Few games can claim the breadth of history as chess, which transcends borders and languages. As played in 6th-century India, chess used a die to determine which figure would be moved. The pieces represented the king and his four military divisions: foot soldiers, cavalry, charioteers, and troops atop elephants. When the game later expanded into Persia, a wise man, which would later become what we now know as a queen, was added.
The Persian pastime soon spread to Arab nations, who checkmated the Persians in real battle in the 7th century. The Arabs had a great deal of influence on the development of chess because of their strict Muslim beliefs that prohibited them from creating images of living things. Hence, the abstract designs of Arab chess pieces. By the 16th century, rolling a die was a thing of the past, and the game essentially took the form it has today.
While collectors prize chess sets from the 18th century, some of those from the 19th century are even more sought after. In 1849, Nathaniel Cooke designed the Staunton chess set, named for English chess master Howard Staunton. The sports and games equipment company Jaques of London distributed these widely regarded and highly collected sets.
The roots of backgammon go back even further, to 3000 BCE, when well-born Mesopotamians would play the Royal Game of Ur. The earliest version of the game was discovered in 2004 in what is now Iran. That archaeological find featured an ebony board (in those days, this type of wood was imported from India), pieces fashioned from local agate and turquoise, and a pair of dice made from human bones.
The oldest intact and usable sets tend to come from the Victorian Era. The boards are often made of wood and designed so that they could be folded up into a box—the pieces and dice were secured in compartments inside. Sets from Asia are often found in jade and bone. Other backgammon sets may feature ivory or Bakelite pieces and dice, which are paired with hardwood boxes and boards. Sets made after the 1920s also often include a doubling cube.
Mahjong (often spelled Mah Jong, Mahjongg, and Mah Jongg) is thought to have derived from Chinese card games of the 12th century. The four-person game we know today probably developed in China in the middle of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, Mahjong was a craze in the United States, too. Its popularity continued into the 1950s, waned somewhat in the second half of the 20th century, and surged again in the 1990s after the publication and film version of Amy Tan’s "The Joy Luck Club."...
One of the many companies that imported Mahjong games into the United States was Piroxloid Products Corp., whose heyday appears to have been the 1920s. Based in New York, as were many of the other game companies of that era, Piroxloid imported Mahjong sets packed in rosewood boxes, as well as sets with Bakelite tiles and racks. Butterscotch Bakelite tiles were quite popular, racks were often marbled in deep chocolates and vibrant greens, and dice were made in a color called cherry juice.
One venerable game that combined cards with a board was cribbage, whose creator was a 17th-century Englishman named John Suckling, who was widely considered an unabashed rake. Legend has it that Suckling gave away a significant number of marked card decks to aristocrats around England. It is believed he amassed a fortune fleecing said noblemen, by traveling the countryside and offering to play cribbage with them for money. He finally fell into disgrace in 1641 and is thought to have poisoned himself in Paris, at the young age of 33.
Pure board games as we know them today emerged out of the Victorian Era. In the 19th century, 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 offered moral lessons.
W. & S. B. Ives Company of Salem, Massachusetts produced the first American board game in 1843. It was called Mansion of Happiness, wherein 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.
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. But by the Depression, faux fortunes became the hot new thing. In 1934, 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.
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 a knockoff of Parcheesi, which owes a great deal to ancient games played in Korea and India.
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. In the ’60s, the concept of “bookshelf games”—games that folded up into quarters and fit into boxes that looked like bound books—was introduced. The ’60s was also the decade of Twister, which was derided by rival companies as “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.
In the 1970s, board games faced a new threat to their existence: The video game. When the first coin-operated arcade games were introduced in 1971 (the failed Computer Space) and 1972 (a sensation called Pong), toy and game designers had to consider how to keep consumers interested in the tradition of family game night.
The result was the electronic board game, one of the earliest of which was Voice of the Mummy—if a player landed on a “Mummy’s-voice” space, a recorder hidden inside the game’s plastic tomb would drone a message of doom. The sequel, Séance, featuring “The Voice From the Great Beyond,” debuted in 1972.
Mattel, too, got in on the electronic-game action in 1972, with the release of its Talking Football game. It required players to manipulate 13 tiny plastic records, each the size of a cookie, that ran through football plays like a long pass or off-tackle run on the A side, and then six possible defenses on the B side, all of which would be acted out by players on the board. Dick Enberg, then the radio announcer for the Los Angeles Rams, narrated the action, shouting “Great play!” as a recorded crowd cheered. By 1977, Mattel’s Football game had become a handheld electronic device.
That same year, Atari debuted its wildly popular 2600 home video-game console and Apple released its user-friendly home computer, the Apple II. Against this backdrop, Milton Bradley unveiled Simon, its first all-electronic game. Simon, which could fit in one player’s lap and also be played by four people sitting around a card table, was inspired by the old parlor game Simon Says. This version of Simon Says required players to copy a pattern of electronic tones and lights generated by the device.
Not all 1970s board games were preoccupied with electronics. In fact, one of the most popular games of the decade was Boggle, which appealed to the traditional word-puzzle-solving crowd that had made Scrabble such a hit in 1953. Instead of relying on newfangled technology, Alan Turoff came up with the “random walk” principle of the game. While the game failed when it was first introduced in 1972, fan mail convinced Parker Brothers to relaunch Boggle in 1976 with a clever new letter-shaking device, and Big Boggle, introduced in 1979, upgraded the board from a 4x4 grid to a more challenging 5x5 layout.
These days, some of the most collectible games combine the traditional format of playing cards with sci-fi fantasy. Magic: The Gathering (aka MTG or just Magic) is a multiplayer, collectible card game created by Richard Garfield in the early 1990s. Based on a field of mathematics known as combinatorics, Magic is essentially an abstract counting game that has been brought to life by the fictional fantasy (both in its storyline and visual imagery) on the cards.
Three sets of Magic cards were released in 1993. The first Alpha set, as it’s known, featured 295 black-bordered cards, 116 of which were printed in lower numbers to make them rare. Some of the cards in this original set, including Black Lotus, a quintet of Mox cards, and cards with names like Goblin Recruiter and Ancestral Recall, are so powerful in terms of their effect upon a game that they are either banned or restricted from tournaments.
The World of Warcraft Trading Card Game (also known as WoW TCG) is based on the enormously popular online role-playing game and virtual community of the same name from 2004. Though less sweeping in scope than games like Magic: The Gathering, it became a household name through its viral online reach and offline television commercials featuring Mr. T.