This is part of the continuing series of articles in our Gaming Timeline series, in which we explore the historical significance of (and our personal experiences with) the most notable games from the past 120 years. This article will cover the period from 1910 to 1929.
The second and third decades of the twentieth century could scarcely have been more different. The teens were a dreadful ten-year period. Not only did they include a bloody and horrific world war, but that was no sooner ended when the world was once again rocked by a global pandemic (the so-called Spanish Flu), which actually killed more people than died in the war! Needless to say, this was not a period with a large number of gaming innovations. In response to this dark decade, the world seemed to decide to kick up its collective heels and party. The result was the Roaring Twenties, filled with fads, flappers, jazz, speakeasies, and a whole lotta dancing. It seemed as if the good times would last forever, but then at the end of the decade, right on cue, came the stock market crashes and happy days were gone again. Before the music stopped, though, there were a number of notable gaming events, highlighted by the creation of the most popular card game ever.
Lichtra (aka Electro); First Known Electric Boardgame (1910)
Lichtra is the first known boardgame to use electricity. It was originally published in Germany in 1910; its name was changed to Electra in the 30’s, and then later to Electro. It’s a simple quiz game that uses a board that has 48 squares with a hole in each–24 on the left and 24 on the right. A sheet is placed on the board that has paired items, each with holes punched in them–maybe questions on the left and answers on the right, or perhaps related pictures on each side. The object for the player is to select an item on the left side and find the appropriate paired item on the right side. To see if this is done properly, the player uses two leads which are connected to the top of the game board. One is placed in the hole of the left-side item and the other in the hole of the right-side item. If the items match, a bulb lights up. The game works using batteries and hidden connections in the game board between pairs of holes.
Lichtra is the forerunner of other electric games, including Jim Prentice’s sports-themed games of the 20’s and even titles like Operation. I had a copy of Electro in the 70’s and it certainly seemed to be ubiquitous at the time. It continued to be produced until 2007, a run of almost 100 years.
H.G. Wells Publishes Little Wars (1913)
H.G. Wells is remembered today for his science fiction novels, but he authored many different kinds of books, including social commentary and history. Evidently, he also wasn’t above having a bit of fun. Little Wars is considered to be the first book in the English language devoted to wargaming. It gives rules for conducting battles with miniatures, including how to handle infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The rules were fairly simple (the book was intended for older children, as well as adults), but more complex rules were provided in the appendices.
For an author known for successfully predicting the future (he foresaw both World Wars), Wells’ timing with this book was unusually bad. Releasing a volume dedicated to make-believe wars on the eve of a global conflict was perhaps not the best way of maximizing sales. Consequently, its impact at the time of its publication was minimal. However, many fans of miniatures view the book as the foundation of their hobby. It also had an effect on roleplaying games. Gary Gygax said it was one of the inspirations for his game of Chainmail, which later evolved into Dungeons & Dragons, the first RPG. So Little Wars turned out to be not so little after all.
Uncle Wiggily (1916)
Uncle Wiggily was a series of very popular children’s books, which featured an elderly anthropomorphic rabbit named Uncle Wiggily Longears. The series was written by Howard Garis, an exceedingly prolific writer of children’s literature (his wife, Lilian, was equally prolific). Garis created Uncle Wiggily in 1910 and over the next 40 years, he wrote more than 15,000 stories featuring the character! Due to the success of the series, Milton Bradley asked Garis to create an Uncle Wiggily board game, which debuted in 1916. Like many children’s games from the first half of the twentieth century, the players moved along a track and there were no decisions to be made. Each turn, a card was drawn, which directed how many spaces the player’s piece was to be moved. The players encountered characters from the books, who assisted or hindered the progress of the players. The first player to reach the last space on the board won the game.
My family owned the game, and while I don’t recall playing it, I’m sure it happened during my early years. I do remember the gameboard, though, particularly the spaces with the Skillery-Scallery Alligator and The Bad Pipsisewah. But I was a gamer even as a young child and I would soon move on to more challenging designs.
Mahjong Imported to the U.S. (1920)
Mention “Mahjong” and most people think of the solitaire PC game. But Mahjong began life as a Rummy-style tile game about 200 years ago in China. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was quite popular in the country of its origin, but was almost totally unknown to Western civilization. That changed in a big way in 1920. That year, Abercrombie & Fitch, a major department store in New York City, started selling imported Mahjong sets and couldn’t keep up with the demand. One of the reasons for the game’s newfound popularity in the U.S. was the publication that year of an English language rule book written by an engineer named Joseph Babcock (who had learned the game during his stay in China, where he was a representative for Standard Oil). Babcock simplified the rules for American readers and it caught on in a big way, making it the first of several fads (such as flagpole sitting and dance marathons) from the twenties. Unlike many of those other crazes, Mahjong lasted for more than a year or two and continues to be played to this day. (Another 20’s fad was crossword puzzles and they too had far more long-term success than precariously balancing on top of a flagpole for extended periods of time.)
There are many different versions of Mahjong, with the biggest differences between them usually being the scoring rules. Most of the Chinese versions, and the one Babcock included in his book, assign values to the different melds. These values are summed up and the result might be doubled (or receive an even higher multiplier) under certain circumstances; this is the amount each player must pay to the winner. There is also an American version of Mahjong, which dates back to the mid-thirties. In this version, all the winning hands are laid out on a fold-out card that each player has, together with the value of those hands. Each year, a new card comes out, so that the winning hands can change over time. Experienced players view the original game as more skillful, but both the older and newer versions have their fans.
When I was growing up, my mom got together with friends to play Mahjong about once a month. She was very fond of the game (which was the American version) and naturally taught it to my brother and me. The three of us played it a good deal and I quite enjoyed it. I’ve probably never played it with much skill, but it’s an interesting game and it’s not hard to see why it has survived for so long.
I was first introduced to Mahjong when I was in high school and was studying Chinese. I was hooked immediately. I love everything about it; the sound the tiles make when you build the wall, the beauty of the art on the tiles and the strategy involved in what you discard all intrigued me. I had played a lot of rummy, which is clearly based on Mahjong, but Mahjong itself offered so much more. You need to remember what the other players have picked up, all while trying to get the tiles you need without giving too much information to your opponents. It was fast-paced and far more interesting than rummy. I picked up a cheap plastic set and took it to college with me; while the plastic pieces didn’t have the same satisfying tile click, it still led to hours of fun. The game fell off my radar for a while once I discovered board gaming in earnest and devoted a lot of my time to the new and shiny titles coming to my local FLGS. My interest was renewed during a trip to China in 1999; I witnessed many games of Mahjong, both in parks and in game rooms. The friends that I was visiting gifted me a beautiful set that I treasure, even though I don’t get to play as often as I’d like, especially during the pandemic. It still holds an honored place on my shelf, next to a couple of books about the game.
As a child there were MahJong sets at my grandparents’ house. At first I just used them as building blocks. Then I learned “Turtle”, which is similar to the computer game most people think of when you say MahJong. I actually didn’t learn to play the real game until I was a preteen and convinced my grandmother to teach me, and we played for a penny. So I have fond memories of MahJong and became interested in its history. The original sets were mostly bone and bamboo. Reportedly, bone had to be imported to make the sets, as China was so resource poor at the time. So if you are in the market to buy an old set, it’s not ivory, it’s Nebraskan cow bone. As plastic manufacturing gained a foothold, the sets began to appear in celluloid and eventually bakelite, which was popularized in American MahJong the next decade. An easy way to differentiate Chinese and American sets is that Chinese sets have 144 tiles and American sets have 152. If any of you are wondering, in these very early sets the green is actually the character Phoenix and the red is character Dragon, instead of the more common red and green dragon you might see now.
Contract Bridge (1925)
What I most want from a game is for it to be fun, repeatedly. By that measure, Bridge would be my very favorite game, since I’ve played it more (in sessions or in time played) than any other game, by a significant margin. Since I started keeping track of my games played, back in 1996, I’ve spent somewhat over two years playing games. And about 4 months of that time has been spent playing Bridge.
And the reason why is because of just how deep the game is. I own more books about Bridge than I do games – in spite of being reasonably selective as to which Bridge books I keep. I am not an expert at the game, by any stretch – but even the experts seem to find ways to continue learning.
Bridge is often knocked for the long learning curve – which, if you aren’t looking for games you can keep learning about for a lifetime, I suppose is fair. It’s also knocked for the difficulty of learning conventions. That one, however, I take some issue with; while bidding is an important part of the game, it’s by no means the most important part. For me, the real beauty of the game is in the play of a hand, where the presence of a revealed dummy hand enables a number of play possibilities either not present or largely random in other trick taking games.
I have tremendous admiration for people like Klaus Teuber or Richard Garfield, who created games (Catan and Magic: The Gathering, respectively) which literally changed the world. But imagine someone who starts with an established game and sets out to improve it by carefully and methodically identifying and implementing the necessary changes. Imagine further that the resulting game has a similar effect on day-to-day life as those examples I mentioned earlier. That, to me, is just as remarkable.
That’s just how modern Bridge came to be. Like most traditional games, the original version of Bridge developed incrementally from established games. Most likely, it was first played in the 1870’s as a development of Whist, with either Turkish or Russian origins. By the 1890’s, it had achieved popularity in the English-speaking world. Several varieties appeared and one of them, which went by the name of Auction Bridge, had its rules formally codified in 1904. That game became the game of choice of card game aficionados around the world and remained so for 20 years.
One of those aficionados was Harold Vanderbilt. The great-grandson of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and the director of the New York Central Railroad, the immensely wealthy Vanderbilt was one of the world’s leading yachtsmen and card game players during his lifetime. He loved Auction Bridge, but, based on his experience with other Bridge variants, was convinced it could be improved. So starting in 1924, he began devising scoring changes that would drastically alter the nature of the game. The most prominent one was that only tricks bid for would score (in Auction Bridge, any tricks won were scored, regardless of how low the winning bid was). This change meant that bidding had to be much more precise and aggressive and the resulting game was considerably more skillful and exciting.
With these changes in hand, all Vanderbilt needed was a way of testing his ideas. He chose a most unusual venue for doing so. In October of 1925, Vanderbilt invited three of his friends, all of them excellent Auction Bridge players, to accompany him on a 9-day cruise from Los Angeles to Havana, through the Panama Canal. The foursome played Bridge with Vanderbilt’s new rules for many hours every day. The game played just as well as Vanderbilt had hoped, so he eventually sent copies of the rules to some of his friends. Thanks to the excellence of the new game (which Vanderbilt called Contract Bridge) and Vanderbilt’s stellar reputation, it replaced Auction Bridge as the standard way of playing Bridge within 2-3 years. Ever since then, there has been no confusion about what “Bridge” means–it’s the game that Vanderbilt perfected on that cruise and including “Contract” in the name is totally unnecessary.
That could have easily been the end of the story, with the new form of Bridge reigning as the favorite of card-game experts around the world, but not being something that was often played in the homes of many people. But then a new individual appeared who would change everything. His name was Ely Culbertson.
Culbertson was a Russian-American who, in the 20’s, earned his living through playing card winnings and teaching Bridge. A highly flamboyant individual, he sought fame and fortune and saw a way of achieving both with the introduction of Contract Bridge. He devised a new and highly successful bidding system, wrote Bridge books, and founded a magazine devoted to Bridge. In order to publicize his methods, he issued a series of challenges to some of the leading players in the world, all of whom used older bidding systems. Culbertson was a master promoter and, through his efforts, these Bridge matches literally became front-page news. Culbertson’s team won each of these matches, making him an international celebrity and causing the sales of his books to skyrocket. As a result of the great publicity, a large number of people, including ordinary middle-class folks, were eager to learn this very complicated game.
Bridge was the most popular and highly played card game from the thirties to the sixties. It was not only a gaming phenomenon–it was practically a social obligation. Just as today, if a couple invited you and your significant other to dinner, it was expected that there would be some form of entertainment following the meal. In the days before TV and VCRs, this was most likely to be some kind of parlor game. During the 40-year period in the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of these evenings ended in a game of Bridge. The average adult was expected to be able to competently play this game, just as they were expected to know what the subjects of polite conversation were and which fork to use with each course. Bridge was that firmly entrenched in the day-to-day lives of the middle class–practically every newspaper included a Bridge column and the game was constantly featured in the novels, movies, and TV shows of the day.
Bridge’s heyday began to end around 1970. The increasingly frantic pace of life made learning such an involved game less and less practical. The game fads of that period, such as Uno and Trivial Pursuit, were much simpler games. Social gaming in general became much less frequent, as they were replaced by activities like rental movies and video games. Bridge is still embraced by those who play card games at a high level, but casual play of the game has largely disappeared.
My own experiences mirror this. Despite my great love of games growing up, I didn’t learn Bridge during my formative years, since neither of my parents played it. I might never have become involved with it, but in my late twenties, one of my co-workers took on the ambitious task of teaching a bunch of us how to play, so that we could have lunchtime games of it at work. I fell for it hard. Bridge is the only game I have studied away from the table. I honestly don’t know how many instruction books of it I’ve bought, but the number has to be in excess of 30. I played it for an hour during lunch just about every work day for over 10 years. I’m also part of a group of four friends who have gotten together at least twice a year for an all-day Bridge session. We’ve been doing that for over 30 years! Bridge’s variety and scope for skill is unparallelled and it remains my favorite card game and one of my all-time favorite games of any kind. It may no longer be one of the most-played games in the world, but Bridge has had an enormous effect on my life and I love it just as much today as I did when I first learned it.
As I think about Sorry, it seems like something I would entirely hate to play. Lots of take-that, plenty of randomness (draw and move, really?), and yet I suspect there is a strong nostalgia factor involved. If it were any other game of this type I would probably run screaming from the table, and yet I would still be willing to play Sorry if I couldn’t get folks interested in a more preferable game. Sorry has name recognition to most people outside the gaming hobby, so there is a smaller barrier to entry to coaxing others into a game. In addition to the nostalgia factor, I suspect it is the somewhat arbitrary way the take-that penalties are dealt out. While players can try to pick on the leader, most of the decisions leading to a take-that situation are pretty much a given. The recipient can complain about their fate, but would have a hard time justifying they are picked-on. I think the group enjoyment in the foiling of others would have to be the main enjoyment here. Don’t get me wrong, a series of bad draws can quickly suck all the enjoyment of the game, but if the game manages to move along to a conclusion quickly, the game is “not so bad.”
As a youth, I loved playing Sorry and think it helped me learn some minor strategy tips. Do I choose to move forward 10 or back one? What is the best way to split my 7 amongst my pieces for the most optimal move? Can I take multiple opponents out on the same turn this way? Do I use my 11 in order to swap with someone, giving them some advantage, but also putting my pawn much further forward than just moving forward 11? As an adult, Sorry is not a game I would suggest to my gaming group, but if I were hanging out with my nieces and nephews, I’d be down for crushing them into the ground…I mean having an enjoyable 20,000+ games played with them to keep them laughing and having fun hanging out.
I assume that most of you have played Sorry, but for those who haven’t…Sorry is a version of the classic Indian race game of Pachisi in which the players draw cards instead of rolling dice. Each card has movement rules on it; most of them are simple (“Move a pawn 3 spaces forward”), but some of them give the player a choice of how to use them. The rest of the rules are largely the same as the parent game.
Sorry was invented by an Englishman named William Henry Storey, who patented its rules in 1929. According to the Geek, Storey held 24 patents over the course of his life, but none of his other games are remembered today. His company W.H. Storey & Co. was the first publisher of Sorry. In 1934, the publishing rights were sold to Waddingtons in Britain and Parker Brothers in the U.S..
I remember playing it as a child and I viewed it as a mild improvement over Parcheesi. But it wasn’t a particular favorite in my family.