the history of board games

Mia timpano explores the origins of some classic tabletop games.


CLUEDO // Look, you’ve got to do something during a World War II air-raid blackout, whether it’s have sex, count to a thousand, or invent one of the world’s most popular board games. In the case of English musician and true-crime fan Anthony Pratt, the third option was the most alluring – although he may have had loads of sexy times and counted upwards of a thousand, too. It’s just that we don’t have evidence of those things – but we do have evidence of his board game (for which he pocketed just 5000 pounds), originally titled Murder!, and later Clue or Cluedo (depending on the continent where you reside). It was a murder mystery parlour game made miniature, created as an antidote to the terribly tedious war, which was “killing the country’s social life,” according to Pratt. The original Cluedo featured a bunch more weapons than you’d find in a modern set – had you picked one up in 1949, the year it was launched, you might have suspected Professor Plum of having killed the game’s victim with the shillelagh, aka Irish walking stick, or a hypodermic needle. In addition to the classic Cluedo, which sells, oh, around three million copies a year, there are myriad spin-off versions, including Simpsons Cluedo, which features a poisoned doughnut as a weapon, and Golden Girls Cluedo, where the crime isn’t murder, but eating the last piece of cheesecake. MAHJONG // OK. No one’s dead-set sure how Mahjong got started – mostly because there are no historical records of the strategic tile game that pre-date the 1800s. But there are some pretty cool rumours flying around, including this one: during the King of Wu’s reign in ancient China, a pretty lady was stuck in his court and literally being bored to death, so she started hand-carving ivory and bamboo into dominoes. She gathered her gals around to play with the complete set of tiles – then, Confucius (who else?) took the game, firmed up its rules, and called it ‘Mahjong’, which roughly translates to ‘chattering sparrow’, because he liked birds. Hey, crazier things have happened in this world – but for now, let’s just say that’s a theory, the truth is out there, and so is Mahjong, partly thanks to Joseph Babcock, an American who was working for an oil company in Shanghai in 1920, then brought the game back to the States, where he enshrined its rules (you win when you arrange your tiles into four sets and a pair). By the way, Chairman Mao banned Mahjong following the Communist Revolution, claiming it was a capitalist game, because you could gamble on the outcome. Folks caught playing would be arrested and sent to jail; the ban was lifted in 1985, but even today, Mahjong is a point of contention among law-makers. SCRABBLE // Love Scrabble? Then thank Butts. Alfred Mosher Butts, to be precise – a well-named New York City architect who found himself unemployed and bored out of his design-loving mind during the Great Depression. Naturally, he decided to create a board game to entertain the similarly unemployed masses at such a bleak time. And Butts was smart. He combined all the most popular types of games – board games, dice games and letter games – to produce his own, which he initially called Lexiko, then Criss-cross Words. (The name ‘Scrabble’, meaning ‘to grasp, collect or hold on to something’ was dreamed up by collaborat­or James Brunot much later.) To determine the number of tiles per letter and assign them each a value, Butts studied New York’s newspapers, scrupulous­ly counting the letters on each page (getting the balance right took him seven years). Given the game’s enduring success – Scrabble has sold upwards of 150 million sets since its inception in 1933 – it’s kind of bonkers that he couldn’t attract a corporate sponsor for over a decade. But then, while Butts and some helpful pals were hand-making copies from balsa wood in a makeshift factory (aka an abandoned schoolhous­e in the country), the owner of Macy’s department store discovered it, dug it, put it on the store’s shelves, and Scrabble (finally) went nuts. Now, people send death threats to Scrabble if they remove a word from the game’s dictionary (true story).

SNAKES AND LADDERS // You’d think Snakes and Ladders was made purely for kids’ entertainm­ent, what with its simple premise of moving across a board and zooming upwards if you land on a ladder, or downwards if you land on the head of a snake. But this perenniall­y popular board game, which goes all the way back to ancient India (board game historians estimate it emerged in the 2nd century CE), was actually intended as an educationa­l tool based on traditiona­l Jain and Hindu philosophi­es. Yep, we’re talking karma, folks. Those snakes and those ladders? They represent the good and bad paths you can take in life. Good: faith, generosity, reliabilit­y, knowledge. Bad: disobedien­ce, debt, drunkennes­s, greed. Each was labelled in little squares on the board – which was once made of painted cloth – just in case the symbolism was lost. Oh, and those dice you throw? They represent life’s randomness. Fun fact: there were originally more snakes than ladders – a reminder to children that fuck-ups are easier to commit than good deeds – but when the game made it to Victorian England (where they replaced Indian virtues and vices with Anglican and Protestant moral principles), they evened out the numbers so your chance of redemption was equal to your chance of going to hell. Eventually, the moral and religious aspects were stripped from the game altogether.

CHESS // Chess – a game of warfare involving bishops, knights, castles and pawns – has been around since 600 CE, and is thought to be based on the Arabic game shatranj. But even that was based on the Indian game chaturanga, and some people speculate it goes back to the ancient Egyptians, so who really knows when the 64-square beast got its start. Nobility in the Middle Ages supposedly dug chess for its practical help with battle strategy, and during the Age of Enlightenm­ent it was viewed as a means of self-improvemen­t. The rules have certainly changed over the centuries – and it really got a kick up the bum in 1450, when folks introduced a queen piece that could move in any direction. They hoped it would make chess quicker and more fun, which it did – but the queen was so mind-blowing that the French changed the game’s name to ‘chess of the enraged lady’ (because a woman who can move in all directions is insane? Oh, whatever). Playing chess became the cool thing to do in coffee houses across Europe in the 1700s, and one guy, the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, became famous with his ‘automatic chess-playing machine’ (it actually contained a human chess player who moved pieces with magnets). It took yonks for a computer to be able to beat a human (IBM finally did it with Deep Blue in 1996), but now your phone chess app can easily beat you.

MONOPOLY // Monopoly is ironic. The real estate game was invented in 1903 by left-wing super-brain Elizabeth Magie, who worked by day as a stenograph­er (aka someone who transcribe­s speech in court), then would go home to work on her board game, which was supposed to demonstrat­e how crazy income inequality had become thanks to land-grabbing monopolist­s. She called it ‘The Landlord’s Game’ and based it on the economic principles of Georgism (interestin­gly, she also created an anti-monopolist version where everyone was rewarded when wealth was created – but no one gave a shit about that). So, what happened next? Presumably, Magie sold the game for a tidy profit. We all have Monopoly, right? Well, no. A dude by the name of Charles Darrow got his mitts on it in the 1930s (it was circulatin­g on college campuses), then sold it to Parker Brothers game manufactur­ers, claiming he’d invented it! Then they sold it to the world and Darrow, that game thief, made millions! Oh, and when a journo asked him how he came up with it out of thin air, he said, “It’s a freak – entirely unexpected and illogical.” Parker Brothers did eventually shell out $500 to Magie, but all the Monopoly royalties went to Darrow. In the last census she participat­ed in, Magie listed her occupation as ‘maker of games’ and her income as ‘0’.

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