World War II. That was what life was about in the first half of the 1940’s. Not only was it a terrible and bloody conflict, but so many of the world’s leading nations found themselves literally fighting for their very existence. It had to be an enormously stressful time and dominated the hearts and minds of those who lived through it.
Not surprisingly, gaming advances were limited during those years. Not only were people’s thoughts elsewhere, but the limitations on available materials made production and distribution of unessential items like games impractical. But in the years following the end of the war, it was as if the pent-up creativity of the previous six years finally found its voice. So many of the mainstream games which dominated play during the last half of the twentieth century originated during this decade. Not only was production back to normal levels, but the middle class was growing in size and they had the leisure time to indulge in gaming. I also have to feel that after a crushing depression and the horrors of a global war, the world was ready to have some fun. I think it’s a fair statement to say that modern commercial boardgaming begins in the years following World War II.
Labyrinth is a dexterity game created by a Swede named Sven Bergling. The object is to move a metal ball along a twisting path full of holes until the end is reached. The path is on a moving surface that you can tilt in both directions using knobs. The game is really fun, but my judgment is probably partly skewed by the fact that this was one of the very first games that my parents gave me when I was a child and that I really played for many hours. Many games produced in subsequent years drew inspiration from Labyrinth.
All-Star Baseball (1941)
Growing up, my family had a small collection of games, many of which had been my mother’s when she was a child. One of those was Ethan Allen’s All-Star Baseball, which significantly influenced the way that I saw the game of baseball. Ethan Allen’s All-Star Baseball (I’ve really never thought of it without Ethan Allen’s name as part of the game’s title) simulates a game of baseball, through the 1940’s marvel of a spinner to determine the outcome for each hitter. However, what sets this game apart is that each player has a different disc placed around the spinner – the numbers on the disc correspond to various outcomes, and the more frequent the outcome, the larger the arc dedicated to that outcome. And one of the players included in my mother’s copy was Ted Williams. While I haven’t played the game in decades, I still remember the huge segment of his card for the number 9 – a walk. And as a result of playing the game, I grew to realize just how important On Base Percentage was – a player who doesn’t make an out keeps the inning going. This was well before I ever happened upon Bill James’ writing, but it made his more advanced analysis logical to me – his analysis of offense aligned with what I had inherently learned in Ethan Allen’s All-Star Baseball.
In case you’re wondering, Ethan Allen was a major league ballplayer. He was pretty good and played for 13 seasons, managing a lifetime .300 batting average. He really did invent All-Star Baseball and, starting in 1936, began trying to find a game company that would publish it. It took him five years, but he finally took it to Cadaco, who released it in 1941. All-Star Baseball was the first successful tabletop sports game to simulate the abilities of real-life players. Despite the fact that it only reflected hitting ability and not pitching, it was a huge success and was the best selling sports game in the world for many years. It remained in production for over 50 years, but competition from more sophisticated baseball sims like Strat-O-Matic began eating away at sales. When the Major League Players Association began demanding licensing fees for the right to use player names in 1993, Cadaco deemed the expense too great and stopped producing the game. There was one last version using Hall of Fame players in 2003, and then All-Star Baseball was but a fond memory.
Hex is a 2-player abstract game created by the Danish polymath Piet Hein, who also invented the Soma Cube. Despite extremely simple rules, it’s quite a deep game. It’s usually played on an 11 x 11 board of hexagons arranged in a rhombus shape. Each player is assigned a pair of opposite sides of the board which they must try to connect by taking turns placing a stone of their color onto any empty space. Once placed, the stones are unable to be moved or removed. A player wins when they successfully connect their sides together through a chain of adjacent stones. It can be shown that draws are impossible and that every game must end in a win by one of the two players.
Hein first publicized his game in a newspaper article in December of 1942. The mathematician John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) independently reinvented the game a few years later. Hex has been the subject of a good deal of mathematical analysis by some very influential mathematicians. Parker Brothers released a version of the game in 1950; they called the game Hex and that’s the name by which the game has been known ever since.
Chutes and Ladders (1943)
The popular children’s game of Chutes and Ladders was derived from an ancient Indian board game known as Moksha Patam. In 1892, a modified version called Snakes and Ladders was sold in England. This was converted again in 1943 by Milton Bradley, as Chutes and Ladders. All of these games are similar. Pieces are moved via a die roll or spinner and climb upward if the bottom of a ladder is reached and tumble downward if the top of a chute (or snake) is reached. The first player to reach the last square wins. All of these games served as morality lessons, with the ladders being shown as virtues, while the chutes/snakes being depicted as vices. Just like most early children’s games, the outcome is purely determined by luck. Fun fact: the saying “back to square one” is thought to have its origins in Snakes and Ladders.
Super Farmer (1943)
This game has a truly fascinating history. Developed by a prominent Polish Jewish mathematician named Karol Borsuk during the WWII years, it was re-released in Poland during the late nineties and multi-language versions have been published in recent years. Although the rules are simple and contain a high luck factor, the mathematical aspects hidden in its elegant design are still apparent.
To win, you must have at least one animal of each type on your farm: rabbits, sheep, pigs, cows, and horses. During your turn you roll two d12 and, according to the results and the animals you already have on your farm, you generate new animals. Before rolling the dice, you can make some exchanges like 6 rabbits for 1 sheep or 3 pigs for a cow. I used this game very often in activities with second year primary school children to stimulate their attention, reasoning, and to work specifically with the math of breeding.
The ideas behind Stratego go back quite a ways. There were similar traditional games played in China and Japan; these date back to the 1890’s and possibly earlier. In some of these games, the pieces are exposed and have fixed starting positions; in others, a neutral referee is needed to give the results of battles (so that the pieces stay hidden). These games were discussed in magazine articles in 1905, which led to some comparable efforts being created in Europe. The one that stuck was called L’Attaque, designed by a woman named Hermance Edan, which was released in France in 1909. It is very similar to the Stratego we are all familiar with.
The first game to be marketed as Stratego was released in Holland in 1946. The first multilingual edition was published by Jumbo in 1958. Milton Bradley then obtained the license for the English language version and the first U.S. release came in 1961. The game has remained in print ever since.
I played a reasonable amount of Stratego as a kid, but it was never a huge favorite of mine. I don’t care for either hidden pieces or bluffing, so the game doesn’t really suit me that well.
Like many successful games, Stratego has seen numerous editions over the years with adaptations to the most disparate themes. I remember a beautiful edition based on a famous Italian comic by Bonvi Sturmtruppen.
Once upon a time, there were a number of thrift stores close to me, and they occasionally had used games of real interest. One of my favorite finds was an original Milton Bradley edition of Stratego, with wood pieces. Unlike Larry, I found Stratego rather enjoyable, and I’m still happy to play it – if not so happy that I’m the one to suggest it regularly.
Sid Sackson’s First Published Design (Poke) (1946)
Sid Sackson was the first of the modern game designers and his influence upon the hobby cannot be overstated. His first design appeared in an article for Esquire magazine in 1946 and was called Poke. It’s a 2-player card game which is an unusual mix between Poker and a trick-taking game. Points can be scored by winning tricks and for having a good poker hand. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that a player can lead more than one card to a “trick” as long as they are all of the same rank; their opponent can only win the trick if they respond with the same number of identically ranked cards of a higher ranking. This, of course, is a major feature of Tichu and other Climbing card games, but in 1946, these games were completely unknown outside of the Far East. So Sackson was anticipating what would eventually become a major card game mechanism.
Poke gained a wider audience when Sackson included it in his classic 1969 book A Gamut of Games. I was a big fan of the book and I played Poke quite a few times with my mom. It was a pretty good game and certainly had a different feel from anything else I’d played up to that time.
Subbuteo is a very popular flicking game which simulates Association Football (what many Americans would call soccer). It was first produced in Great Britain in 1947 and was an adaptation of a similar 1929 game called Newfooty. It’s played on a cloth board that simulates a football pitch with hand painted molded figures balanced on a rounded base (essentially, the lower half of a sphere). The players flick their figures to advance the “ball”, with the objective of scoring goals. Hundreds of different teams, each with their appropriate uniform colors, are available for sale. The game’s popularity extended through the 1990’s, but then lost favor. However, it seems to have had a renaissance in recent years, based on the large number of editions which have been produced since 2012.
In Italy, where Soccer is undoubtedly the national sport, Subbuteo was very successful and it was recognized as a real sport by the federation. I also remember a particular version of Subbuteo based on Rugby.
I’ve always enjoyed word games, whether Boggle, Balderdash, Scattegories and the like. Scrabble has been a favorite throughout the years and with the stolen digitized version, Words With Friends, I am able to play 6 constant games with 2 friends from college. When one ends, a new one begins and both have been running for several years now. Bill beats me about 75% of the time, Stephen and I are about 50/50.
I always tell people that Scrabble isn’t a word game. It’s a numbers game. You don’t have to know the best, longest words to win (although 7 letter words do gather extra points in the game on a turn). You just have to be able to place your higher point letters and words on the triple letter/ triple word scoring spaces.
A little history on Scrabble, stolen from Brittanical.com. Scrabble was originally designed by Alfred Butts in 1931 during the Great Depression. He combined word games with the popularity of scoring games and developed the initial Scrabble game that he named Lexico, which was not a commercial hit. But it was a better name than Words with Butts.
In the 40’s, Butts partnered with James Brunot, and started self-publishing without the help of Kickstarter or Indiegogo. And again didn’t sell a bunch of copies, until the game started catching on in the 50’s and got distribution rights with Macy’s. After that, Scrabble became a “must have” game for the generations.
There have been a number of copycat games that have come out, especially with the digital age of gaming. Why hasn’t Scrabble (now owned by Hasbro) sued Words with Friends? Good question. Words with Friends came on the scene following the loss of a lawsuit for another Scrabble copy and Words With Friends tweaked the game enough that only the mechanic was the same. They changed the color, the tile point system, and the layout of the board to make it different enough to not be sued for intellectual property.
I’m always happy to play word games and am drawn to the games where I’m unscrambling or rearranging the letters to come up with new words.
I do love a good game of Scrabble.
I also like word games, but Scrabble has never been a personal favorite. To me, it seems somewhat artificial and not as true a test of vocabulary and visualization as some other word games. I have no interest in memorizing obscure 2 and 3 letter words, a skill which seems essential in order to play at a high level. Nor am I excited about taking advantage of the various bonuses on the board, even though I recognize that it’s a major and valid part of the strategy. I much prefer Upwords and Boggle and have played both of those much more than Scrabble. Yet another thing that puzzles my non-gamer friends, as they desperately try to figure out what games I do play, since it isn’t Monopoly, Risk, Chess, Poker, or Scrabble–what else is there?! :-)
Cluedo was invented by Anthony Pratt, an English professional musician (he played the piano) during World War II. He was inspired by murder mystery games that used to be played in country hotels where he was performing during the thirties. He and his wife Elva began design work on the game during 1943, he applied for a patent the following year, and the next year, he signed an agreement with Waddingtons, Britain’s premier game publisher. However, postwar shortages delayed the production of the game until 1949, whereupon it was simultaneously released by Waddingtons and Parker Brothers. Pratt’s original name for his design was Murder!, but Waddingtons changed it to Cluedo, as a play on both “clue” and “Ludo”, which was what the exceedingly popular Parcheesi was called in the UK. Parker Brothers called the game Clue, since the Ludo connection made no sense to American buyers.
In Pratt’s original design, there were more suspects, weapons, and rooms. Additionally, the cards were distributed to the rooms, not to the players, and this information could only be examined by moving to the room. Finally, you had to land on a player’s token in order to make a suggestion about their character. Waddingtons altered these aspects of the game during development and the resulting version remained essentially the same for the next 60 years.
I’ve always been somewhat surprised by Clue’s success as a family game. Deduction isn’t particularly easy and it can feel a good deal like mathematics, a subject which is unfortunately despised by many. But I guess many of us love mysteries and view ourselves as amateur detectives and Clue lets us live the dream. The game can be played enjoyably at different skill levels, so it works well with parents and their kids.
We played a good deal of Clue during my youth and my brother and I dutifully kept notes on all the cards we were shown. But my mom usually won. One time, I asked to see her notes after the game and I was amazed to see every corner of her sheet filled with arcane abbreviations and notations. She explained that she not only tracked the cards she saw, but also who asked what and who passed cards. She somehow was able to fit all this data on the tiny note sheet provided with the game. This was a revelation to me, as that deeper level of analysis hadn’t occurred to me, but it still didn’t do me much good, as I couldn’t figure out a notation system that would let me record this in an understandable fashion. We stopped playing Clue regularly soon after that and I moved to more challenging deduction games, but I’ll always remember that crowded note sheet of hers.
Candy Land (1949)
Long considered the poster child of the brainless American children’s game, Candy Land was invented by a teacher named Eleanor Abbott in 1948. She suffered from polio and created the game while recovering in a hospital. She made it to be played by the children who were in the same ward. At their urging, she submitted it to Milton Bradley, where it became their best selling game. There are no decisions in the game (which, as we’ve seen, is very typical of the children’s games at that time), and this is the principal reason it has gained such a negative reputation among gamers.
There is another side of the coin, though, as RJ is happy to illustrate…
A buddy of mine, Chris, was in a heated discussion with another gamer about Candyland. The conversation went something like this:
Other Gamer: “There is absolutely no redeeming value in Candyland.”
Chris: “Well, I find that kids love to play Candyland. I feel the value comes in that it teaches children how to wait to take a turn. It teaches them how to win or lose graciously. It teaches them how to take care of their (or other’s) property. So it does have value, especially in budding gamers.”
Other Guy: “Um…well, I’m going to stand over here and ignore you…”
Sure, as adults, we do not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever want to play Candyland. And since its inception, there have been better games that have come out for that age group. But, if my 4 year old niece wants to play Candyland, I’m going to suck it up and play some Candyland.