The fifties were dominated by the Cold War, but also by the rise of the middle class. More disposable income and a greater amount of leisure time were all good things for the gaming industry. And, in fact, we start to see more recognizable names on the Timeline, games that continue to be played today, or at least ones that many of us played in our youth. Here is the story behind some of them.
APBA Pro Baseball (1951)
APBA Baseball was the first popular “realistic” sports simulation. It was designed by a fellow named Richard Seitz. Seitz originally created it back in 1931 for a boardgame league that he played with 8 other high school classmates from Lancaster, PA. He derived it from a game called National Pastime that he had played earlier. (National Pastime was a simpler baseball sim designed by Clifford Van Beek–he patented it in 1925 and sold it for only one season, in 1930. As luck would have it, Seitz was one of his customers.) APBA originally stood for American Professional Baseball Association, the name of that original league. (For some reason, in later years, the company always insisted that APBA was not an acronym and that it should only be pronounced “APP-bah”.) Seitz continued to play his game from time to time and in 1950, excited by the pennant-winning play of his favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, he and his wife decided to resurrect it. They enjoyed it so much that in 1951, Seitz decided to sell the game through the mail, working out of his living room. Sales increased steadily and in 1957, Seitz decided to work on the game full time. It continues to be popular today and APBA now has games in multiple sports and sells both tabletop and computer games.
I played APBA, along with a bunch of other sports simulations, during my teenage years (while I continue to enjoy sports, I was a real sports hound as a teen). APBA, Strat-O-Matic (its main competitor), and Sports Illustrated all had fine baseball games, but my game of choice at that time was a reasonably obscure title called Big League Manager. I felt it was the most sophisticated and logically designed game of its time and I played it a good deal with my brother, as well as solo, during the early 70’s. Once I hit my adult years, my sports sim days basically ended, but they were an important, and very enjoyable, part of my youth.
Like Larry, one of my first gaming discoveries was sports-related games, especially baseball. I would invent my own games using dice and baseball cards. I had a friend who owned APBA and I was blown away at the realistic outcomes compared to some of the other games of that era. In my early teen years I discovered the Strat-O-Matic games and eventually had my own copy of Strat Baseball. I played that (mainly solitaire) through my early 30’s.
Blockhead! is an early dexterity game consisting of 20 differently shaped wooden blocks. The object is to stack the blocks without having the tower collapse. It’s been in continuous production for almost 70 years and is well regarded enough to have been selected to the Games Magazine Hall of Fame.
Blockhead! was designed by Jerry D’Arcey, who also designed three related proprietary games from the Barbu family (Coup d’Etat, Dragonmaster, and Indulgence), as well as Regata, a 3M sports game based on yacht racing.
In an earlier Opinionated Gamers article called The Innovators, we wrote about Tactics and the birth of modern wargaming. Since I see no reason to reinvent the wheel, here’s what we said then:
“In 1952, Charles Roberts was a mere 22 years old and a member of the U.S. National Guard, when he designed Tactics to, in his own words, help “learn the nuances of the Principles of War” and further his career. Two years later, his plans of being a career soldier having not worked out, he started selling the game via mail order. This was the first commercially available tabletop wargame, complete with cardboard counters, zones of control, and a Combat Results Table. Only 2000 copies were sold, but this was still enough to earn Roberts the title of “The Father of Wargaming”. Tactics II (1958), which is essentially the same game, had a much larger print run (via Roberts’ newly formed Avalon Hill company) and this, together with the concurrently released Gettysburg, the first historically-based wargame, were the designs that truly spawned the wargaming hobby.”
By the way, all three of those games used squares on their maps. Hexes didn’t come until a few years later.
Mille Bornes (1954)
Mille Bornes is French for a “thousand milestones.” In the card game, players race to be the first to play a total of 1000 km worth of mileage cards. Mille Bornes is very similar to the take-that style car race game Touring (see our gaming timeline of 1900-1909.) Similar to Touring, players attempt to play enough mileage cards to finish a race, while also playing limiting cards on their opponents to halt their progress. Mille Bornes streamlines the game a bit, gives the mileage cards a boost (races are to 1000 km instead of 50 miles), introduces scoring rules for multiple races, and most significantly, adds in immunity cards (safeties) for each of the four main hazard cards. These serve as a standard remedy, after which a player is then immune from that hazard for the rest of the race. They can also score extra points (called a coup-fourré) if played immediately in response to a hazard card. Coming from a French designer, most versions of the game had cards with both English and French text. The current English version, published by Asmodee, no longer has any French text except for the coup fourré expression on those cards.
For me, Mille Bornes will ever be associated with the 70s. I was in elementary school and it was one of those games I played with my family. The iconography on the cards and the avocado-green plastic card tray included in the box just cemented the whole 70s vibe into my memory. I loved any and all boardgames. While my family were willing to play them, Mille Bornes was on the upper limit of complexity with which they were willing to play. The round to round scoring gave it a bit of “grown up” mystique – like it was Bridge or something – and the French text on all the cards only added to that. I was recently on a sabbatical in France and our apartment had a copy of the game. I dug it out to play with my boys and it was a hit. Unfortunately for me, I was reminded of the occasional harsh mistress of lady luck included in the box. Sometimes, if you need a “go” and the cards aren’t in your favor, there’s just nothing you can do but sit things out until the next round starts. Despite this, I’d still be willing to play the occasional game, if only to share a bit of my childhood with my kids – and enjoy slapping down the occasional coup-fourré!
Like Matt, I played a good deal of Mille Bornes with my family while growing up. We actually started out with Touring, but switched to Mille Bornes when it first appeared in U.S. stores in the mid-sixties, as we liked the added options and complexity. For a while, it was a staple of game playing between my wife and me between 1990 and 2010. We enjoyed it enough that we tried it with some friends as well, but found that it really should never be played with more than 2. There are so many Hazard cards that with multiple opponents, the odds are that by the time you finally recover from one, you’ll immediately be smacked with another one. Action slows to a crawl and it’s more than a little frustrating. But with 2 players, it’s a fun little card game with a bit of skill that is nicely relaxing.
I seem to recollect I almost only ever played this with two players and played it quite a lot in my teenage years, especially before we discovered Dungeons & Dragons. As a card game, luck can sometimes play a part, but we got a lot of plays out of it over the years.
I played this many times with my younger brother in the 1960’s/1970’s. We were (are?) very competitive so I remember that we had to play multiple times in a row to satisfy the loser of the previous game. Fortunately lunch or dinner called a halt to our proceedings. But I remember the game fondly as we played so many times.
Matt’s good description of the plastic lid evokes an instant Mem.
Careers was probably the last of the classic American roll and move games to make a real impact, at least for my generation. The object of the game is to achieve your goals for accumulated Cash, Fame, and Happiness by moving your token through a number of different careers on the board. It was designed by a sociologist named Dr. James Cooke Brown, who was best known for creating Loglan, a constructed language that has been the subject of considerable academic research. He also authored a few sci-fi novels, including one published in 1970 which anticipated the creation of the Internet.
I’ve always considered Careers to be an extremely innovative game for its time. Multiple tracks, multiple ways of moving, player abilities, and a variable income are just some of the things to first appear in the design. Most impressive is the card play, which allows players to avoid the risks of rolling the dice and plan their strategy. And more than 60 years after its introduction, it may still be the only game that not only includes multiple objectives, but which requires the players to secretly set their own personal goals. Pretty impressive stuff, particularly for the fifties.
Careers was a popular game and remained in print for over 50 years. Sadly, but predictably, later versions were dumbed down a bit. The most egregious example of this was a spinoff game, Careers for Girls (1990), which included what was no doubt considered more “appropriate” careers for young females. It was a highly insulting game that, thankfully, soon disappeared.
Careers was the only game from my pre-college days that I continued to play as an adult. I played it well over 50 times with friends and family members before I discovered Eurogames. I found that, despite the roll and move mechanics, experience and skillful play were very important factors in winning. It’s no longer a game I would suggest, but if someone asked, I’d happily play it again. That’s a remarkable tribute to a game of its vintage.
For many years, Yahtzee was the dice game. I assume most of the folks reading this have played it, either with physical dice or as an app. Traditional dice games where the objective is to form combinations go back at least to the nineteenth century. Two games with a very similar structure to Yahtzee are called Yacht and Generala. The rules for Yacht are given in a 1938 book of games, so it’s at least that old, but I’ve seen references to it from around 1910 or so. A Puerto Rican game called Generala, which plays much the same as Yacht, may be even older.
The “official” history of Yahtzee is that it was created by an anonymous Canadian couple during the fifties, who called it “The Yacht Game” because they played it on their yacht. They sold it to the E.S. Lowe toy company whose owner, Edwin Lowe, successfully marketed it. (This was not Lowe’s first rodeo–during the thirties, he produced the first successful commercial Bingo game.) Given that there was such a similar game from at least 15 years earlier that also had Yacht in the title, I’m not convinced that this story is entirely accurate. Still, that’s the version of things that Lowe always related, so there’s probably at least some truth in it.
There is a major difference between Yahtzee and the earlier games and that is the Upper Section bonus (the Upper Section consists of the six categories for 1’s through 6’s). Deciding whether or not to go after the bonus is arguably the most skillful part of Yahtzee, so this is an important development. I have no idea who introduced this–possibly it was Lowe or our mysterious Canadian couple. But to my way of thinking, it makes the game considerably more interesting than the traditional ones.
After a slow start, Yahtzee became a big seller and it continues to be very popular. There were also many, many spinoffs of the title. My favorite version of it used dice with some colored faces and some additional categories. It was called Kismet and was produced by Lakeside, not E.S. Lowe, starting in 1963. One big advantage to Kismet was that it featured multiple Upper Section bonuses, and higher bonuses were earned if larger sums of the Upper Section could be achieved. I’ve always considered it to be superior to regular Yahtzee, but after the early 80’s it largely disappeared, although a new edition of it was released a few years ago.
My fondest memory of Yahtzee was playing it with friends over lunch in our High School. The teachers decided we shouldn’t be playing with dice (gambling, I guess?) so we all simply programmed our new-fangled calculators to simulate dice-rolling and we went on our merry way.. Ah, the joys of a HP15-C.
Rack-O is a card game of unknown origin. It uses a deck of 60 cards, numbered 1-60, and as they are dealt to you, they’re placed in your plastic rack in the order you received them. On your turn, you draw a card and can use it to replace one of the cards in your rack. The object is to go out by having all of the cards in your rack be in ascending order. There are bonus points if you have consecutive sequences of 3 or more cards.
It’s a pleasant and unique game, even though it feels much like Rummy, and my family played it a good deal while I was growing up. Luck seems to play a large factor, although I imagine there’s some skill to playing well. It’s probably still available in some game stores. In 2002, Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum came up with a geographic game with similar mechanics called Europa Tour and it, and the various other “10 Days in…” spinoffs were very popular for a while.
The most popular light wargame of all time was designed by a French filmmaker who was known for his quiet and poetic movies. Albert Lamorisse, an Oscar-winning director (he won Best Screenplay for his most famous film, a short movie called The Red Balloon) created a game of conquest during a family vacation during the early fifties. He sold it to the French game publisher Miro, which released it with the title La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World) in 1957. Miro sold the American rights to the game to Parker Brothers, which made a few modifications and published it in 1959 as Risk. The game was an immediate smash hit and sold over 100,000 copies during the first year. It has continued to be a best-selling title ever since and an influential one as well. Certainly the success of a more sophisticated game such as Axis & Allies was due to its building on the enduring popularity of Risk.
Risk was the last of what you could call the American classic boardgames to be published. Monopoly, Stratego, Scrabble, Clue, and Risk…those were the essentials and many families had all of them on their game shelves. Throw in Sorry!, Careers, and The Game of Life and the majority of Americans would consider their game collection complete. All of these games were evergreens with steady sales throughout the years. With titles such as these, it was a good time to be a game publisher.
As a youngster, I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Risk. The theme was irresistible, particularly to my younger self, and many of the mechanisms were well thought out (the rules for the attacker’s and defender’s combat dice worked extremely well for such a simple system). But the game took forever to play and the luck factor was pretty high (was there anything as frustrating as watching a defender with a single unit roll 6 after 6, holding off a hugely superior force and scuttling even the most finely designed attack plan?). Then there was the cards, a necessary addition to break the game’s many stalemates. The problem was, the steadily increasing size of the sets made the back and forth nature of the game almost comical. One of us would turn in a set for a huge number of armies and go on an attacking blitz, conquering 2/3 of the world. That was fine until the next player gained an even larger bonus and wiped out those gains to take 3/4 of the world, and so on. Maybe we were overly aggressive, but using those troops for turtling would have made the game even longer. There was just a weird rhythm to the game that soured me on it.
And yet, it was one of those games that I knew could be great with just a bit more sophistication. In fact, soon after graduating college, my dream was to design a game like Risk, but which included spaces with different resources that could be used to construct more, and more powerful units. I had no luck with creating such a game myself, but just a few years later, I discovered a game from the Eon designers called Borderlands which did just that and exceeded even my highest hopes. That was the first of several games of conquest that suited my tastes far better than Risk, but the seed for such games began with that seminal design that debuted more than 60 years ago.
By the way, I’m not sure why Parker decided to call the game “Risk”–it’s really not a very appropriate title. I assume that they’d noticed that the big hit games of previous years all had one word titles, so maybe Risk was the best suggestion they could come up with. It obviously hasn’t hurt sales over the years, but you’d think they could have dreamed up something that was more descriptive.
Ahh, Risk. Like many, Risk was my first real foray into the world of wargaming. Sure, Risk is on the extremely lighter end of the scale in terms of “real” wargames that were, back in my day, being published by industry giants Avalon Hill and SPI. Still, for an eager pre-teen, it provided an exciting entry into world domination and good-natured competition with my buddies. My fascination with Risk continued throughout my high school years as we spent many a night attempting to conquer the world and vanquish our opponents. Indeed, when we reached our courting years, we had an unwritten rule that when the weekend arrived, we could go out on a date with a young lass one night, but the other night was reserved for another match of Risk!
Like Larry, I admired much about the game, but the cards were a constant source of irritation. Larry’s comments perfectly encapsulated our frustration: “The problem was, the steadily increasing size of the sets made the back and forth nature of the game almost comical. One of us would turn in a set for a huge number of armies and go on an attacking blitz, conquering 2/3 of the world. That was fine until the next player gained an even larger bonus and wiped out those gains to take 3/4 of the world, and so on.” In an effort to solve this problem, we tinkered with a variety of modifications, none of which proved completely satisfactory.
Risk did prompt me to investigate more sophisticated wargames, which led to nearly two decades of my gaming life being devoted to the wargaming side of the hobby. Eventually, I discovered European-style games and wargaming has largely been left behind.
I still make the occasional foray back into the world of Risk, playing one of the modified versions (Lord of the Rings, Godstorm, etc.). I think I still enjoy these games due to the nostalgia value of the many hours I spent with wonderful friends attempting to rule the world.
Lump me in with the crowd of young Risk players who have since moved on. I remember climactic games against my brother and the occasional neighborhood friend. Our version had armies of 1’s and 10’s and some colors had more pieces than others… which sometimes became a factor in longer games. One of my more enjoyable memories was one where I decided to declare a young lady (and possible dating candidate) my “Queen” and proceeded to dominate the board while she watched on.
As for other versions, I’ve played a few but the very first attempt of Risk 2210 AD remains a favorite as it introduced a fixed game length (via a set number of rounds) as well as unique leaders who could provide special powers through drawing from their respective decks. They included leaders who allowed you to occupy and attack bases under the oceans and on the moon. I find the most unique Risk version is the The Clone Wars edition. It’s quite an asymmetric game in that the Republic begins the game with a strong upper hand and can win if they simply capture Darth Sidious. However, the Separatist player has a secret ace. At any time they can trigger Order 66 which has them rolling an 8-sided die for each opposing territory, possibly “flipping” them to the Separatist side. The longer a the Separatist waits to trigger Order 66, the more favorable the odds for their rolls to succeed.
Allan B. Calhamer was a genius. Move, support, hold, and convoy. It’s an amazingly simple system that underlies an incredibly complex game of vicious psychological warfare. It’s also an admirably adaptable system that has been modified to fit over a thousand variants of the original. The “game” is Diplomacy. It’s infamous as the game that’s been “Destroying Friendships since 1959.” It’s certainly not for the faint of heart as it’s a brutal reenactment of pre-World War I political realism where alliances are merely a means to an end and allies are tools to be used and discarded. Diplomacy is the quintessential negotiation game where everything rides on your ability to make others see things your way and nothing can be accomplished without convincing your neighbors that you’re not a threat. It’s really the perfect board game, as long as your friendships are solid enough to withstand the bald-faced lies and deceitful betrayal that are an inherent part of the experience.
Diplomacy is remarkably simple. This is a simultaneous action selection game, just like the familiar modern examples of Wallenstein, RoboRally, Maharaja, and Niagara. Players write down an order for each of their units during each movement phase and then simultaneously reveal and execute those orders, but the mechanics of the game fail to convey the essence of the game. The movement phases are not silent affairs of scribbling your orders in a vacuum. Rather, these are raucous periods of negotiation and scheming. Players can run off in pairs or groups to other rooms to make plans in secret. Players can promise the world to one another, pledging their undying support. Players can make conflicting promises and try to set their neighbors against each other by fabricating stories about how the other one is out to get the one you’re currently befriending.
When the music stops and it’s ultimately time to commit your troops to a course of action, it’s a solitary experience. You have to sit there stewing over who to trust and who to double-cross. Once those orders have been finalized and revealed, you’re locked in, whether you’re exulting in watching your troops march victoriously into your enemy’s capital, or shocked and awed by the treachery and betrayal of your sweet-talking “friends.” Regardless, it’s always a tense moment when those orders are revealed and the truth is laid bare. This is not a game that everyone will enjoy. It doesn’t have the broad appeal of games like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, but despite its niche-within-a-niche nature, Diplomacy is a gem for a certain breed. It’s not an experience for everyone. It was reportedly for John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Cronkite – is it for you?
What Talia said! Towards the end of my high school days we had a regular group and would play this a lot. It is often touted as a relationship killer, but I have never found that. Double-crossing is potentially part of the game, but you can certainly play without double crossing anyone. A friend and I often used an agreement along the lines of “We will be allies and cannot attack each other until two players have been eliminated, we will remain allies after that, but the restriction on attacking each other is removed”. So we would sometimes remain allies for a long time after the trigger point, sometimes not. One of the great seven player gaming experiences, but you need to set aside a good chunk of time.
I’m also a big fan of Diplomacy. I think it was incredibly innovative, but even more significantly, it was also superbly elegant, as Talia says. Such remarkable depth of play from such simple rules! That’s one of the game’s main brilliances: negotiation is the heart and soul of the game, but the tactical puzzles that you and your allies have to work through are very interesting in their own right. Then combine that with the fact that one or more of those so-called allies might be ready to stab you in the back and the true beauty of the game is revealed.
Most of my plays of Dip came when I was a teenager, with six other friends. It was highly intense, but no friendships were lost and few death threats were made. I’ve played it from time to time as an adult, including a couple of play-by-email games. Those latter efforts have a charm of their own and are much more practical than face-to-face play. But there’s something special, and almost primal, about getting a group of 7 buddies together, setting aside a day, and deciding the fate of the world in real time and through strategic, heartfelt, and occasionally duplicitous negotiations. It’s almost impossible to pull off for people with real-life responsibilities and it’s completely exhausting. But it’s also exhilarating and a totally unparalleled gaming experience. I think it’s a fine item for every hardcore gamer to put on their bucket list.
Unfortunately, I’ve only played Diplomacy twice and neither was particularly enjoyable. My first introduction, in college, I was “betrayed” on the very first turn. Since we were playing one or two moves a day, it was quite a long bit of time to remain frustrated. My second play was a one-day affair with a completely different group. As I was the “smarty pants” of the group and had played before, I was a threat and pretty much unable to arrange a single alliance the entire game. I suspect I might have fonder memories of the game if I had been in a position where I played it many times over and individual bad experiences would be evened out by more positive ones.
This enduring classic from Ravensburger has sold more than 75 million copies, which I believe makes it the best selling German game of all time. It’s as simple as can be–a bunch of tiles consisting of pairs of tiles with identical images are laid out face down. Each player reveals two tiles on their turn and if they match, they win them. The concept goes back hundreds of years and it was a common parlor game played with ordinary playing cards (the game in this form was called Concentration in the U.S.). The Ravensburger version was based on a handmade game with images created by a Swiss man for his grandkids. There are endless variations of Memory, many of them based on popular cartoon characters. The Geek shows half a dozen versions released in 2020 alone, so it’s safe to say that this game will remain in print for many years to come.
Eleusis is a unique and influential card game that might well be better known in the scientific community than it is to gamers. The reason for the interest is that the game is a clever analogy of the scientific method. One player comes up with a secret rule by which cards can be played and the other players try to figure out what it is by playing sample cards and being told which are legal and which are not. In other words, they come up with an hypothesis, do experiments (i.e., play cards) to test their hypothesis, and then modify the hypothesis to fit the data. That’s the scientific method and represents inductive, rather than deductive reasoning.
The game was created by Robert Abbott in 1956 and, because of its nature, was featured three years later in Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column in Scientific American (a well known populist science magazine). It created quite a stir among academics and among a few gamers as well. In 1962, Abbott included the rules to the game in a small book he sold through the mail; it got greater exposure the following year when it was one of the nine games featured in Abbott’s New Card Games.
As the first known game to use inductive reasoning, Eleusis influenced a number of other designs. The best known instance is Zendo (2001), the popular induction game played with Icehouse pyramids; it was clearly inspired by Eleusis.
I’ve probably played Eleusis a few dozen times over the years. The concept of the game has always fascinated me, but I admit it can be a bit fragile–the “God” player needs to come up with a rule that isn’t too easy or too hard for it to work. When it does work, it’s an excellent intellectual workout. I’ve always greatly preferred it to Zendo; there are so many more elements with cards (involving rank, suit, and color) to work with than with pyramids and that greater decision space keeps the game challenging and more varied.