Dale Yu – Book Review of Tortured Cardboard: How Great Board Games Arise from Chaos, Survive by Chance, Impart Wisdom, and Gain Immortality.

Tortured Cardboard: How Great Board Games Arise from Chaos, Survive by Chance, Impart Wisdom, and Gain Immortality

  • Author – Philip E. Orbanes (with the Games Gnome)
  • Publisher – Permuted Press
  • Published July 2019
  • Amazon affiliate link (yes, if you click this and buy the book, we might make a commission, but all proceeds from this go to keeping our site afloat)

For those of you inclined to read about boardgames, Philip Orbanes is a name that you are probably familiar with. He is one of the few authors I know of with multiple books about boardgames.  Likely best known for his books about Monopoly, Mr. Orbanes has also written an interesting book on the history of Parker Brothers called The Game Makers. (As an aside, Mr. Orbanes has served as the chief judge at the US and World Monopoly championships, so he is in a great spot to talk at length about the game).

As Mr. Orbanes is a previous employee of Parker Brothers, the former VP of Research and Development in fact, there was an obvious connection to a book about the history of the company that used to employ him. Tortured Cardboard is a bit different as it explores board games from different companies as well as some public domain games. What each game in this book has in common is they are felt to be games that will permanently be a part of our culture, and each of them are felt to have a life lesson to teach us.

From the publisher’s website (and the back cover):

Be enlightened and entertained. Be prepared for irreverence. Come on this journey through time and witness how these games came to be, why they flourish, and what you can gain by applying their “secrets.”

The term “tortured cardboard” sums up what happens to cardboard when making a board game (bound, cut, folded, punched). And, as you’ll learn, great board games often reflect whatever “tortures” culture. Each gained immortality after a chaotic beginning and a chance survival. Why? Because—be it chess, backgammon, Clue®, Monopoly®, Scrabble®, Settlers of Catan®, or one of ten others featured in this book—each is replete with “lessons” applicable to achievement in your life.

As the twenty-first century gathers momentum, our love affair with board games continues to strengthen. They involve us, they refine social skills, and they teach great lessons applicable in real life.

“Tortuous” is the journey of every great board game, from birth in chaotic times, through survival by mere chance, to raging popularity and eventual immortality. Tortured Cardboard reveals how the great ones came to endure and—all fun aside—how each teaches us something about our own behavior while providing “rules” that can work in your life.

The book is split up into sixteen chapters, most of which focuses on a single game. A partial list of the games covered in this book include: Clue, Monopoly, Scrabble, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers, Careers, Risk, Chess, Backgammon, Mouse Trap and other plastic games, D&D, CCGs (Magic: the Gathering), Trivial Pursuit, Catan, The Game of Life. As you can see, this is a list of nothing but the hits of games that Joe American would likely know and have grown up with.

the author, from his Boardgamegeek page picture

For almost all the games on the above list, Orbanes takes an in-depth look at the game, usually talking about the design and invention of the game, and then often talking about how the game was brought to the market. Much of this information was unknown to me prior to this book, and surely much of this information could only have been known/learned by someone who has spent their entire life in the US boardgame industry. Rare was a chapter that didn’t contain some factoid that I was fascinated to learn about. Also included in the book were a fair amount of pictures of original versions of games or prototypes of games, and it was very interesting to see how some of the games developed from their designer’s handmade prototypes into the retail versions that everyone is familiar with.

After the description of the origin of the game, most chapters then move to a seemingly real-life encounter with someone familiar with the game either as a game player or game producer. There is some conversation with said expert, sometimes including the Games Gnome (more on him in a second), and often a game of the chapter’s topic is being played in the background, and one of the characters makes an aphorism or life lesson which has been derived from said game. Each chapter is thus complete, and in fact, each could be a fine stand-alone vignette in its own right.

But who/what is this Games Gnome? Well, he is listed as a co-author. And, in the Prologue to the book, we are introduced to the Games Gnome, who is a friend of Mr. Orbanes, and they chat along throughout the book. The Games Gnome is apparently able to travel through time, and through his special powers, Mr. Orbanes and the Gnome are, for instance, able to have conversations about things that happened in the way-back of time. They travel from place to place and seemingly through time to talk about the different games (as they happened).

For me, the construct of the Games Gnome brings an informal tone to the book (which is appreciated after too many bone-dry books about boardgames), but maybe it goes over the line a bit. At times, it’s hard to tell when Orbanes is in make-believe land and when he’s actually talking to real people, and the folksy humor of the Gnome did not appeal to me. I might have preferred an approach that stuck a bit more to the facts, as I found the travelogue theme and the forced running dialog to be a bit overdone.

Though I did not care for the style, the content of the book was still fascinating, and I found myself having read the book cover-to-cover in three short sittings. As I said earlier, there was a bunch of little tidbits that I learned from the book, and I kept moving on to the next chapter in search of these.

Tortured Cardboard feels like the book version of the favorite TV series, Good Eats. Each chapter has a definite focus, but there is a lot of extraneous but interesting asides included as the main story is told. The style is quirky, and definitely not for everybody, but in the end, the original content and the original approach to the content make for a pleasing product.

The book was definitely an enjoyable read, and it is a book I would recommend for those interested in reading about boardgames. Though the focus of this blog is more the Eurogame, TGOO are really only talked about for a chapter – as you can see from the list of games above, this is more about classic games and classic “American” games – so this would also be a great fit for parents/grandparents. You’re probably going to be shopping online this weekend, keep this book in mind as a possible gift to the boardgame lover in your family.

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Dale Yu – Book Review of Tortured Cardboard: How Great Board Games Arise from Chaos, Survive by Chance, Impart Wisdom, and Gain Immortality.

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  3. huzonfirst says:

    I agree with Dale’s assessment of this book. There were a lot of things I could have done without: all the Games Gnome nonsense and the attempts to analyze why these games were successful by quoting Carl Yung, of all people. But in each chapter, there was also a good deal of information provided. Some of it is relatively well known, at least to those familiar with gaming history, but much of it was brand new to me. These fascinating nuggets made the book very worthwhile reading. So I can also recommend it, but feel free to skim over some of the less informative portions.

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