From time to time, the Opinionated Gamers are happy to host writing from some noted gamers. Chris Kovac is a good friend of mine, despite his Canadian-ness ;), who asked to contribute a piece on Sid Sackson. This is a timely request given Joe Huber’s recent article on Acquire.
1963 Game Diary – Sid Sackson
An Overview by Chris Kovac
The following is an overview of a bit of gaming history, namely the 1963 Game Diary of the game designer Sid Sackson (1920-2002). Sid Sackson was a major North American game designer of the 1960’s – 1980’s who created such games as Acquire, Can’t Stop and Focus/Domination among others.
First some background on how I got a look at this game diary at the Gathering of Friends gaming convention Dan Bloom managed to organize a small behind the scenes tour of the Strong National Museum of Play. The Strong museum is located in Rochester New York and its mandate is collect and preserve toys and games as well as related material by American designers from colonial times to the present day. This includes collecting board and video games. Nicolas Ricketts one of the curators at the museum was nice enough to give us a behind the scenes tour showing us the storage rooms containing the board games of the collection including many of Sid Sackson prototypes. As part of the tour we got a chance to visit the research library at the museum where much of Sid Sacksons papers now reside including the game diaries. Julie Rossi one of the archivist at the library showed us a selection of the Sid Sackson papers including the diaries (from 1963 to mid 1990’s) and correspondence files. She was kind enough to forward to those that were interested the only diary which has been digitized (1963) and the correspondence files of Sid Sackson relating to the 3M company which published Acquire among other games. Now onto the overview of the game diary.
The 1963 game diary consists of a number of entries where Sid Sackson keeps notes on his various gaming activities throughout the year. The entries can be broken down into the following catagories:
1. Game Idea
By far the most interesting type of entry. These entries usually consist of a game name along quick yet very precise drawing to illustrate the main game concept and some basic rules ideas summarized next to the drawing. These are often summaries of game notes he had made. Sid Sackson had a very good nack of distilling a game down to its basics in only a few short sentances. A number of these ideas were later incorporated in part or as a whole into Sid’s games.
2. Game Reviews and Comments
Sid carried on an extensive correspondence with a wide variety of independent game designers both in North America and other countries. Many of these designers sent him prototypes to comment on. Sid would summarize the game in a few short sentances including his overall feel for the game and would often note when and with whom he carried out the correspondence. Other entries of this type would be simple notes on whom he had sent correspondence and which folder he put the correspondence in.
3. Game Research entries
These entries are about the various games, books and patents Sid obtains to further his understanding of games. For books he would note the title and author as well as sometime noting games he found with the book or magazine. For magazines (especially playthings – an early toy trade magazine) he would also note any games mentioned and who published them. Furthermore Sid would often go down to department stores and look at new games and by them occasional to harvest for ideas. His friends (especially Bob Abbott) would also often tell him about games they had found in various books and magazines which Sid would then note in the diary. A final source would be game patents from the 1900’s, 1910’s and 1920’s which he would send away for noting when he sent for patents and when he had received them. These entries are a treasure trove of what games were being made in 1963 and who were making them.
4. Selling Games
1963 was the year Sid Sackson self published Focus and a number of entries especially in October and November make note of when he sold copies of the game and to whom including full postal address.
5. Playing Games
Sid would note when he played various games including games he received from other game designers as well as his own designs. Sid played with a wide variety of people including him immediate family, his friends, game companies, YMCA groups and a few times with patients at the local veterans hospital. He would make notes of how well a game played, how many times he played the game and for his own designs what changes worked/did not work for a game.
6. Miscellaneous entries and Blanks
There are a number of hard to classify entries including things like a transcribed letter to his friend Bob Abbott from a Martin Gardner about a game design of his. Other entire include things like when he did archival work for Parker Brothers or spent three days at a hotel testing games with executives from Milton Bradley. Finally some entries are blank. Sid like other people even though he was a great game enthusiast did have a family life and the blanks represent days when he was doing other things (vacation, family activities, sick, etc).
7. Index Entries
At the end of this diary Sid creates an index where he lists all the games, books, magazines and game ideas he had and writes down all the date entries for each game. This index helps bind the diary into a cohesive whole and allows one to quickly find game entries within the diary. He does not in this diary list people or companies in the index.
In terms of game design 1963 stands out for two things:
1. This was the year Sid Sackson finished the design and self published the abstract game FOCUS and the diary has a lot of entries on the publishing, advertising of the game as well as noting sales of the game to various individuals.
2. 1963 was the year Sid Sackson sold his game Vacation to 3M which was renamed by the company to Acquire. This is perhaps his best game and is still played world wide with a large number of reprints by various companies including the well known Avalon Hill edition. The entries though fewer than that for Focus do give a glimpse into how Sid negotiated with 3M and the changes that were made to the game before publication.
Overall this game diary gives a very interesting snap shot of not only Sid Sackson as a game designer and the development of his games especially Focus and Acquire but on what was going on in terms of gaming in the early 1960’s including what kind of games were being produced, what kind of books and magazines existed and what overall the game industry was like back in the 1960’s. I found reading the diary gave me a much better appreciation of who Sid Sackson was and his great contribution to our Board Gaming hobby. Hopefully in the future the Strong Museum will digitize more of the diaries and expose more of the world to the genius which was Sid Sackson.
The “a Martin Gardner” referred to was, most likely, the same Martin Gardiner who wrote the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. While his writings were generally more on the puzzle end of things, he was also interested in boardgames and wrote of them, too.