The Origins of 7 Popular Board Games

Before there was Monopoly there was "The Landlord's Game."
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

The board of the Checkered Game of Life.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Cover of original Cluedo board game.
Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

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.

9 Vintage Thanksgiving Side Dishes We Shouldn’t Bring Back

We all have that aunt—the one who’s been bringing her Miracle-Whip-bound pimiento-pea salad to Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Although you may swear she got her recipe straight from the devil, it turns out that cheese-and-lime-Jell-O salads and their ilk were all the rage in her day. So it’s not (totally) her fault! To cut her a little slack, here are some examples of vintage Thanksgiving-themed recipes that will make her salad look like a perfectly golden-brown turkey.

1. CRANBERRY CANDLE SALAD

Best Foods Mayonnaise Ad 1960s with Jello Molds

Nothing complements the tart, refreshing flavor of cranberry sauce like some gelatin and salty, eggy mayonnaise. If that weren’t weird enough, this recipe also tells you to shove a real candle in there and then light it. Ostensibly, you’re supposed to eat around the melted wax, but we can’t be sure—maybe it’s considered a condiment.

2. CANDIED SWEET POTATOES WITH ANGOSTURA BITTERS

This recipe for candied sweet potatoes, which involves baking them in a mixture of butter, sugar, and angostura bitters, is probably either really good or really bad. It sort of makes sense, adding bitters to cut down on the sugar factor. Alternatively, you could just not make a candied version of something that already has the word sweet in its name.

3. CREAMED ONIONS

This once-popular Thanksgiving mainstay has been neglected over the last century, for perhaps obvious reasons. In some households, the idea was to pour creamed onions over the turkey, like gravy, to add a little moisture. Or possibly because eating a chunky mouthful of pearl onions and cream sauce by itself is gross.

4. TURKEY AND STUFFING ON JELL-O

Thanksgiving Jello Ad

There’s not much to this one, is there? It’s a pile of turkey and stuffing dumped on top of a cranberry orange Jell-O ring—sounds delicious!

5. WINTER CORN

This mixture of corn, sour cream, and bacon is sometimes found on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables. It’s mostly off-putting because its main ingredient is creamed corn. That said, creamed corn really needs all the help it can get, so adding bacon can only improve it.

6. SWEET AND SOUR TANG POPCORN (A.K.A. ASTRONAUT POPCORN)

Reportedly, this was a popular Thanksgiving dessert in the ’70s. The idea seems to be an offshoot of caramel corn, but … with Tang powder.

7. HOT DR. PEPPER

You gotta give the good folks at Dr. Pepper a few points for at least trying here. They noticed that soda was not often considered a cozy, comforting holiday drink, and they stepped up to the bat undaunted. Bold move.

8. FROZEN JELLIED TURKEY-VEGETABLE SALAD

There’s only one way to improve a dish as alluring as Jellied Turkey-Vegetable Salad, and that’s to stick it in the freezer. From the sound of the recipe—which combines cream of celery soup, salad dressing, diced turkey, vegetables, and gelatin—this is basically the inside of a turkey pot pie if it was served frozen. And also if it was square.

9. JELL-O FRUIT CORNUCOPIA

Sure, cornucopias were for holding food in olden times, but don’t you wish you could eat one? Well, guess what—your years of longing are finally over, because someone has made a Jell-O version of one with fruit trapped in it. You don’t even have to take the fruit out of the cornucopia this time—you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Dreams do come true.

10 Amazing Facts About Stan Lee

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Comic book legend Stan Lee’s life was always an open book. The co-creator of some of the greatest superheroes and most beloved stories of all time, Lee—who passed away on November 12 at the age of 95—became just as mythical and larger-than-life as the characters in the panels. In 2015, around the time of Marvel’s 75th anniversary, Lee had the idea to reflect on his own life, as he said, “in the one form it has never been depicted, as a comic book … or if you prefer, a graphic memoir.”

The result, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015, was Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir—which was written by Lee with Peter David and features artwork by cartoonist and illustrator Colleen Doran. Here are 10 things we learned about Lee.

1. HIS WIFE WAS ALSO HIS BARBER.

As a bit of a throwaway fact, Stanley Martin Lieber (Stan Lee) revealed the secret of his slicked back mane on the second page of his memoir. “My whole adult life, I’ve never been to a barber,” he wrote. “Joanie always cuts my hair.”

2. HIS CONFIDENCE CAME FROM HIS MOTHER.

Lee wrote that as a child he loved to read books by Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and others, and his mother often watched him read: “I probably got my self-confidence from the fact that my mother thought everything I did was brilliant.”

3. YOUNG STAN LEE WROTE OBITUARIES.

Before writing about the fantastic lives of fictional characters, Lee wrote antemortem obituaries for celebrities at an undisclosed news office in New York. He said that he eventually quit that job because it was too “depressing.”

4. CAPTAIN AMERICA WAS HIS FIRST BIG BREAK.

A week into his job at Timely Comics, Lee got the opportunity to write a two-page Captain America comic. He wrote it under the pen name Stan Lee (which became his legal name) and titled it "Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge." His first full comic script would come in Captain America Issue 5, published August 1, 1941.

5. HE WROTE TRAINING FILMS FOR THE ARMY WITH DR. SEUSS.

After being transferred from the army’s Signal Corps in New Jersey, Lee worked as a playwright in the Training Film Division in Queens with eight other men, including a few who went on to be very famous: Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan, cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939] and It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]) and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

6. HE DEFIED THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY WITH AN ANTI-DRUG COMIC.

In 1971, Lee received a letter from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asking him to put an anti-drug message in one of his books. He came up with a Spider-Man story that involved his best friend Harry abusing pills because of a break-up. The CCA would not approve the story with their seal because of the mention of drugs, but Lee convinced his publisher, Martin Goodman, to run the comic anyway.

7. AN ISSUE AT THE PRINTERS TURNED THE HULK GREEN.

The character was supposed to be gray, but according to Lee, the printer had a hard time keeping the color consistent. “So as of issue #2,” Lee wrote, “with no explanation, he turned green.”

8. HIS WIFE DESTROYED HIS PRIZED TYPEWRITER.

According to Lee, during an argument, Joanie destroyed the typewriter he used to write the first issues for characters including Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. “This happened before eBay," he wrote. "Too bad. I could’ve auctioned the parts and made a mint.”

9. A FIRE DESTROYED HIS INTERVIEWS AND LECTURES.

When Lee moved his family to Los Angeles, he set up a studio in Van Nuys where he stored videotapes of his talks and interviews, along with a commissioned bust of his wife. The building was lost to a blaze that the fire department believed was arson, but no one was ever charged with the crime.

10. HIS FAVORITE MARVEL FILM CAMEO WAS BASED ON ONE FROM THE COMICS.

Beginning with the first Spider-Man film in 2002, Stan Lee has made quick cameos in Marvel films as a service to the fans. He said that his appearance in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) was inspired by the story of Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four Annual Volume 1 #3, in which he and artist/writer Jack Kirby attempt to crash the ceremony but are thwarted.

A version of this story ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER