Before video games, before the internet, before obsessing over Angry Birds on our smartphones, family and friends had another fun way to occupy their time: playing board games.
You know all the standbys—what family didn’t have the likes of Monopoly, Scrabble or Operation stashed in their living room? Or spend countless hours over highly contested matches of chess and checkers?
Board games are such an ingrained pasttime that we’ve pretty much taken them for granted and don’t really ponder what went into their creation and legacy.
It’s worth noting that despite our preoccupation with digital games, the board game as we know it is far from dead. In fact, there’s a board game renaissance occurring even as we speak—from revamped versions of old classics, to new games like Exploding Kittens, Ticket to Ride, and (most controversially) Cards Against Humanity. While we may be constantly dazzled by technology, tactile entertainment experiences still matter.
But why are we so fascinated and motivated to play board games after all this time? What appeal do they hold over us? And perhaps, most importantly, how were they created in the first place?
Even the most obsessive board game enthusiasts might be unaware at the origins of some of their favorite games. There’s a rich and often checkered past behind board games that many players would be shocked to learn.
So let’s roll the dice, pick a card, and take a peek into the behind-the-scenes beginnings of iconic board games, from the first one ever created to classics that we still enjoy playing today.
The World’s First Board Game
The history of board games goes all the way back to 3,500 B.C. It turns out that Ancient Egypt was the birthplace of the medium. And while you may never have heard of the game Senet, it’s the building block of every board game that has followed.
The rules behind Senet are largely conjecture—historians have tried to piece together snippets of text, but given that it appears in hieroglyphic and hieratic texts that span over 1,000 years, it appears the gameplay evolved. There isn’t one set of rules. However it’s been theorized the goal was to get one’s pieces across the board as fast as possible.
Game boards were three squares wide and ten squares long, with five to seven pieces per player. Historians believe that players tossed sticks to determine their next move, making them a precursor to dice.
One thing that is clear is that while Senet may have been a game, Egyptians took it very seriously, with game boards illustrated with symbols representing revered deities and visions of the afterlife.
If you need further proof of how sacred Senet was to Egyptian culture, there are even game pieces found in the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Other historic ancient games of note includes Vaikuntapali, a 16th century Indian game that would later be adapted as Chutes and Ladders in America (or Snakes and Ladders in Britain) and Chaturanga, the Indian strategy game widely seen as the ancestor to chess.
It’s the most famous board game of all time and a testament to the thrills and pitfalls of capitalism. So perhaps it’s appropriate that a game whose ultimate goal is to bankrupt your opponents, should have greedy and ruthless origins.
Monopoly’s complicated birth was unearthed in the Anti-Monopoly, Inc. v. General Mills Fun Group, Inc. court case that lasted from 1976 to 1985. Parker Brothers attempted to stop the publication of Anti-Monopoly, a game created by San Francisco State University economics professor Ralph Anspach.
Writer Jim Esposito covered the case in the 1977 Oui Magazine article entitled “The Unspeakably Vicious Toys and Games Industry.” Speaking about the case today, Esposito says, “Parker Brothers had a history of stepping on anybody that did anything similar to them,” but Anspach was “idealistic, so he fought them. …and people started calling him and saying things like ‘they got a lot of nerve suing you because they stole that game to begin with’.”
Finding out who actually came up with the game was difficult, to say the least. Anspach’s research (costing him thousands of dollars to dig up leads) led him to discover that, while Monopoly was originally credited to Charles B. Darrow, it actually evolved from The Landlord’s Game, created in 1904 by Lizzie Magie. The goal of her game was to seize as much property as possible, but she intended the game, oddly enough, to be a commentary against greed.
The Landlord’s Game became a huge hit in the early 1900s after professor Scott Nearing taught it to college students at the Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia. Soon students (and the outlying Quaker community) began modifying the rules and coming up with their own iterations with names like Finance and Auction. Magie eventually sold her patent to Parker Brothers in 1935 for $500. By then, Darrow had also sold his version of the game, entitled Monopoly, to Parker Brothers.
Esposito would later be called in to give a deposition regarding his findings and agreed with Anspach that the true origins of Monopoly were taken “from the Magie game … it was pretty obvious,” adding that Anspaugh had colleced a variety of old gameboards “from all kinds of different cities back east” that pre-dated the Parker Brothers’ version.
The Anspach and Parker Brothers lawsuit went on for years. In the end, Anspach was allowed to publish his game with a legal disclaimer, while Parker Brothers retained the trademark. It’s worth noting Darrow is no longer recognized by Parker Brothers as the sole originator of Monopoly (he’s now listed in the game credits as a “co-designer”, along with Magie).
Esposito’s expose showcased what some might call unsurprising: Parker Brothers wanted a “monopoly” on Monopoly.
Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons (also known as D&D) made the terms “roleplaying game” and “six-sided dice” household words. Developed in the early 1970s by Gary Gygax, D&D offered a whole new dimension to what a board game could be.
Contrary to popular belief, D&D wasn’t the first roleplaying game. According to Eric Dow, owner of Wonko’s Toys and Games in Austin, Texas, “Dungeons and Dragons was actually Gary Gygax’s second foray into role playing games—his first being a roleplaying system called Chainmail. …D&D was the follow-up to it, and it was more the ‘pen and paper, we don’t have to be in costume, we don’t have to all be together in a Renaissance Fair like environment.’”
Gygax (in partnership with David Arneson) designed the game to evolve in a series of stages: players creating their own characters, setting the ground rules (decided upon by the dungeon master), and lastly, clarifying the spell-casting rules.
D&D’s open-ended sense of play makes it one of the few games that never officially “ends,” lasting as long as the players desire.
That last fact (along with the lack of “winners,” given players collaborate rather than compete against one another) confused prospective game companies so much that Gygax was forced to self-release the first edition of D&D.
Given its malleable rules, limited only to the power of players’ imaginations, D&D can be confusing for the uninitiated. And the lack of understanding by religious groups and concerned parents led to unintentional controversy, with the game getting swept up in the “Satanic Panic” hysteria of the 1970s and 1980s.
“You had the whole era of D&D being considered a Satanic cult by a whole bunch of just off-the-wall ignorant people,” Dow says. “They didn’t know what it was about. They just automatically assumed that if it had demons and dragons that it must be evil, when it was really just a means to explore imagination.”
Dow added that that imaginative concept gave players like himself “a chance to not have to live life in the not-so-pleasant world that I grew up with, but to set that aside and think about other ways to do things.” He adds it helped him develop problem solving skills that would prove beneficial to interpersonal and business relationships, helping to prove the benefits of Dungeons and Dragons that many naysayers misunderstood from the start.
Twister required something different than the average board game: It made the player their own game piece. By spinning a dial dictating the placement for a player’s hands and feet, one became instantly close with your party guests.
Developed in 1965 by advertising executive Reyn Guyer (inspired after a shoe polish commercial with footwear placed on a polka dotted paper mat), it was originally called King’s Footsie, then Pretzel, and finally Twister (with the unforgettable slogan, “The game that ties you up in knots,”).
Guyer sold the rights to Milton Bradley (despite the reservations of a few higher-ups, who thought the game was too sexually charged), and Twister was sent out to (equally timid) retailers to no success.
Fearing they had a dud on their hands and that many store owners and consumers didn’t get the concept, a PR firm came up with a last-ditch effort: They sent the game to Johnny Carson.
The popular host of The Tonight Show played the game on-air with guest Eva Gabor, and viewers couldn’t stop laughing at the site of their awkwardly intertwined bodies. After the show aired, Guyer told CNBC that “the next morning people were lined up at Abercrombie & Fitch 50 deep. And they changed their minds.” The game went on to sell over three million copies the next year.
Ultimately, Guyer noted, Twister’s success built off the burgeoning sexual revolution of the 1960s: “Twister broke the rules in a social setting. People had not, up to that point, been granted the possibility of being that close and enjoying it in a group setting.”
During a game of Scrabble in 1979, a Canadian photojournalist and his sports writer friend became bored and fantasized about making a game of their own. Their names were Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, the masterminds behind Trivial Pursuit, a game which Time declared “the biggest phenomenon in game history.”
Haney and Abbott were looking to make a game that would appeal more to adults than children, and they took their creation seriously. The duo took over two years to scour as many trivia books as they could find in an attempt to amass a diverse array of questions and categories that would both entertain and challenge the player. After completion of the artwork by 18-year-old Michael Wurstlin, Trivial Pursuit made its debut in 1981.
Success was not immediate, as many retailers were unsure how to sell such a unique concept (especially when home video games had taken the market by storm). As a result, Haney (who quit his job to work on the game) relied on redeeming beer bottles for cash, and he suffered a nervous breakdown.
His concerns were short-lived. By 1984 Trivial Pursuit was a household name and sold over 20 million copies in the United States alone.
Trivial Pursuit has had its share of struggles—it faced two lawsuits (both of which failed), and in the age where every trivia fact is available via Google search, its mystique and sense of prestige has diminished. It also suffered the loss of co-creator Haney, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 59.
Nonetheless, Trivia Pursuit still sells steadily, thanks to niche editions devoted to the likes of Star Wars (or specific decades, like the popular 1990s edition).
If there’s one rule that goes into classic board games, it’s that there are no hard and fast rules. It’s the idiosyncratic tastes of its creators, who somehow managed to tap into some universal need for us to strategize and be entertained for hours on end.
Rolling the Dice
But what of the board game renaissance that has brought even more games into the fold? Will current popular games like Settlers of Catan last the test of time? Dow says that game proves there’s still room for the medium to evolve, citing a 2009 Wired article that claimed Catan is “this generation’s Monopoly. And I think they called it right.”
Dow adds the reason for this is that, “Monopoly is the same game every-time. …and Catan brought board games into what we call a Eurocentric mindset, which is that games shouldn’t be restricted to the same thing every time. Games should evolve and should change, and so Catan was the first game that made it popular in the U.S. where the board changes every single time you set it up.”
As a result of Settlers of Catan’s success, a whole new wave of similarly modifiable titles like Dead of Winter, Imhotep and El Grande have become popular.
But let’s not rule out the reign of the classics just yet. Given Monopoly’s complicated legacy and undeniable staying power, it’s fair to say its monopoly won’t be going disappearing if Parker Brothers has anything to say about it.