From Barbershop to International Games then Mattel: The Evolution of UNO

Mattel recently announced UNO Flex, the latest expansion of the number-one non-collector card game in the U.S. Like some of the company’s other UNO variants, Flex incorporates the game’s traditional rules with new Flex cards that allow players to change the color or action of a card.

The launch of this new version is the latest milestone in a journey entering its 6th decade. UNO’s ascension to becoming a top-selling game and 2018 entry in the National Toy Hall of Fame is an interesting one that started in a small barbershop in a small town in Ohio.


UNO’s fun backstory is well-documented: in 1971, to help quell a friendly family argument over the rules of the card game “crazy eights”, barbershop owner Merle Robbins created a new version of the game with a modified set of rules that were easy to learn and even more fun to play. He named it UNO after the bingo-esque rule that required players to say the word when they had only a single card left in their hand.

In true entrepreneurial spirit, the Robbins family self-financed the production of 5,000 copies of UNO and began selling them throughout the mid-west and southern United States.


Just a year later, self-professed UNO enthusiast Bob Tezak saw the sales potential of UNO and purchased the rights to the game from Robbins for a hefty sum of $100,000. With UNO’s rights secured, Tezak and two other partners formed International Games with the singular purpose of marketing and selling the game to the masses. The company was initially run out of a back room in Tezak’s Joilett, Illinois-based flower shop / funeral parlor.

Through luck and pluck, Tezak and company paired their regional sales efforts with television exposure on a The Bozo Show, a children’s television show featuring the erstwhile clown. Soon came a game-changing (no pun intended) sales deal that led to UNO appearing on the shelves of Walmart and other mass market retailers.


UNO made a real dent in the worldwide market. It sold more than 85 million copies in more than 20 countries and had its instructions translated into 16 different languages. It’s no surprise, then, that Mattel purchased International Games in 1992, acquiring the rights to its entire portfolio of games, including UNO and another popular game at the time, Skip-Bo.


Mattel’s ongoing care and feeding of the UNO franchise ensures the game remains immensely popular with card-game enthusiasts and led to a number of well-received variants.

In recent years, Mattel teamed up with a series of influential artists― Takashi Murakami, Nina Chanel Abney, and Shepard Fairey among them―to create the limited-edition UNO Artiste Series, as well as releasing UNO Braille, a version of the game for blind and low-vision players.

Although its beginnings were unassuming, UNO’s journey demonstrates that the key to longevity in a game is often found in simplicity and an ability to engage the senses.

Todd Coopee is Editor-in-Chief of Toy Tales, an online publication that covers toys and games past and present.

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