The 1930’s were, of course, dominated by the Great Depression. The statistics for that period are grim (unemployment hit as high as 23% in the U.S. and as high as 33% in other countries), but they probably still fall short of relating just how awful things were for those who lived through it. Both of my parents were youngsters during those years and they have indelible memories of the hardships that had to be faced day to day.
But when times are toughest, forms of entertainment that allow the populace to escape their trevails for a brief period are often at their best. In the movies, the 30’s gave us Shirley Temple, the Astaire-Rogers musicals, the Marx Brothers, the Busby Berkely extravaganzas, the great films of Frank Capra, and so much more. Radio reached its peak during those years. And boardgames were there as well to help a battered society pass the hours, including the most popular boardgame of all time, where a fortune in real estate could be won, if only the dice would cooperate…
Kids (and adults) have been playing the pencil and paper game of Battleship for a long time. The origin of this game isn’t clear. The Geek attributes it to a gentleman named Clifford Von Wickler, saying that he created the game in the early 1900’s, but never patented it. This story is disputed by some. Other people suggest it may have been invented by Russian soldiers during the latter years of World War I. Regardless of its source, we do know that the first commercial version of the game was by a U.S. company called Starex, who released it as Salvo, a predrawn pad of pages that the game could be played on, in 1931. The first boardgame version was by Milton Bradley in 1967 and those of us of a certain age well remember the game’s TV commercial, featuring the mournful cry of one of the participants, “You sunk my battleship!”.
I have to wonder: do kids today still play pencil and paper versions of Battleship during study hall breaks at school or is this time spent staring at their phones? A part of me hopes it’s still played this way, but given how mostly mindless the game is, I guess it wouldn’t break my heart if Battleship is one of the victims of our electronic age.
In an earlier article, we mentioned that Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, a politically motivated board game designed by a woman named Lizzie Magie in the early 1900’s. Here’s a brief history of how Magie’s design became the most popular board game of all time.
Magie had only limited success in selling her game, but it lived on through handmade folk versions and morphed throughout the years, with its greatest popularity being on the East Coast of the U.S. One day in 1932, an unemployed repairman named Charles Darrow played one of these games at a friend’s house in Philadelphia. This version was created by a group of Quakers living in Atlantic City, NJ and the properties were all named after Atlantic City streets. Darrow enjoyed the game and saw it as a way of possibly making some money. He had a cartoonist friend of his create some artwork for the game and began making copies of the game to sell. The updated look of the game represented the only contribution Darrow made to Monopoly. He changed none of the rules and used all of the old property names from the version he had played, including keeping the misspelled Marvin Gardens (Marven Gardens is a neighborhood just south of Atlantic City).
Darrow had success selling his homemade version of the game and used the profits to have some professionally manufactured copies made. He placed these in local department stores, where they continued to sell well. Darrow also sent copies to Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, but both declined to produce the game, feeling that it was too complicated and too long. However, Monopoly was so popular in the local stores that Parker Brothers decided to buy the game from Darrow in 1935. It sold so well that Parker decided to patent it and only then discovered its relationship to The Landlord’s Game, as well as some spinoff designs. To protect their investment, Parker bought the rights to the spinoff games and George Parker himself, the company’s founder, met with Magie. She was paid $500 for the rights to Monopoly, along with a promise to publish The Landlord’s Game.
Magie soon realized she had been swindled, as Monopoly’s sales soared and Parker Brothers presented Darrow as the game’s sole inventor. She gave two scathing interviews to newspapers about Monopoly’s true origins, but it did nothing to stop the game’s incredible momentum. In 1936 alone, Parker sold over 1.7 million copies of the game. At the height of the Depression! It has been the world’s best-selling game ever since.
Parker Brothers continued to publicize Darrow as the creator of Monopoly for over 50 years. The rags-to-riches story made for great press and Darrow became a millionaire from his royalties. To add insult to injury, while Parker did eventually did publish The Landlord’s Game, they did little to promote it and only a tiny number of copies were ever sold. The true story behind the origins of Monopoly wouldn’t come to light for 40 years. But that’s a tale for a future article.
Like most children of the 60’s, I played Monopoly with my family growing up. It was actually kind of a rite of passage for the kids of the day; it was a significant event when you stopped playing Candyland and other children’s games and got to play an adult game with your parents. Naturally, we never played with the proper rules. We had the pot of money on Free Parking, a $500 fund buttressed by the players’ tax payments and such. I also remember reading the rules as a pre-teen (yeah, I was a Geek even then) and being shocked to find that unpurchased properties were supposed to be auctioned off! Who knew?
But even as a youngster, I belonged to the Cult of the New. Monopoly was soon replaced by other games, which were more exciting and a bit more sophisticated, as I scoured the game shelves for new things to sample. All of these other titles were property games, however, and similar in structure to Monopoly–that was the state of game design in the U.S. 50 years ago. As a result, though, I’ve only played Monopoly once or twice since 1970. So I have no tales of family meltdowns and catastrophic games played over the holidays with crying kids and ill-tempered adults; just another title that was part of my growth as a gamer, but one which was soon abandoned in favor of superior fare.
Regardless of whether Monopoly has helped or hurt our beloved boardgaming community, I have three fond memories of Monopoly I would like to share. First, that of playing a two player game with my brother around elementary school. Even then I was passionate about boardgames and I seem to recall being willing to be massively in debt to my brother but still willing/wanting to keep playing. The second would be a fateful Thanksgiving weekend in college. Not heading home, I brought a friend along to an extended relative and somehow a game of Monopoly developed. It soon ran far off the rails. I assume I have a strong share in the responsibility, but deals were detailed and wide ranging. I recall my friend subsidizing the construction of my houses and hotels for part of the board with the stipulation that he would always get to stay there for free. The four player game ended up a two-entity competition between some sort of limited-partnership companies. I like to think that our “team” won. Finally, about a decade ago, I put together a custom, family-centered game of Monopoly that I made for my parents. Every color on the board had a thematic connection with our family and within the color. Examples: The Greens were all related to our 4-H activities, the utilities were the two family camps we liked to attend, Jail was “Gone Fishing”, the Railroads were the four states in which my siblings and I live, Boardwalk and Park Place were my father’s and mother’s homesteads. While Boardwalk was my father’s home, the face on the $500 bill was clearly going to be my mom’s. (The poor dog got put on the $1.) The final touch was 3D printing houses in the shape of my parents’ home as well as a custom set of 3D player pawns reflective of our family (a piano, a canoe, etc…) The gift went over very well and my parents pull it out to show off all the time. It’s always hard to find a good gift for one’s parents but it is nice to nail it from time to time.
Monopoly, I still have a copy or two around since it’s a game where you are gifted various theme sets. I also have an old set because those wooden pawns are cool.
Go to the Head of the Class (1936)
This was a simple quiz game for families. It was first released by Milton Bradley in 1936 and stayed in their catalog for over 50 years. It was kind of like an early Trivial Pursuit, except the questions were more scholastic in nature and not really about trivia. The players’ progress was shown by numbered school desks on the board and the object was to reach desk 100. As I recall, there were different difficulties of questions, so, in theory at least, children of different ages, as well as adults, could play together. It was a regular staple during my formative years; my family had a copy, as did most families I knew.
This is a horse racing game from Waddington’s, the pre-eminent British game publisher of the day. Even though it’s primarily roll and move, there are enough refined mechanics that it resembles, at least in a surface manner, some of the more sophisticated racing games from the 80’s and 90’s. Players are randomly dealt horse and business cards. They can bid for additional cards in an auction. One side of the board is used to “train” their horses (this is done by moving their horses around a track via dice rolls to acquire Advantage or Disadvantage cards–these can be used in the subsequent race). Bids can be placed on which horse will win (possibly including opponents’ horses). The race is then run on the other side of the board. Most money wins. The training portion is mostly luck, but there are some choices that can be made during the race. This was a popular family game and was part of Waddington’s catalog for 45 years.
I actually played this a couple of times when I was growing up. I don’t remember much about the actual plays, but I do recall being fascinated by the concept of the game. A racing game where you actually got to train your horse prior to the race seemed like such a terrific idea. It may not have quite lived up to its promise from my point of view, but by all accounts, it worked very well as a sophisticated family game for several generations.
Bridge wasn’t the only widely played card game during the mid-twentieth century. For a while, we were all quite mad about Canasta.
Canasta is a game from the Rummy family. It uses two decks of ordinary playing cards, includes lots of wild cards and wild scoring, and is fairly rules-heavy for a Rummy game. The main objective is to make melds consisting of seven cards of the same rank; these are called Canastas and are worth a lot of points. The base game doesn’t allow you to meld sequences.
The game was invented in 1939 in Uruguay by an attorney named Segundo Santos and an architect named Alberto Serrato. Their goal was to design a partnership game that was less intense than Bridge. Their creation was an immediate hit and it was soon widely played throughout much of South America. Because of the travel restrictions during World War II, the rest of the world knew little about it at that time. But it emigrated to the U.S. in the late forties and within a few years, had become a major craze. There was a period of several years when Canasta was probably the most popular card game in the world. After about ten years, interest in the game began to wane, but it continues to be reasonably popular to this day.
I played a great deal of Canasta during my youth. We never played with partners, just every player for themselves. It was a fun game to play with my mom and my brother, with a reasonable number of decisions to be made, but no real brain-burning analysis required. We even experimented with some of the crazier variants, including Samba (3 decks, and you could meld sequences) and Bolivia (4 decks, and in addition to sequences, you could also make melds of just wild cards!). It’s probably been a good 30 years since I last played, but I still have some very fond memories of Canasta.