Last week we took a look at some of the games from the ancient world. Archeologists have found games dating back 5,000 years, proving that playing them has been an important part of our culture for most of our history. This week, we take a look at some of the games that lead us to our current ‘Golden Age’ of gaming.
Before the Euro game invasion happened in the mid-1990s, with titles like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, another one took place around 150 years before. In the mid-1800’s, most games that were played in North America, were imports from England. As printing costs dropped and games became more widely available, Victorians latched on to parlor games as their favorite pastime. Many of these games were based around cards, like Bridge and Hearts, but this period also saw the birth of the types of board games that would lead to more modern games.
The board games of the Victorian era reflected the things that society deemed important, so often the goal of the game was to retain some virtue or to complete a noble act. They often avoided using dice, because of their unsavory relationship to gambling.
Games like Sociable Snake may have been based on older Egyptian rule sets. It was a race game that had good or virtuous spaces to land on that allowed players to advance, and bad or immoral spaces that would cause them to go back. It’s a mechanic not unlike modern day Chutes (or Snakes) and Ladders.
In 1860, Milton Bradley turned his lithograph business into a board game publisher, after the runaway success of The Checkered Game of Life. In this game, players would move around the board avoiding spaces with bad behavior and trying to accumulate points by committing good deeds. It eventually came to be known as the Game of LIFE, but it’s original grid board and simple pawns were a far cry from the twisting map and family cars of today’s iteration.
One of the first mass produced games in the world was The Mansion of Happiness. Players would navigate a 67-space track, with various different Christian morals and vices that they would hope to land on or avoid. The goal was to reach the Mansion of Happiness at the center of the board. It was originally published in Europe around 1800, and first printed in the United States by W. & S. B. Ives in 1843. Parker Brothers republished the game in 1894. The Mansion of Happiness may have been the most successful game of its time, but as the 19th century ended, games based on morals and virtues were replaced in the public interest with more cutthroat and competitive fare.
Of course, one of the most successful capitalist games of all time is Monopoly. I’m not saying you’re the type of person to flip a table, but if you are, it probably happened while playing this game. Ironically, when it was originally designed in 1903 by anti-monopolist Elizabeth Maggie Phillips, it was intended to explain the values of a single tax theory. Her hope was to educate people of the inherent evil of concentrated land monopolies. Named The Landlord’s Game, it went through various developments and patents, until 1932. That’s when Charles Darrow first played The Landlord’s Game, and inspired, went out to create his own version. In 1933, Parker Brothers began selling a game called Monopoly based on Darrow’s version of The Landlord’s Game. He was tied enough to the design that before long, Darrow was credited as the sole creator of what we know today as Monopoly. A game that started out by attempting to show the problems with corporate greed would be altered slightly and become one of the most valuable board games in history, with a completely opposite message.
The next decades would see mainstay titles like Clue and RISK released. Before the widespread availability of television, and certainly before video games, tabletop games remained extraordinarily popular. As the 1950s and 60s hit, board games became more viewed as a pastime for kids. Games like Mouse Trap, Operation, and KerPlunk became massive hits. Licensed games based on anything from Flash Gordon to Nancy Drew to The Beatles were being published at an incredible rate, and kids were snatching them up.
The 1970s saw the first arcades start to pop up. And by the 80s, video games were big business. The board game industry went through some very lean years, and some people felt like it could mark their end. During this time, publishers were putting out fewer games, but the competition from video games did lead to interesting titles. Stop Thief came out in 1979, and was one of the first games that used an electronic system. Players would use an electronic crime scanner to try and track down a thief on a player board. Dark Tower came out in 1981 and built on the ideas of electronics in games. The tower had a display capable of displaying different pictures and numbers and creating sounds.
Despite the competition from video games, television, and movies, some excellent and influential titles came out in the 80s, including Can’t Stop, Axis & Allies, Trivial Pursuit, Fireball Island, and HeroQuest.
By the time the 1990s hit, there were already signs of a new Euro invasion starting. Dr. Reiner Knizia was coming into his own with Modern Art and Medici. Games like Formula D, Manhattan, and El Grande were hitting the scene. All of this lead up to the release of The Settlers of Catan, and well, you know the rest. The gaming hobby has been growing since then, with conventions popping up all over the world, new titles being announced every day, and the designers of the games we love becoming household names.
There is no telling how long this Golden Age may last. The recent interest in tabletop gaming can be attributed to digital fatigue that we feel in our daily life, its relative affordability compared to other hobbies, and all of the wonderful human connections and social benefits that come from gaming. Board games have had highs and lows over the many centuries of human history, but play is a part of who we are and gaming will continue as long as we have a couple of stones and the ability to roll them.