company producing Pigmania! and were able to license the game to Milton Bradley. Eventually, in 2016, Winning Moves acquired the exclusive rights.
Wow. Well, you warned us it was a convoluted story. We had no idea it took so long to get to market. And is that your only game? It was one-and-done for you?
No; I did have one other but it didn’t get the uptake. The year that the Tutankhamen exhibition came to the to United States, I saw there was a game found in his tomb: Senet. They excavated this game board and everything, but there were no rules. So one of my partners and I – this is before the internet – went to the library and started doing research and figuring out how it might go. They didn’t use dice; they used four sticks – round on one side, flat on the other. So when you rolled them you might get three flats up, or two rounds up… That would determine how many spaces you moved on the board.
But it didn’t sell so well?
It was being sold at the New York Metropolitan Museum during the exhibition, and a few other places around… But it didn’t get much play in games stores. Plus I think there were other Senet games that came out at that time as well. So, you know, we thought we should let the pigs be our thing!
And why do you think it works? Why is it, since 1977 and before, people have happily been tossing down pigs on a table? What’s the magic of Pass the Pigs?
I think it’s just the cuteness of it… That, and pigs are really popular animals. And you know, I once asked the marketing guy at Milton Bradley, “What is it you look for in a game?” And he said, “Ooohs and ahhhhs!”. That’s what people do when the pigs land, right? Oooh! Ahhhh!
Absolutely right! You throw a Double Leaning Jowler or Makin’ Bacon, you flip out! David, we’re going to wrap this up now only because you’ve got an early start, and it’s already a pretty-ungodly hour. Thank you so much for your time, and for squeezing us in to such a tiny window; it’s been a pleasure.
To stay in the loop with the latest news, interviews and features from the world of toy and game design, sign up to our weekly newsletter here