Have you played Uno? An estimated 80 percent of game-playing households have. Since its introduction in 1971, the game has sold increasingly well. Inexpensive to buy and easy to learn, Uno appeals to a wide age range. Unlike most card games aimed at either children or adults, Uno is one of the few games that can truly be enjoyed by both—without the child feeling overpowered. But while nearly everyone has played or at least seen a version of Uno, few likely understand its relevance as an example of a classic American success story, from the first initial spark of an idea to reaping the end rewards. Uno’s recent induction into the National Toy Hall of Fame makes this the perfect time to review the history of the game.
The story starts with barber Merle Robbins, who invented Uno in 1971. Merle and his family loved to play card games and one of their favorites was the classic crazy eights. That game’s tricky and changeable rules—a certain drawn card meant the player must draw another two, another card meant the game play switched directions—tended to cause friendly family arguments. It was more difficult to remember the special, specific rules when they might change with each new game. Merle’s innovation was to write each card’s specific action directly on the card with a felt-tipped pen. Soon he and his family recognized that they’d essentially designed an entirely new card game. It differed from crazy eights because the rules didn’t vary, they were right there on each card. Now much younger players could enjoy the game, while those more experienced could employ certain strategies in hopes of a win.
Risking the sale of their home for financing, Merle and his wife had 5,000 copies of their game printed and hit the road to sell them. Pulling a camper behind them, the Robbinses travelled from Ohio to Texas and to Florida, hawking Uno at every campground clubhouse along the way. When they returned, they’d sold all 5,000 decks, and ordered more. They had done well, but Uno was ready to move to the next level. It took another Uno enthusiast, a true marketer named Bob Tezak, who redesigned the game and packaging, and promoted Uno with unequalled sales numbers throughout the 1980s and beyond. And Merle Robbins, well-situated with a 10-cent royalty on each deck that Tezak sold, retired from the barber business and cashed in on his American dream.
Like every other popular game that spans generations, Uno has spun off many variations and—through licensed agreements—appeared in versions ranging from the NFL to Teen Titans to emojis and Thomas the Tank Engine. And there are plenty of video game versions of Uno as well, ready to play on nearly every gaming system.
Uno’s story is one of sales success, but also of American innovation, invention, hard work, and perseverance. And, ultimately, longevity, because Uno has added fun to social gatherings for generations.