The Origins of 8 Classic Board Games

Continuing our look at the history of board games, here are the histories of some more modern classic games, from backgammon to Scrabble to Hex.

1. Backgammon

Other than chess – the history of which is well-covered elsewhere – the most enduring table game of the last few centuries is backgammon, also known as “tables” early in its history.

Backgammon itself is a descendant, at least in spirit if not in direct lineage, of the games of Senet and Ur that I discussed earlier this week. The missing link may be the Middle Eastern game Nard or Nardshir, with rules nearly identical to backgammon's and appearances in Babylonian and Persian literature between 300 and 850 A.D.; when the Arabs conquered Persia in the 6th century, the game spread throughout the Muslim world, moving up the Caucasus and into Central Asia as well as Spain, from which it headed further into Europe. Willard Fiske, author of the misnamed Chess in Iceland (which includes histories of many table games beyond chess), argues for Nard as the connection between tables/backgammon and the table games of antiquity, while David Parlett identifies its entry into Europe as Tabl?, later Tabula, by way of the Byzantine Empire and then Greece. Tabula first appears in literature through an epigram written by the Byzantine Emperor Zeno, who lamented a particularly unfortunate throw of the dice in verse that was reproduced several decades later by the Greek poet Agathias.

An early variant of Tables, called Tick-Tack (derived from the game tric-trac, where the goal was achieving certain scores or positions rather than bearing off all of one's pieces), even earns mention in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, as Lucio says to Claudius in response to the latter's plea for Lucio to talk to Claudius' nunnery-bound sister: “I pray she may; as well for the encouragement of the like, which else would stand under grievous imposition, as for the enjoying of thy life, who I would be sorry should be thus foolishly lost at a game of tick-tack. I'll to her.”

The term “backgammon” itself first appears in 1645, spelled “baggammon,” in a letter that also referred to Irish, a simpler predecessor that didn't include doubles or the levels of winning found in the modern game.

2. Othello

Popular today under the trademarked name Othello, the game previously called Reversi predates the Othello brand name by more than a half-century, but the name Reversi fell into the public domain several decades after its invention and publication. The inventor of Reversi remains in dispute; the original patent went to Briton Lewis Waterman in 1888, but he was later accused of theft by James Mollett, whose Annexation game purportedly dated to 1870. Othello differs from Reversi only in name, in starting placement (in Reversi the first four pieces go in the center, but not necessarily in the familiar diagonal pattern), and in origin myth, as Othello was “invented” in Japan in the 1960s by Goro Hasegawa.

3. Risk

Risk was first published in France in 1957 as La Conquete du Monde, or “World Conquest,” the name under which Parker Brothers first published it in the United Statees. The game was invented by Oscar- and Palme d'Or-winning film director Albert Lamorisse, who was also the author of the children's book The Red Balloon, adapted from his Academy Award-winning short film of that name. Game historian Bruce Whitehill has written that the choice of the Risk name reflected the first initials of the four grandchildren of the company salesman who suggested the name, although the story seems to be apocryphal.

4. Diplomacy

Diplomacy, tabbed by one gamer friend of mine as “Risk for grown-ups,” was developed by Allan Calhamer in the early 1950s but was not published until 1959, when Calhamer decided to print it himself after existing game houses weren't interested. A favorite of John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Cronkite, the game has sold over 300,000 copies since its 1960 publication by Games Research, and the game has endured the vicissitudes of the game-publishing industry, going to 3M, Avalon Hill, and now Hasbro. Calhamer, a Harvard graduate, drifted through law school and a few other jobs before settling on a career as a postal worker. He never published another game.

Part of the brilliance of Diplomacy is that it involves no luck whatsoever. Seven players (no more, no fewer) represent seven great powers in Europe at 1900. They must form and break alliances with each other to try to be the one player left at the end who controls the majority of the 34 spaces on the map of the continent. The game relies entirely on negotiations and player strategy, with numerous strategy guides abounding online, including an entire Wikipedia article on a popular opening sequence for Italy called the Lepanto opening. One of a handful of games (with Risk) in both the GAMES Magazine and Origin Awards Halls of Fame, Diplomacy is an excellent choice if you enjoy knife fights with your friends and holding grudges that last well beyond the final move.

5. Checkers

The game known today as checkers or draughts likely traces back to Alquerque, a game that first appears in a 1283 treatise by Alfonso the Wise, summarizing the state of dice, table, and board games in that era. The “de doze” variety of Alquerque, where each player began with twelve pieces, was played on a five-by-five grid, with only the central space unoccupied at the opening. A player moves by sliding any piece horizontally, vertically, or diagonally to an adjacent, vacant space, or by jumping over an opponent's piece to a vacant space, thereby capturing the piece he jumped. The game could, and arguably should, end in a draw, as there is no luck involved and the second player can always simply counter the first's moves. Alquerque, found throughout southwestern Europe from Sicily to France to Catalonia.

Alquerque itself was related to the games known collectively as “merels,” from the Latin merellus meaning a token or game piece. Parlett asserts that merels were viewed on par with chess and tables by the aristocracy of the Middle Ages, where the wealthy could afford the specially-designed boards required for these games, often owning two-sided boards to allow for the play of two of the three games. Merels were two-player games where each player is trying to line up three of his pieces in a row, a style of game largely fallen into disuse but recognizable in Tic-Tac-Toe (also known as “noughts and crosses” in the U.K.) and the 1970s staple Connect Four.

6. Scrabble

In 1938, architect Alfred M. Butts revised his own word-tile game, Lexiko, calling the new version Criss-Cross Words and – stop me if you've heard this before – found his idea rejected by the game-publishing establishment. (Among those rejecting it: Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and Simon & Schuster.) When early demand proved more than he could handle while holding down a full-time government job and some freelance work as an architect, Butts sought a publisher, eventually selling the rights to James Brunot, executive director of the President's War Relief Council, in exchange for a royalty on future game sales; Brunot tweaked the board, retitled the game Scrabble, and lost money for three years before his fortunes turned.

For reasons lost to history, sales started to increase radically in the summer of 1952, led by a large order from Macy's. From sales of just 1632 units in 1950 – a drop of about 33% from 1949 – Scrabble moved just under 3.8 million copies in 1954, by which point Brunot had licensed the game to Selchow & Righter. If you're interested in Scrabble, I highly recommend Stefan Fatsis' entertaining history of both the game and his own obsessive efforts in the world of competitive Scrabble players, Word Freak.

7. Hex

One entire class of games that has largely disappeared since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s is connection games — largely abstract games where players would try to capture areas or block opponents' paths by connecting disparate points on a board of lines or pegs. The best-known example is Hex, invented independently in the 1940s by two mathematicians: Piet Hein of Denmark, and John Nash of the United States and A Beautiful Mind fame. (Parlett actually gets this one wrong, referring to Hein as “a Princeton University student,” conflating the two men.)

First commercialized in 1952 by Parker Brothers, who gave it the name “Hex,” the underlying game is played on a board of variable size but equal length and width where the game spaces are hexagonal, thus each bordering six adjacent spaces. The players play at perpendicular angles to each other, and each player's goal is to connect from his side to the opposite side. Nash proved that the game is a determined game: There can be no tie or draw, as the only conclusion is when one player completes a path between two opposite sides of the board.

8. TwixT

TwixT, now out of print, was invented by Alex Randolph in 1962 and published by 3M as part of its “bookshelf games” series a decade later. TwixT's board is a 24x24 grid of holes, where each player places pegs to connect to his pegs already on the board. The only permitted placement mimics that of a chess player's knight – two holes in one direction, then a 90-degree turn and shift of one more hole. The goal of TwixT, as in Hex, is to connect from one side to the other, but in TwixT the chain would be a series of pegs and connectors. TwixT, unlike Hex, is in GAMES Magazine's Hall of Fame, but is not commercially available, as the rights went to Hasbro when the company purchased legendary board game publisher Avalon Hill.

Tomorrow: Settlers of Catan.

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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