The Innovators: New Genres

This is the last article in the three-part series on the designers responsible for the innovations found in so many of today’s games.  New mechanisms are great, but what about the ideas that are so influential that an entirely new genre of games is created?  It doesn’t happen often, but we are all greatly enriched when it does.  Some of these genres go back a long, long while, so we decided to focus on the published games which launched them, and not parlor games, public domain games, and such.  Here are these game families, together with the games and designers that began them.

Genre:  Word Games

Charles Hammett – Word Making and Taking (1877)
Alfred Butts – Scrabble (1948)

Word games are those in which the players have to come up with words, usually from individual letters, in order to score.  Games like these go back a long way, to the parlor games of Victorian times, if not earlier. The first published one we’ve found is Word Making and Taking, released by Charles Hammett, a stationary store owner, way back in 1877!  It was strongly based on the parlor game Anagrams, in which players would steal the words their opponents had formed and rearrange the letters to form a new word, usually after adding a letter or two.  There were many other published versions of this basic idea through the years, along with other word games. But, of course, the king of word games is Scrabble.  It was invented by Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect, during the early 1930’s.  He sold handmade copies of his game, while searching for more than a decade for a manufacturer who could mass produce it.  Finally, he sold the rights to an entrepreneur named James Brunot, who changed some rules, updated the appearance, and gave it its name.  Within a few years, it was an enormous best seller. Word games in general continue to be extremely popular (including widely played titles like Alan Turoff’s Boggle, released in the seventies), but it all stems from the appearance of Scrabble, which is still far and away the best selling word game in the world.

Genre:  Pick Up and Deliver Games

Uncredited – Game of Uncle Sam’s Mail (1893)
Uncredited – Cargoes (1934)
Uncredited – Game of the States (1940)

These are games in which items are obtained from locations on the board and transported to other locations, where they are delivered, either for cash or VPs.  They’re a staple of modern gaming and the idea, not surprisingly, has been around for a long time—even back to the nineteenth century! 1893’s Game of Uncle Sam’s Mail, published by New York City’s McLoughlin Brothers, had players delivering items, but not picking anything up (sounds like some pretty lazy mailmen).  Cargoes, another American design, this one from the 30’s, had the players picking up items and delivering them to a common destination.  Other early games may have done similar things. Game of the States, a 1940 best-seller from Milton Bradley, may have been the first true “pick up and deliver” game; it very likely was the first popular one.


Genre:  Deduction Games

Anthony Pratt – Cluedo/Clue (1949)

By “deduction games”, we mean designs where the players use logic and the process of elimination to ascertain the clues necessary to win the game.  This is independent from “social deduction games”, which usually rely on psychology, tells, and bluffing. Given this definition, there’s no, uh, mystery which game launched the deduction game genre–it’s Anthony Pratt’s Cluedo.  Pratt, a British musician, created the game in 1944, with the assistance of his wife, Elva.  He sold it to Waddingtons the following year, but due to material shortages in post-war Britain, it didn’t go into production until 1949.  It was simultaneously released in the U.S. under the name Clue.  The game established many of the standard concepts of the deduction genre, including having to deduce a missing card by questioning your opponents about the cards in their hands.  Clue, in its various forms and rethemings, remains the most popular deduction game in the world.

Genre:  Property Games

Elizabeth Magie, et al – Monopoly (1935)

These are games in which the players purchase spaces on the board and can charge their opponents fees when they land on those spaces.  For much of the twentieth century, these were the dominant kinds of designs in American gaming, so there’s a good chance many of you know some of their history.  Anyway, it all began with a woman named Elizabeth Magie, who designed The Landlord’s Game around 1903.  She wanted the game to serve as a political statement to illustrate the evils of land ownership.  It may have been the first game to use a cyclic path (as opposed to a linear path, with a beginning and end) and was almost certainly the first to let players purchase spaces on the board.  Magie began selling the game in 1906 and it was reasonably popular. Many players made their own modifications of it and a large number of “folk” versions of the game, which added things like monopolies and house building, appeared over the next 25 years.  In 1934, an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow took a version of the game, changed the art (which added to the appeal of the game considerably), and began selling it in Philadelphia department stores. The next year, he sold it to Parker Brothers and the rest, as they say, is history.

Genre:  Classic Wargames

Charles S. Roberts – Tactics (1954)

In 1952, Charles Roberts was a mere 22 years old and a member of the U.S. National Guard, when he designed Tactics to, in his own words, help “learn the nuances of the Principles of War” and further his career.  Two years later, his plans of being a career soldier having not worked out, he started selling the game via mail order.  This was the first commercially available tabletop wargame, complete with cardboard counters, zones of control, and a Combat Results Table.  Only 2000 copies were sold, but this was still enough to earn Roberts the title of “The Father of Wargaming”. Tactics II (1958), which is essentially the same game, had a much larger print run (via Roberts’ newly formed Avalon Hill company) and this, together with the concurrently released Gettysburg, the first historically-based wargame, were the designs that truly spawned the wargaming hobby.


Genre:  18xx Games

Francis Tresham – 1829 (1974)
Francis Tresham/Bruce Shelley – 1830 (1986)

18xx games are track-laying and share purchasing train games with (usually) no luck factors.  Tresham’s 1829, based on the early railroad lines of Great Britain, was the first such game and many of the 18xx mechanisms and concepts come from this design.  The only version of 1829 to be published came from Tresham’s small company, Hartland Trefoil, so it didn’t get a tremendous amount of exposure.  During the early 80’s, Tresham decided to create a companion game to be based on U.S. railroads and Avalon Hill agreed to produce it.  Tresham made the new game more dynamic and ruthless, to mirror the robber baron mentality that dominated American business at that time.  The result was 1830.  It took several years to hammer the new game into shape and the contributions of Bruce Shelley, who developed the design, were significant.  But the more bruising and interactive gameplay of 1830, combined with the far greater exposure from an Avalon Hill produced title, really set the stage for the massive popularity of 18xx.  Today, there are over 70 published 18xx games and it’s considered one of the most renowned and skillful game families ever created.

Genre:  Role-playing Games

Dave Arneson/Gary Gygax – Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

In role-playing games, each player plays a character, acting out the actions that they take.  The success of those actions depends upon the character’s abilities and players can improve these abilities over time and over the course of multiple games.  In the early 70’s, Dave Arneson, a college student and miniatures aficionado, added rules for individual character growth to Gary Gygax’s published miniatures game of Chainmail to run a series of dungeon-based campaigns.  Players were encouraged to speak as their characters and act out their roles.  Arneson later demonstrated the game to Gygax, and together, they codified the rules to come up with Dungeons & Dragons.  Unable to find another publisher for their creation, they published the game themselves and it became a massive hit.  D&D spawned a hugely popular genre and role-playing games (RPGs) continue to be played by millions of fans throughout the world.

Genre:  Civilization Games

Francis Tresham – Civilization (1980)

Civ games emulate the rise and fall of different civilizations, usually based on historical counterparts.  The first of these, of course, was Francis Tresham’s Civilization, produced in 1980 by Hartland Trefoil and Gibson, and then in 1981 by Avalon Hill.  The game included all kinds of innovative touches (for example, it’s considered the first design to include a tech tree), but what may have excited players more than anything else was its sheer epic scale.  Despite the fact that it requires 7 players to be at its best and takes six or more hours to play, the game was exceedingly popular and is considered to be one of the seminal designs in gaming history. It also spawned a new kind of game, as many other designers tried their hand at creating similarly epic “Civ games”.  There have also been many attempts to come up with games of shorter duration that provide the same level of depth and immersion (the so-called Civ-lite games), usually with little success.


Genre:  Modern Cooperative Games

Richard Launius/Sandy Petersen/Lynn Willis/Charlie Krank – Arkham Horror (1987)
Reiner Knizia – Lord of the Rings (2000)
Matt Leacock – Pandemic (2008)

Cooperative games, where the players join forces to defeat the game system, are nothing new.  They could be found as far back as 50 or 60 years ago, but most, if not all of them, were simple ways for adults to play non-competitively with children.  There were also games with cooperative aspects, such as designs with teams of allied players, or otherwise competitive games where everyone lost if certain conditions were met.  Arkham Horror, a Cthulhu-inspired title that was the brainchild of lead designer Richard Launius, was something different:  an adult game that was usually played in full cooperative mode. The game was reasonably popular upon its release, but its impact was still somewhat limited by its fringe subject matter (H.P. Lovecraft had not yet become mainstream during the late 80’s).  So there was genuine excitement when Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings appeared in 2000.  Here was a true cooperative game for experienced gamers, with a popular theme that logically lent itself to player cooperation.  It served as a real spur for co-ops and was the true launching point for the genre. Still, it took Matt Leacock’s massively popular Pandemic in 2008 to really make the concept mainstream and that led to the large number of cooperative games we see today.

Genre:  Climbing Games

Urs Hostettler – Tichu (1991)

A climbing game is a trick-taking card game in which the tricks can go around the table more than one time.  The name comes from the fact that in order to play cards to a trick, they must be higher in value than the previous cards played.  Usually, the opening lead determines the type and number of cards that must be played to the trick—for example, if a pair of cards is led, only pairs can subsequently be played.  These games existed in the Far East for centuries as common, traditional games, but prior to 1980, they were unknown in the West. During the late 80’s, games like these played with standard decks of cards began to appear outside of Asia, bearing titles like Asshole, or even less savory terms.  In 1990, designer Lee Yih released the climbing game Gang of Four, which is similar to the traditional game Big Two, in a small print run.  But the real turning point came when Urs Hostettler, best known as the designer of Kremlin, was exposed to several climbing games during a trip to China in 1988.  The games fascinated him, so he took the next three years to come up with his own version, which included new rules for the four special cards, along with other refinements.  He published it in 1991, through his own company Fata Morgana, and called it Tichu.  The game was popular in Europe (just as Richard Garfield’s climbing game The Great Dalmuti was popular in the U.S. after it debuted in 1995), but it wasn’t until Abacus and Rio Grande reprinted Tichu in 1998 that it really took off.  It has since become an international favorite and is one of the most popular published card games in the world.  There are now many other climbing card games, but Tichu is unquestionably the king of them all.

Genre:  Collectable Card Games

Richard Garfield – Magic: The Gathering (1993)

CCG’s are card games where the cards are purchased in separate packs, allowing the players to add to their collection (and to their abilities) as they see fit.  The business model has both a collectability aspect, as players often want to complete their card sets, as well as a gunslinger mentality, since the appeal of putting together the ultimate deck, which can defeat all comers, can entice players to spend increasingly large amounts of cash.  Business-wise, it’s a brilliant concept and comes from Richard Garfield, who designed Magic: The Gathering to fit the model, and Peter Adkison, the CEO of Magic’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast.  Garfield was a young college professor in the early 90’s when he pitched the idea to Adkison of combining the play of card games with the collectability of baseball cards.  Magic as a game was a major design achievement, but it was the business model that made it such a success and allowed it to launch a genre that dominated gaming for the next decade or more and is still widely played.


Genre:  Card-driven Wargames

Mark Herman – We the People (1994)

Card-driven wargames (often referred to as CDW’s) are wargames where variety is introduced not by dice or other random factors, but by the cards the players play.  Many include events, as well as the movement of armies or generals; typically, after playing a card, the player has the option of using it for its event or for its more basic abilities.  Mark Herman, a veteran wargame designer, introduced the concept in Avalon Hill’s We the People, which simulates the American Revolutionary War.  Somewhat appropriately, this innovation has revolutionized modern wargames by giving the players greater control and decision-making, while also (usually) reducing complexity, rules exceptions, and game duration.

Genre:  Social Deduction

Dmitry Davidoff – Mafia (1987)
Andrew Plotkin – Werewolf (1997)
Philippe des Pallieres/Herve Marly – The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow (2001)

Social deduction games usually involve hidden roles, psychology, and bluffing.  Within this framework, the objective can be accomplishing a task, identifying other players’ roles, or simply surviving to the end of the game.  The emphasis is on player interaction and, often, there are hardly any other mechanisms at play. The first social deduction game was created by a Russian psychology student named Dmitry Davidoff in 1987, as a means to assist him with gathering data from his subjects (high school students he met with regularly) for his term papers.  He called the game Mafia, with the Mafia players attempting to murder the innocent players without revealing their roles.  Over the next ten years, the game spread via word of mouth. Then, in 1997, Andrew Plotkin, a successful interactive fiction writer, encountered it and fell in love with it.  He began talking about the game on a relatively new invention, the Internet, and did so by changing the theme to werewolves, which he considered a better thematic fit for the mechanics.  Suddenly, this “new” game of Werewolf was a world-wide phenomenon and dedicated players added new roles, with new abilities, to the game.  Finally, two veteran French designers named Philippe des Pallieres and Herve Marly were taught the game by Bruno Faidutti and decided to create a published version of it.  The result was The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow, which came out in 2001 and made enough of an impression to get an SdJ nomination.  It also led to an explosion of similar games and social deduction designs soon became a major gaming family.


Genre:  Modern Dice Games

Reiner Knizia – Pickomino (2005)
Tom Lehmann – To Court the King (2006)

Well, there’s obviously nothing new about dice.  But for many years, gamers in general, and Eurogamers in particular, turned their noses up at games that included dice.  They were considered “luckfests” and more suitable for casual gamers than sophisticated players. And it’s true, designers had come up with lots of clever alternatives to dice as a way of introducing variety in games that reduced the luck factor found in so many earlier titles.  So even a transcedent design like Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop (1980), which is not only a great dice game, but probably the greatest push-your-luck game ever designed, wasn’t enough to remove the prejudice against dice that so many gamers had.  But then, in 2005, Reiner Knizia created Pickomino, a pure dice game, with a little bit of “take that” and some nice decisions about when to push your luck.  It was a big hit. The next year, Tom Lehmann came up with To Court the King, another popular title, which let players acquire dice manipulation abilities and extra dice with the dice combinations they rolled.  This also sold well. Suddenly, dice were cool and the number of pure dice games produced each year exploded. Designers continue to find innovative ways of using dice in games and they continue to be very popular, so the momentum created by these two titles has not abated.

Genre:  COIN Wargames

Volko Ruhnke – Andean Abyss (2012)

Among the more recent trends in wargaming are the Counter Insurgency (COIN) designs.  These are card-based multiplayer wargames in which each faction has very different goals and abilities.  Many of them are based on recent historical examples of insurgency and revolution. The first few instances of these were created by a CIA national security analyst named Volko Ruhnke, beginning with 2012’s Andean Abyss, based around the insurgencies in Colombia during the 1990’s.  The COIN games have proven to be extremely popular and GMT, which has published all of Ruhnke’s designs, now features 12 titles in the series.

Genre:  Roll & Write Games

Uncredited – Challenge Yahtzee (1974)
Sid Sackson – Choice (1989)
Heinz Wuppen – Wurfel Bingo (2007)
Christof Tisch – Mosaix (2009)
Steffen Benndorf – Qwixx (2012)

One of the most popular kinds of designs over the past five or six years are Roll & Write games.  The accepted definition for these seems to be titles where each turn’s activities are generated by a dice roll and where each player is able to use those dice to take actions on every player’s turn.  This deals very neatly with the downtime issues that often plague other dice games, which no doubt has a lot to do with the genre’s popularity.  It’s probably accurate to view this as a recent innovation, even though there are some earlier examples which technically meet the definition. For example, there’s a 1971 design called Shotzee which would be considered Roll & Write today, but it’s almost completely unknown.  A few years later, a Yahtzee variant called Challenge Yahtzee appeared, where everyone uses the same rolls, but because players may be saving different numbers of dice, you might have to reroll one die at a time, which is a bit painful.  Again, it is not a well remembered game. The first instance of any significance we can find is Sid Sackson’s Choice (also known as Extra and Can’t Stop Express), which is basically a multiplayer version of his Solitaire Dice, from 1969’s A Gamut of Games.  Still, this was an isolated instance and didn’t seem to influence other designs.  The first popular games which feel like Roll & Write popped up about ten years ago, as Heinz Wuppen’s Wurfel Bingo and Christof Tisch’s Mosaix began to establish the trend.  But the game that really popularized the idea is 2012’s Qwixx, designed by Steffen Benndorf.  That was the game that seems to have inspired other designers to jump on board and truly spawned the current Roll & Write genre.


Genre:  Legacy Games

Rob Daviau/Chris Dupuis – Risk Legacy (2011)
Matt Leacock/Rob Daviau – Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015)

One of the most exciting new genres in gaming today are legacy games.  In a legacy game, the game state permanently changes from session to session, so that no two copies of the game will wind up the same.  Rob Daviau came up with the concept while working at Hasbro and he and Chris Dupuis implemented it in Risk Legacy, the first legacy game, which caused a mild sensation.  Four years later, Daviau teamed with Matt Leacock to create Pandemic Legacy, which zoomed to the #1 spot on the Geek in record time.  This design truly cemented the legacy concept in the hearts and minds of gamers and it continues to be a fertile area of innovation for designers today.


That concludes our series on The Innovators of gaming.  We hope you enjoyed this look backward at the mechanisms and genres that so influence the games of today.  The good news is that gaming is such a vibrant and creative hobby that it won’t be long before the games of tomorrow will feature even more innovations.  Maybe a future article will highlight those!

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12 Responses to The Innovators: New Genres

  1. Mitchell Thomashow says:

    This a a superb series of articles. It demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge of board game history, a deep awareness of the evolution of board games, and a respect for history and precedent. It’s clearly written and a joy to read. It can easily become a book length project as there’s really nothing like it. David Parlett’s Oxford Guide to Board Games does a great job from a broader historical and cross-cultural perspective. This is a wonderful contribution that elevates how we write and think about games, while demonstrating great respect for the designers that are so deserving of credit. Thanks for this excellent three part essay.

  2. Oliver Kinne says:

    Another good article. Thank you. The only issue I have is with the genre “Property Games”. I don’t like there is only Monopoly. I think it needs to be more generalized. There are a number of worker placement games where you have to pay the owner of the space a fee – think Lords of Waterdeep buildings. Otherwise I do like your articles.

    • huzonfirst says:

      But the Property games (or whatever you want to call them) are a specific genre, Oliver. Roll and move, buy an unowned space, pay rent if the space is owned. And for that group of games (which were, and continue to be, extremely popular), Monopoly is unquestionably the design that started it all.

  3. Aldo Nepore says:

    Living card game, maybe?
    BTW: Thank you for the good job.

    • huzonfirst says:

      BTW, some of these suggestions might be the basis of a follow-up article in the future, so keep ’em coming!

      LCG’s are a good suggestion. I think there was a first instance of this (FFG modifying one of their existing CCG’s, if memory serves), but I don’t remember the game.

  4. Jeroen says:

    Not sure it’s big enough to qualify as genre, but did you also consider Britannia-like empire rise-and-fall games? Potentially with Barbarian, Kingdom & Empire as one of the earlier examples (albeit without a predefined sequence entering the game).

    P.S. Great job on the series of articles, quite enjoyable :)

  5. David says:

    No Roll Through the Ages on the roll and write? That was 2009, so you have one slightly earlier, but I’d think RTTA was more widely known.

    Am I misunderstanding the header? Climbing Games lists Tichu, but on the next line it says the first was Gang of Four?

    Once again, very much enjoyed the whole series! Great work.

  6. huzonfirst says:

    David, Roll Through the Ages doesn’t allow all the players to use each dice roll. So it’s more of a Yahtzee-style game than a Roll & Move.

    And while Gang of Four predated Tichu, it was the latter game that really launched the Climbing game genre. For the genre section, we were more concerned about the games that led to there *being* a genre, rather than just the first such appearance. And after all, these games were widely played for centuries, just not in the West.

    Glad you enjoyed the series. Thanks!

  7. Pingback: Review of Hanamikoji (Deep Water Games) | The Opinionated Gamers

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