Board games as we know them emerged out of the Victorian Era, even though nearly every ancient culture around the world had developed its own strategy and luck games. Many of these original games inspired the games people still play today, including chess, checkers, backgammon, dice, dominoes, marbles, carroms, Mahjong, and Parcheesi.
In the 19th century, however, industrialization and the rise of the middle class led to more leisure time, allowing for more regular social gatherings, much like the French salons of the Rococo era. To keep their guests entertained, hosts would often suggest parlor games such as charades—games that were played on a board became known as board games. Because the Victorians valued virtue above all things, most of these games were offered moral lessons.
The most common game-play set up, used in board games even today, comes from an Italian game known as Goose, which originated in the late 1500s. This game, popular all over Europe in the 1600s, depends on luck instead of skill. The players race around a track divided up into 63 sections, and players spin a wheel or roll dice to move a certain number of spaces—the goal is to get to the end first. Some sections are labeled with instructions to move forward or backward, while landing on a “goose” section gives the player another roll or spin.
Most versions of Goose and its spinoffs feature “vice” and “virtue” sections. If a player lands on a sin, like a picture of a sleeping man indicating sloth, he has to move backward. A picture of men shaking hands depicts an act of civility, allowing the player to move ahead.
The first American board game was made in 1843 by the W. & S. B. Ives Company of Salem, Massachusetts. It was another take on Goose called Mansion of Happiness, wherein the players would be punished for landing on “sinful” squares and rewarded for landing on “righteous” ones. The winner of the game, which was invented by a clergyman’s daughter, would be awarded the status of the most virtuous. This is the ancestor to every American board game produced, including Monopoly.
Another theme using the same basic play was Ives’ 1844 The National Game of the American Eagle, in which players competed to ascend to the U.S. Presidency while avoiding political pratfalls. Only one copy of the game is known to exist.
The earliest 19th century U.S. board games were hand-painted, and while these are treasured by collectors, they are scarce. The McLoughlin Brothers, who mass-produced board games...
A 1895 McLoughlin game called Hide and Seek is particularly sought-after by collectors, thanks to its unusual design and gorgeous graphics. The players tried to figure out which of the four built-in cups held a hat, which they would then carry to their home bases. In 1920, McLoughlin was absorbed into the Milton Bradley company.
Milton Bradley, inventor of the zoetrope and color wheel, formed his namesake company in 1860 to produce lithographs for Springfield, Massachusetts, businesses. While playing an old British board game with his best friend, George Tapley, he came up with an idea for a distinctly American game which would make a play on the word “checkered.”
Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life used the tradition pattern of a checker board and superimposed the Puritan ideals of Mansion of Happiness. For example, landing on “Bravery” moved the player up, while “Idleness” brought him down. The goal of the game was to reach “Happy Old Age,” as opposed to “Ruin.” His game was a runaway success—he sold 40,000 by spring of 1861.
During the Civil War, Bradley saw how bored the troops stationed in Springfield were, so he offered them a kit of games to play including chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, and his own Checkered Game of Life—for just one dollar. This was a profitable maneuver, and has been a tradition in every conflict involving American soldiers since. In 1960, Milton Brady reconfigured its Checkered Game of Life to make it more suitable for modern times. In the new Game of Life, the winner is the one who makes the most money.
Another side effect of the Victoria Era was the interest in spiritualism, which lead to the creation of the Ouija Board. It is said that this “talking board” was patented in England in 1851 by Adolphus Theodore Wagner as a “psychograph,” which used nervous energy to read people’s minds. By 1858, spiritualists in Europe were using it as a channel. In the U.S., Elijah Bond filed the first talking board patent in 1891—in 1966, Parker Brothers patented the modern Ouija Board, crediting William Fuld for developing it.
George S. Parker had no interest in games meant to teach morals and values. As a teenager in the late 1800s, he got bored playing one such card game called Everlasting with his brothers. He decided to alter the game to make it about earning money speculating on stocks. In 1883, at the age of 16, he self-published his first game, a variation on Everlasting called Banking, and founded the George S. Parker Company—the name was changed in 1888 when his brother Charles joined his business.
For many of the early Parker Brothers games, George would design the boards and develop the game rules himself. They often had a “ripped from the headlines” quality to them: Klondike was inspired by the gold rush in Alaska, while The Siege of Havana reflected the upcoming Spanish-American War. In 1902, Parker released another smash parlor game based on table tennis with a new celluloid ball known as Ping Pong, a fad that faded quickly but made a comeback in the 1920s.
In 1934, in the middle of the great Depression, a down-on-his-luck engineer named Charles Darrow came to George Parker with a hand-painted game called Monopoly, based on buying and renting real estate in Atlantic City. Parker rejected the game, giving Darrow a list of “52 reasons” the game would fail, including the fact that it took more than 45 minutes to play.
Parker underestimated the appeal of being able to accrue imaginary fortunes that most people would never see in real life. Darrow took his hand-painted games to the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia, where they sold like hotcakes. In 1935, Parker Brothers agreed to publish Monopoly, and it was a resounding success.
Ironically, most historians agree that Monopoly was derived from a 1904 game created by Elizabeth Magie-Phillips called The Landlord’s Game. Magie-Phillips was a devotee of Henry George, an economic-reform advocate who insisted that no one should make a fortune from property ownership. Her game, which usually used the local streets of the players, was intended as another moral lesson, designed to show the evils of the real estate market.
By the 1940s, games no longer suggested that virtue or merit would help you win. In fact, as in Monopoly, ruthlessness would often lead you to the game’s end goal, which was money, a job promotion, or property. Starting in the 1930s, games about capitalism and profiteering proliferated, including Cargoes, Bulls and Bears, and Gusher. Parker Brothers developed and published Finance, Fortune, Finance and Fortune, and Magie-Philips’ The Landlord’s Game, and then issued a patent to Milton Bradley for Easy Money. Transogram put out a game called Big Business.
None of these game came close the success of Monopoly, one of the most popular 20th-century board games, with more than 200 million copies sold. It came out in multiple editions—”Popular,” “Standard,” “Library,” “Gold,” and even “De Luxe,” with metal money and gold-plated tokens. A 1936 addendum changed “Free Parking” into the “Stock Exchange,” and a rare early Community Chest card reads, “We’re off the Gold Standard—collect $50.”
Collectors are particularly interested in the early metal tokens—the hat, car, shoe, thimble, iron, purse, and cannon. Tokens have also been made out of wood, composition, chocolate, and gold. Darrow’s first versions didn’t have tokens; players had to use items found around the house.
The success of Monopoly ushered in a Golden Age of board games during the mid-20th century. Most of these games can be divided into three basic types: luck, strategy, and knowledge. Basic strategy and luck games from ancient times such as chess have often been remade multiple times. For example, the 1934 game Sorry, is really another knockoff of Parcheesi, which owes a great deal to ancient games played in Korea and India.
Aside from the dream of being cunning enough to make buckets of money, another Depression-era fantasy that fed the board game craze was imaging traveling to far-flung locales all over the globe, as seen in games like Pirates and Travelers.
Games were created based on every theme under the sun. They dealt with career struggles, new forms of transportation, and consumerism. In board games, players could be star reporters, yacht sailors, race-car drivers, horse jockeys, congressmen debating bills, mobsters, art auctioneers, and, eventually, space adventurers.
From early on, military strategy games that required armed aggression and stealthy maneuvers were a big hit, starting with The Siege of Havana and the 1918 War of Nations, based on World War I. World War II brought about Battleship, Carrier Strike, and Panzerforce, with its tank tokens. Parker Brother’s Risk, published in the 1959 at the height of the Cold War, was the first smash-hit world-conquest game. Other popular war games included Steve Canyon, Combat!, Transogram’s McHale’s Navy, Milton Bradley’s Summit, and Games Research’s Diplomacy.
Sports, too, despite the obvious irony of acting out a game on a board that you could play in physical reality, inspired everything from early football to golf board games. Thanks to the Lone Ranger radio show in the 1930s and TV Westerns in the 1950s, the Wild West was a predictably successful game theme—Hopalong Cassidy, Davy Crockett, and Rin-Tin-Tin all got their own board games.
In fact, old Hollywood movies, early TV shows, and comic strips all served as inspiration for board games. Some allowed people to imagine they were contestants on popular game shows, while others let viewers continue the adventures of beloved movies and TV series. Film noir inspired the mystery-game genre led by Clue, a 1949 whodunit game played by asking the right questions and going through a process of elimination.
Disney put out several games based on its fairy-tale animations such as Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio. The company even released a game called Fantasyland to tie in with the 1955 opening of its California theme park.
But Fantasyland the game was no competition for the sweet imaginary world of Milton Bradley's 1949 hit, Candyland. Milton Bradley actually did quite well with little kids in the 1940s. Chutes and Ladders from 1943 was based on a Victorian England children’s game called Snakes and Ladders. Parker Brothers answered with its version of the game called Ropes and Ladders.
In the 1950s, several Hasbro games for children like Police Patrol, Merry Milkman, and Fearless Firemen played to a Norman Rockwell ideal of small-town life and featured 3D cardboard structures. Another hit children’s game, Cooties, was initially published by Transogram in 1939 with wooden bug-body pieces, but it didn’t take off until a Minneapolis mailman, W.H. Schaper, engineered a plastic bug that kids got a kick out of taking apart in 1949.
Thanks to Cooties, Schaper made a fortune establishing his own game company, which published his own clever strategy marble game, Stadium Checkers. Schaper, however, made a regrettable error turning down a wood-tile crossword game offered to him, which became the mega-sensation known as Scrabble.
Scrabble was the brainchild of an unemployed architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, who had studied “The New York Times” crossword puzzle to calculate the frequency of letter use. His game, Criss Cross Words, which relied on both luck and skill, was rejected by all game manufacturers until he met entrepreneur James Brunot, who helped him stamp letters on wooden tiles. As the story goes, in the 1950s, the game, then called Scrabble, was discovered by the president of Macy’s, who ordered some for his stores. It became a hit and was licensed to Selchow & Righter in 1953.
Many games of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s are startlingly offensive now. Some like Little Black Sambo rely on racist caricatures. Others like Bizerte Gertie push sexist stereotypes—servicemen on leave compete to win the most attractive woman. Even at the height of the women’s-liberation movement in 1972, a women-centric game called Who Shall I Be? suggested that ladies should stick to professions like modeling, acting, teaching, and ballet dancing.
The ’60s were a time of innovation in board games. First, the concept of “bookshelf games”—games that folded up into quarters and fit into boxes that looked like bound books—was introduced. Many of these strategy games were released by 3M and Hasbro.
Then, the New York toy company Ideal, with the help of toy designer Marvin Glass, turned the world of board games upside down. Glass—the creator of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Operation, and Lite-Brite—completely reimagined the concept of board games while working with Ideal.
The company wanted its games to stand out among the more conventional Goose-inspired games. The solution involved kooky 3D plastic structures and wacky gadgets. Many of Glass’s creations featured mechanical devices that used gravity, balance, and springs. Perhaps the most famous of these is 1963’s Mouse Trap, a huge Rube Goldberg-like device made into a board game. Naturally, the other board game makers got in on the 3D action. In Milton Bradley’s Bash!, players tried to knock out pieces of a plastic man’s body, while Mattel offered Bats in the Belfry.
Milton Bradley took things even further in 1966 when it introduced Twister, the first board game to substitute the human body for players or pieces on the board. Right away, rival companies accused the company of selling “sex in a box.” However, the game’s success was solidified when Johnny Carson featured the game on “The Tonight Show,” encouraging Eva Gabor to play him in her low-cut gown. Twister sold more than 3 million copies in its first year.
The company, however, dragged its feet when it came to the biggest innovation of the 1970s, electronic and video games. Still, Milton Bradley made a comeback in 1977 when it introduced Simon, an electronic game inspired by the old parlor game Simon Says. Dark Tower, another hugely popular electronic game from Milton Bradley, first produced in 1981, is still in demand with collectors today.