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Before there was Monopoly there was "The Landlord's Game."
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Origins of 7 Popular Board Games

Original image
Before there was Monopoly there was "The Landlord's Game."
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Our definition of fun is constantly changing. In one century, collecting ferns may be the hobby of choice, while in the next people prefer binge-watching cat videos. But no matter what cultural trends are gripping the globe, one form of entertainment always persists.

Board games originated in ancient Egypt, and in today’s digital age they’re as popular as ever. In It's All a Game, out now, author Tristan Donovan traces the history of board games from chess to Monopoly to Settlers of Catan. We’ve pulled some of the most fascinating origin stories from the book for a look at how seven iconic games came to be.

1. MONOPOLY

Many modern players see Monopoly as a glorification of cutthroat capitalism. It was banned in communist China and the Soviet Union, and following his rise to power in Cuba, Fidel Castro accused it of being “symbolic of an imperialistic and capitalistic system.” But the game’s creator intended it to convey something much different.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie was a vocal supporter of the single tax movement during the late 19th century. The proposition called for the abolishment of all taxes in favor of one tax placed on property. By relying on citizens who owned land for tax revenue, the policy would have hopefully narrowed the gap between wealthy landlords and their working-class tenants.

To make these principles as engaging as possible, Lizzie Magie turned them into a board game in 1902. The object of The Landlord’s Game, as it was initially called, was to snatch up as much land as possible. As available properties on the board grew scarce and rent rose higher, the landlords would watch their fortunes multiply while the other players descended into bankruptcy. The winner was the remaining land baron who ended up owning everything in play.

Magie thought the game’s critique of greedy landlords was obvious, but it eventually evolved into a beast far removed from her original creation. After patenting it in 1904, she sent the game to Parker Brothers, where it was rejected for being too political. Nonetheless, the game attracted a small base of fans. Soon people were revising and improving upon the game with handmade versions of their own. One of these new versions, now called Monopoly, found its way back to Parker Brothers in 1934. This time they bit. But before they could publish the game, they had to take care of Magie’s original patent. She agreed to sell them the game for $500 under the condition that copies of her original Landlord’s Game would also be released. It was painfully clear which game consumers preferred; sales of the glitzy, money-grubbing Monopoly soared while Magie’s cardboard political parable lay dead on the shelves.

2. LIFE

By modern board game standards, it doesn’t get much simpler than Life. But the game revolutionized the medium when it was produced by a young Milton Bradley in 1860. Growing up in devout Protestant New England in the 19th century, Bradley had been taught that games were a sinful distraction. At age 23, he attempted to reconcile this cultural belief with his desire to design a board game. The result was The Checkered Game of Life—a lecture on morality presented as a sheet of cardboard. To play, participants lost and collected points by progressing through the stages of life represented on the white squares. Some squares were positive (like Honesty, Perseverance, and Industry) while vice spaces (like the not-so-family-friendly Suicide square) were less desirable. To move across the board, players spun a numbered “teetotum” as dice were still associated with the illicit act of gambling. The first player to reach 100 points was rewarded with the gift of “Happy Old Age.”

Even with its heavy-handed message, Bradley feared his game would be rejected by puritanical audiences in New England. He took his product to New York City instead, and his instincts were proven correct; he sold all of the several hundred copies he brought with him in a matter of days. The Checkered Game of Life would go on to sell 40,000 copies in its first year. After falling into obscurity at the end of the century, it was resurrected as the more secular Game of Life by the Milton Bradley Company in 1959.

3. CLUE

In the early 20th century, Great Britain was captivated by crime stories. One of the most enduring pieces of pop culture to come out of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction wasn’t a novel, but rather a board game designed by British husband-and-wife team Anthony and Elva Pratt. According to It's All a Game, their game centered around the same type of rural country houses that served as the settings for so many murder mysteries of the day.

After revising some unsavory elements (the original name of "Murder" was changed to Cluedo; the gun room was replaced with an extension of the dining room), the UK publisher Waddingtons bought the rights in 1945. Getting the game produced overseas proved to be more challenging. Though Parker Brothers president Robert Barton enjoyed Cluedo, he refused to release it based on a long-standing company rule that prohibited any products related to murder. But the game stuck with Barton. He eventually convinced the founder of Parker Brothers to make an exception to his murder rule, and the brand released Cluedo in the U.S. under the name Clue in 1949.

4. OPERATION

Toy designer Marvin Glass was the man responsible for bringing board games into the plastic age. He shook up the industry with Mouse Trap in 1963, then again with Operation two years later. But before Glass got his hands on it, the game was concocted by an industrial design student at the University of Illinois.

For a class project, John Spinello constructed a metal box outfitted with a series of holes along a winding groove through which users had to guide a metal probe. If the tool touched the sides of the path, a buzzer would sound. Spinello arranged a meeting with Marvin Glass through his godfather, a model maker at Glass's game company, to pitch him the concept. Glass bought the invention and transformed it into Operation—a game that had players carefully lift plastic items like spare ribs and stomach butterflies out of a cartoon surgical patient. The object was to remove all the loose bits without hitting the metal edges of the openings with the toy tweezers. Operation was an instant success for Glass and his company. Spinello, meanwhile, came away with nothing but a $500 check and the empty promise of a post-graduation job that never came to fruition.

5. TWISTER

If Twister had been released a decade earlier, it may have never become a household name. But the game hit shelves in the mid-1960s, right as the sexual revolution was starting to buck the uptight ideals of the previous generation.

A design agency co-owner named Reyn Guyer thought up the idea as a promotional item for one of his clients. If customers sent in enough proofs of purchase to the company, they would receive a "free" gift in return. Guyer whipped up a prototype of a full-body game, dubbed "King’s Footsie," on a sheet of fiberboard to see if it would work as a possible prize. He decided it had potential, but not as reward for a mail-in promotion. Instead, he started shopping the concept around to game publishers. By the time he pitched it to Milton Bradley, it had been renamed “Pretzel” and now involved players planting their hands on a mat in addition to their feet.

After negotiating a name change to Twister, the company agreed to make it—a risk that almost didn’t pay off. Retailers were reluctant to stock it. A game that involved the mingling of coed limbs on the floor didn’t flow with the family-friendly vibe many stores were trying to project at the time. Milton Bradley was about to pull the plug on Twister for good when an appearance on The Tonight Show rewrote the game’s history. On May 3, 1966, millions of viewers watched as Carson and his guest Eva Gabor tested out the new game on live television. Sales skyrocketed immediately. The game wasn’t without its scandalized critics, but increasingly liberal attitudes towards sex secured Twister's place on the shelf for decades to follow.

6. TRIVIAL PURSUIT

Prior to the release of Trivial Pursuit, board games carried a bit of a stigma. A handful of titles like chess, backgammon, and Scrabble were acceptable for adults to play, but for the most part a board game wasn’t something you broke out over drinks. As Donovan explains in It's All a Game, a photo editor and a sports journalist from Montreal changed that in the early 1980s. After realizing there was nothing on the market like it, friends Chris Haney and Scott Abbott put together a prototype of a game that quizzed mature players on subjects like art, sports, history, and entertainment. They scoured trivia books to fill out cards with questions like “What is the first flavor in Life Savers candy?” and “How long did Yuri Gagarin spend in space?” The team attracted enough investors to publish the game independently, but even then convincing stores to stock an expensive and old-fashioned-looking board game at the height of Atari mania was a tough job. Not many retailers took a chance on Trivial Pursuit, but those that did watched it fly off the shelves. Soon stores were reordering the game, and it aroused enough attention that the board game producer Selchow and Righter bought the rights in 1983. Trivial Pursuit sold 20 million copies in its first year, proving that board gaming could be a fashionable hobby for older consumers.

7. SETTLERS OF CATAN

Klaus Teuber found success as a board game designer prior to making Settlers of Catan. He’d already won the Spiel des Jahres award, the highest honor in the board game world, three times in his career. But sales were never impressive enough for him to quit his full-time job as a dental technician in Germany. With Catan, he struck upon something huge. The theme of the game was inspired by Teuber’s own fascination with Viking history. He tested various iterations on his family for four years before finally settling on the board of hexagon-tiled spaces players know today. Unlike his previous titles, the initial buzz surrounding Settlers of Catan didn’t fade away following its German release in 1995. The hype only grew stronger until the game migrated overseas, paving the way for the German-style board game trend. The game was the Monopoly antidote U.S. markets desperately needed; the rules were simple, all the players were kept engaged throughout, and a whole game could be completed in about an hour. Catan was hardly the first German board game to offer these qualities, but it was first to introduce that style of gaming to a global audience.

Hungry for more board game history? You can buy It's All a Game here.

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Before there was Monopoly there was "The Landlord's Game."
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Before there was Monopoly there was "The Landlord's Game."
iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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