Welcome to the first article of our Gaming Timeline series! It will consist of short (and sometimes not so short) write-ups of 172 of the most notable games of the last 120 years, all arranged in chronological order. This is a group effort, and there will often be multiple contributors for each game, so we’ll list the author at the end of each submission. We’ll begin with the first decade of the twentieth century, which included the six memorable designs listed in the segment of the timeline shown above. As you can see, innovation in card games was a particular feature of the period, along with the design that led to the most popular board game of all time. Let’s get things started!
The year 1900 is a fairly arbitrary date to choose for this timeline, but not an insensible one. After a wild growth in the game industry in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, from George Parker’s publication of Banking in 1883 through the gorgeous artwork from the McLoughlin Brothers, W. & S. B. Ives, and others, a mixture of consolidation and burgeoning interest helped lead to unique developments in gameplay. There are many great games dating back to the 1800s, but the rate of innovation really started to climb as the twentieth century dawned.
Many of us have played Pit, a frenetic, real-time set collection game that emulates the crazed bidding that occurred at commodity exchanges at the turn of the century (and for many years thereafter). The Chicago Board of Trade, which served as an inspiration for the design, was known as “The Pit”. The game is best known for the cries of “Three! Three!” and the iconic bell that is rung by the player who triumphantly manages to acquire all of the cards of one of the commodities.
Less well known is the strong possibility that a controversial figure named Edgar Cayce was involved in the design or development of the game. Cayce was one of the most famous (or infamous) psychics of the twentieth century. He is supposed to have performed over 10,000 psychic readings and faith healings over the course of his life. Many of his predictions were written down and served as the basis for some branches of the New Age movement. The idea that such an individual could have contributed to the creation of a game like Pit is a fascinating one, but is it true? Joe Huber, who specializes in this kind of gaming history, addresses this in the following paragraphs.
The story of Pit is, at this late date, a difficult one to fully disentangle from the stories of Bourse, Panic, Commerce, Gavitt’s Stock Exchange, and Gammut. And it’s even more difficult to sort out if these games all derived from a single source, whether a game played with traditional cards or a single specialized deck. Having looked for evidence in support of such a theory, I’ve had little success, and nothing definitive. But there are some clues: the October 9, 1903 Hopkinsville Kentuckian had an article announcing that Edgar Cayce (who had moved from Hopkinsville to Bowling Green, Ohio) “is the author of a parlor game which will net him considerable money and bring him much fame”. It refers to the game as “The Pit”, not just Pit, and a deck of 64 cards. But it also compares the game to “the famous game of ‘Bourse’”, but with changes that make the game better. Finally, it notes that he has sold the game outright to Parker Manufacturing Company (a.k.a. Parker Brothers). Oddly, a 2020 article from the Hoptown Chronicle (of Hopkinsville, of course) states that Cayce “had failed to copyright his idea and he couldn’t convince the company to pay him royalties. The only compensation he received from Parker Brothers…was several decks of Pit cards and a small amount of cash.” Which I suspect reflects both the 1900s view of copyrights and a later regret on Cayce’s part for his choice of an outright sale rather than royalties.
But beyond the clouded origins of the game, Pit remains a thrilling and enjoyable game over a century after its introduction. Turnless trading makes for a loud game–I suspect that many times groups at adjoining tables wish a Pit game hadn’t broken out next to them–but also helps the game support up to ten players flawlessly and with no notable impact to the flow of the game. While most of the games I played as a child I stopped playing decades ago, this is an exception; I remember at the time just wishing I could get folks to play Pit more often.
The one time I’ve had hotel security called on me was during a rather boisterous 3 am game of Pit at Gulf Games. I consider it a badge of honor. I still own the edition that plays up to 10 players and enjoy it every time it hits the table.
One of the staples of my family of 6 while I was growing up. The volume levels of 2 parents, 4 teenagers (plus any friends) all yelling at the top of their lungs is a sight to behold (and hear). The addition of the bull and bear would make things truly swingy as there’s that one poor, pitiful person just trying to pass on their two cards while everyone knows that it’s no longer a good deal. A friend even modified the rules to run the game with our large-ish youth group. Each group had an envelope with cards and they had to send in a runner to the middle of the room in order to try and trade for a set of cards.
I actually had never played Pit until I was introduced to it by a member of my gaming group. I love it. Really missing a large group to play it right now. Here’s a picture of the cards in one of the older versions of the game.
500 was one of the most popular trick-taking card games in the world for the first 20 years of the twentieth century. Its rules are kind of a mash-up of two popular nineteenth century trick-takers, Euchre and Bridge. The most common versions are for four players (with partners) and for three players. At the beginning of each hand, there is an auction where the player bids indicate how many tricks their side needs to take. The winner of the auction gets to set the trump suit and gets to add the 3-card kitty to his hand. The winning side only scores points if the number of tricks they take is at least equal to the number that they bid during the auction.
To me, the most interesting thing about the game is that the rules were codified and patented by the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) in 1904. USPCC was then, as it is now, one of the largest manufacturers of playing cards in the U.S. I’m not sure if USPCC took an active role in creating or standardizing any part of the game; nor do I know how they got a patent on what seems to have been a game in the public domain. But they did it and promoted the game fairly heavily, which no doubt had a great deal to do with its popularity. Decks were sold specifically to play 500 with, just as they are today for Poker, Bridge, and Pinochle.
The standard game could be played with an ordinary deck of cards. There was also a version for six players that required a 63 card deck. To handle this, USPCC sold a special deck with cards that had 11, 12, and 13 pips on them in each suit. I’ve seen pictures of them and I have to say, they look pretty weird!
500 began to fall out of favor around 1920 and in much of the world, it got permanently pushed aside when Contract Bridge burst onto the scene in 1925. However, there are still geographic areas where the game remains popular. I’ve always read that it’s considered by many to be the national card game of Australia. So let’s check in with one of our resident Aussies to see what experiences he might have with the game.
It’s alleged this is Australia’s favourite card game and rare elsewhere. I can’t speak to the latter, but the former could well have been true back in the day, as I played a ton of it growing up. As did my gaming buddies, and if the call is ever to play a 4p traditional card game, this is the go-to. Kids don’t play cards these days so its legend is no doubt fading, but for us it’s always been one of the great partnership trick-taking card games, providing enough luck to be social and enough skill to reward the better players. As my Father always said, you can always rely on there being an Ace and a Bower in the kitty – bid it up! We’ve found it’s more fun with house rules, such as allowing bidders back in after previously passing, and with no misere call allowed until there’s a 7 call. Introduce some basic bidding conventions, with the 6 calls indicating Aces say, and a 6 No Trumps call indicating you’ve got the joker (maybe!?) and you get a consistently entertaining and high hand-scoring game.
I believe I encountered 500 in college in California and thoroughly enjoyed it–I prefer it over Bridge (easier bidding) and (slightly) over Spades. I’m unaware of any direct Australia ties, but I certainly have not found other players in the many years since I exited college.
The Landlord’s Game (1904)
While you may have heard of The Landlord’s Game, it’s very likely you’ve never played it – as familiar as it looks. The Landlord’s Game was designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1902-1903, patented and self-published in 1904 – all to teach a lesson in Georgism, and the unfairness of rents. As a game, The Landlord’s Game was not terribly successful itself; most of those who enjoyed the game played the monopolistic version of the game, and ended up making the changes that turned the game into Monopoly. That said, a lot of what you know of Monopoly does trace back to The Landlord’s Game – Jail, Go (labelled “Labor upon Mother Earth produces wages” – though only $100 was received), railroads, utilities, properties, houses (though not yet hotels), and Chance cards. One of the largest differences is one that might actually make the game more palatable to the audiences of today – the game ended after a fixed number of times around the board, with the richest player winning. All of which helps to demonstrate the importance of Magie’s accomplishment. Very much against the expectations for the era, she designed a game, saw it through to international publication – later by Parker Brothers themselves, who acquired her patent to help avoid issues with Monopoly – and had a major influence upon the best-selling game ever.
As Joe says, the reason Lizzie Magie created The Landlord’s Game was to promote her support of the Single Tax, which proposes that only land is taxed. This system was based on the theories of an economist named Henry George and they gained a wide following in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Magie felt that illustrating the evils of land grabbing and excessive rents in a game would make the lessons of Georgism more evident and easier to learn.
Lizzie Magie was a remarkable individual. She was a stenographer by trade, but she was also a writer, a comic actress, an inventor, a newspaper reporter, a political activist, and a noted feminist. All of this at a time when it was difficult for a woman to make inroads in any of these areas.
The Landlord’s Game is notable not only because it was the progenitor of the most popular board game in history, but also because it was genuinely innovative. It was one of the first games in which the players moved on a circular path. Most of the board games of the time (including The Checkered Game of Life, the first popular game to be published in the U.S.) featured a linear path, with established beginning and end spaces. It was almost certainly the first game in which the players buy spaces on the board and can profit from them. There’s more: Magie actually provided two sets of rules for the game. With the Monopolist rules, the winner is the player who manages to bankrupt his opponents. But with the Anti-Monopolist rules, the game is won if the players manage things so that the player with the least money has twice the amount that everyone started with. I’m not certain, but that sure sounds like a cooperative game to me! Maybe, in addition to everything else, The Landlord’s Game was the first co-op game! (Unfortunately for Ms. Magie, just about everyone wound up using the Monopolist rules, so the game wound up illustrating the joys of being a ruthless landlord, rather than the benefits of societal cooperation.)
Here’s a picture of the game board from the first published version of The Landlord’s Game. The similarities between it and Monopoly are obvious.
The game gained something of a following in academic circles, as well as in some Quaker communities. Both groups added rules to the game and these were passed down from player to player. The time periods in which certain changes were made have been identified through research, but the big step that pushed the game towards Monopoly–the main goal of acquiring monopolies, since these are the only properties that can be improved via house building–as far as I know, no one has determined when this occurred or who is responsible for it.
There’s considerably more to the story–including how The Landlord’s Game finally became the published game of Monopoly–but we’ll be discussing that in a later article.
Playing cards used to have a very bad reputation in religious communities. Because of their use in gambling games or for fortune telling, they were considered sinful by many. Sensing an economic opening, Parker Brothers devised a deck of cards to try to overcome these prejudices. The changes were hardly extensive–the face cards and Aces were replaced with numbers and the suits were replaced by card colors–but they were enough for the game, which they called “Rook” (there was a picture of a crow on the back of each card), to sell well, particularly in the so-called Bible Belt of the U.S. Rook was actually a family of games, as the deck came with a book explaining ten or so designs, but the principal one (which was called Kentucky Discard) was a trick-taking game in which the players bid for the right to name the trump suit and acquire the kitty. Winning certain cards in tricks earned the player points. The deck remains reasonably popular and can be found in many toy and game stores today.
Many people have a specific game or two they associate with their extended family. For my family (grandparents on both sides) Rook was the go-to game. For the reasons Larry mentions, I don’t recall any games using standard playing cards in my extended family. I, too, recall the little game booklet that came with each Rook deck, but do not think we ever played anything but the “standard” game. In addition to fond memories of playing with grandparents, I appreciate some of the variations Rook brings to the table. Points are not directly earned by taking tricks, only for taking specific cards. Since the lowest (5s), middle (10s), and highest (Aces & the Rook) cards are all worth points, players have to estimate both the potential points they have in hand as well as points they’re hoping to take from others. The “kitty” brings a bit of risk-reward to the table, as one can always bid high and hope for something nice (perhaps if only to discard unwanted cards.) While we typically played with four players, the addition of the kitty allowed for a decent game even if played with only two or three. Oh, and since there’s no traditional suits, there’s a suit that is simply “green.” I gotta love any game that lets me bid for points in “green.”
The card game Touring was inspired by America’s love affair with the newest technological marvel of the time, the automobile. The game is a race of sorts, as the first player to reach a specified total of miles from their played cards wins. It was created by a gentleman named William Roche and appears to be his only game design, although he was responsible for several other, non-game related inventions in his lifetime. The patent for the game was granted in 1906 and it was probably available for sale later in the decade. Parker Brothers acquired it in 1924 and it was a steady seller for the company over the next 50 years. Winning Moves released a new version of it five years ago and I believe it is still available from them.
For its time, it was a fairly innovative example of what could be done in a card game. On their turn, each player could play one mileage card into their display, with the goal of reaching a total of 50 (or, for the long game, 100) miles. But they could also hinder one of their opponents by playing a Delay card (like Out of Gasoline) on them, which kept that opponent from playing mileage cards until the Delay could be cleared by playing the appropriate Remedy card. It inspired a number of other similar games, most notably Mille Bornes during the 50’s.
My family played Touring reasonably often during the early 60’s, until it was supplanted by our purchase of Mille Bornes. It was easily taught to young children and the fact that it might help them with their arithmetic skills was probably considered a plus.
It’s possible that Touring was an even more innovative game that has been usually supposed. Rick Heli has been writing about games for over 20 years (usually through his website, A Spotlight on Games) and he has proven that he’s a fellow who knows his stuff. Anyway, about 10 years ago, he wrote an article called “History of the “Take That” Card Game” and, in his opinion, the first game to fit that description was Touring! It doesn’t appear to have been very influential in that regard, since, other than the game’s descendents, according to Heli, you have to wait 60 some years before other Take That card games appear. But it’s still something I find very interesting and, if true, makes this an even more significant design in the history of gaming.
Gin Rummy (1909)
Gin Rummy was, for a period of maybe as many as 50 years, the most popular 2-player card game in the world. It was probably invented by Elwood Baker, an accountant and Whist teacher, possibly with the assistance of his son, Charles Graham Baker (C. Graham Baker was a noted Hollywood screenwriter–he wrote for more than 170 films). I say “probably” because, even though details are a bit sketchy, just about every reference I’ve found credits Gin to one or both Bakers. Most likely, they created it by modifying a 19th century Rummy game called Conquian.
The most likely reason that there’s so much uncertainty about the origins of Gin is that it took more than 20 years for it to become popular. It began to receive widespread play during the 30’s and by the time 1940 rolled around, it was a full-fledged craze. The onset of the Great Depression had much to do with that; with so little money available for entertainment, a game that could be played by only two people, and for something as inexpensive as a deck of cards, was suddenly very attractive. But the big impetus in Gin’s popularity came when it was adopted by the movie and stage celebrities of the U.S. There were numerous mentions of it in the gossip columns and trade periodicals of the time, as well as quite a few depictions of it being played on the silver screen. If your favorite celebrity plays a game, you’re sure to want to give it a try, and pretty soon Gin Rummy was being played in a huge number of households around the world.
My family played cards a lot when I was growing up and I played Gin hundreds of times as a kid and a young adult. There’s quite a bit of skill required in order to play well and numerous books have been written on Gin Rummy strategy. Like most card games, its popularity has faded in recent years, but it’s a great game and I’m sure it hasn’t been totally forgotten.