10 Origin Stories Behind Famous Board Games

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The board game market is one of the toughest to break into. Thousands of games are released every year and throughout all of history only dozens have broken through and become mainstream hits. These are 10 of those select few games that somehow managed to become rainy day staples.

NOTE: Since humans have been playing some games like Chess, Checkers, and Mancala for thousands of years, their origins aren’t clear, so they were omitted from this list.

10. Risk

risk

Originally called La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World), Risk was invented by Academy Award winning French film director Albert Lamorisse. Lamorisse, who is most famous for his 1956 short film “The Red Balloon,” invented the game while on a family vacation in Holland. The game takes strategic elements of chess, but the playing area is much more expansive and up to six people can play, which complicates the strategy. Also, with the dice, there is an added element of randomness. Originally, Lamorisse said the game should take 90 minutes to play, but if you’ve ever played Risk, you’ll know that the first 90 minutes of the game are just the set up and opening turns.

Lamorisse took the game to Miro, a French board game company, and they manufactured the first games in 1957. In 1959, the game was purchased by Parker Brothers, who made some minor tweaks and renamed the game Risk.

Lamorisse continued to make movies after inventing the game, but sadly, he was tragically killed in a helicopter accident in Iran in June 1970 while filming.

9. Settlers of Catan

catan

In the 1980s, Klaus Teuber was running a dental lab outside of Darmstadt, Germany, and, in general, he wasn’t happy with his work life. For a bit of escapism, he took up making board games. His first game, Barbarossa (a clay-shaping guessing game), was a hit in 1988 after he won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award, which is awarded to the best German board game of the year.

After his initial success, Teuber created a few more games, and won two more Spiel des Jahres awards, but he was still working at the dental lab.

In 1991, Teuber was reading about Vikings and the Age of Discovery and it sparked the inspiration for Settlers of Catan. He said a major breakthrough in the game came when he realized he should use hexagonal board pieces instead of square pieces, as this allowed for more areas to play in the same amount of space.

The game was an instant bestseller in Germany when it was released in 1995 and Teuber claimed his fourth Spiel des Jahres award. In 1996, Catan made its way to American hobby shops and slowly gained a small, but devoted following. In 1998, Teuber finally quit working at the dental lab because he was making a living off his games.

Sales of Catan continue to increase each year and as of 2015, it has been translated into 30 languages, sold over 22 million copies, inspired spinoffs, and the rights for the movie and the TV show were purchased.

8. Cranium

cranium

In the 1990s, Seattle-based Microsoft employees Richard Tait and Whit Alexander were trying to think of a business to start. At first, they were thinking a dot-com company, but they thought that the space was already too crowded. In 1997, Tait came up with the idea that would become Cranium after a weekend of intense board gaming with his wife and another couple. During that weekend, Tait noticed that there was a gap in the board game industry; a lot of games were based on only a small segment of skills. For example, with Scrabble, you need pattern recognition, planning, bluffing, strategy, and a big vocabulary, but not much else. Also, those skills don’t translate well to a game like Pictionary. What was missing was a game that utilized a variety of skills. A single game that challenged different skills would mean that there was a good chance anyone who played it would be really good at one aspect, and completely horrible at another. This would make the game uniquely inclusive.

After coming up with the basic premise of the game, over breakfast Tait convinced Alexander that they should leave their high paying jobs with Microsoft to go make a board game, even though there hadn’t been a massive, hit board game since Pictionary in 1984. With the odds stacked against them, in early 1998, they put $100,000 into a prototype. Then, instead of trying to get it stocked in stores, they took a rather unique approach to sales. Tait had recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a friend of Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and the friend set up a meeting between the makers of Cranium and Schultz. They ended up playing a few rounds of Cranium and Schultz liked the game. He had been looking for something similar to put in Starbucks, and agreed to put games in 1,500 stores so that customers could play. Through Starbucks, Tait and Alexander learned that people would highly recommend the game. To help spread the word-of-mouth recommendations, they gave games to Starbucks employees and patrons, and by the time the holiday season rolled around, Tait and Alexander couldn’t keep up with orders. Soon, Barnes and Nobles and Amazon started selling the game and it became a runaway hit.

In 2008, Cranium was purchased by Hasbro for $77 million. After the purchase, Tait and Alexander, who held the titles of Grand Poo Bah and Chief Noodler, respectively, left the company.

7. Pictionary

pictionary

Creator Rob Angel first came up with the basics of Pictionary in 1981, and he would break out the game at parties when festivities had reached a lull. He would pick a word out of the dictionary and then try to get people to guess what he was drawing. He never really thought much about selling the game until the Trivial Pursuit phenomenon in 1984, when the creators sold 20 million copies in just over a year. Seeing the potential in his game, Angel started to work on it in 1985.

Angel realized that the key to the game was getting the right words. Most people have an active vocabulary of about 20,000 words, but there are 171,476 active words in the English language (a number that continues to grow over the years, as well). Also, not everything can be drawn. That meant just randomly picking words from the dictionary wouldn’t work, so Angel, who was working as a waiter at the time, picked up the dictionary and started reading it. He also had a friend design cards and a board. With a $35,000 loan, they went around to local stores and sold them some copies. Then Seattle based retailer Nordstrom ordered 167 copies. This caught the attention of 58-year-old Thomas McGuire, who was a salesman for the board game company Selchow & Righter. After playing the game with his family, McGuire quit his job to sell Pictionary with his own marketing company, and it was published by Western Publishing Group Inc. By Christmas season 1987, Pictionary was the bestselling game of the year with three million copies sold. In 1994, Western sold its gaming section, including Pictionary, to Hasbro for $105 million.

6. Candy Land

candy land

The quintessential game for children, Candy Land, is full of bright colors and pretty imagery, but its origins are actually fairly depressing. The game was developed by retired schoolteacher Eleanor Abbott in 1948. Abbott was in a San Diego hospital for polio and she, and the children in the ward, were bored. So Abbott used a piece of butcher paper and drew up the plans for Candy Land. The game was popular among children in the ward and they encouraged her to submit it to Milton Bradley, who agreed to produce the game.

The game became a surprise bestseller for the company. In hindsight, there were a few factors that contributed to its success. One reason is that it was easy enough that most children could play it; there’s no reading, no counting, and no real skill involved other than deciphering colors. Secondly, in the Post-War period, Americans had more disposable income and it was the start of the Baby Boom, so toys and games, especially ones directed at very young people, exploded in popularity. Finally, during the polio outbreak of the 1950s, people weren’t encouraged to go out in public, meaning they spent more time inside and away from other people. Thus, games that could be played in the home were in high demand.

Milton Bradley, which was taken over by Hasbro in 1984, kept the origin story of Candy Land quiet for decades because they didn’t want the colorful, upbeat game for children to be linked with a horrifying and deadly disease. The story was finally made public in 1998 when a 50th anniversary edition game was released.

5. Trivial Pursuit

trivial pursuit

The origin of Trivial Pursuit has a bit of a mythical aura around it. Various versions of the story exist, but here is what we do know for sure. It happened on the night of December 15, 1979, in Montreal, Canada. Chris Haney, a high school dropout who worked as a picture editor at the Montreal Gazette, and Scott Abbott, a sports journalist for The Canadian Press, were playing some Scrabble. According to some stories, they spent the night drinking like Wade Boggs (years later, Haney said they only had one beer…but since it was Saturday night, and they were newspaper men working in Montreal in the late 1970s, we’re guessing the true number of beers was quite a bit north of that claim). Either way, somewhere in there, an idea for a new game was born.

How Haney and Scott were able to transition their drunken idea into a cultural phenomenon involved a bit of conning and hustling. First, they attended a toy makers convention under the guise of a journalist and a photographer who were doing a story on bringing a board game to market. Through this ploy, they got a lot of insider information for free. Then they spent the next two years writing 10,000 questions before dwindling it down to 6,000.

Finally, the game was released in 1981, just as the United States was going through a recession, which had a massive effect on the cost of production for first the 1,000 copies. It cost them $75 to make the game and they were only selling it for $15. This caused them serious problems when they tried to order more games because they didn’t have the funds. Haney and Scott also couldn’t get a traditional loan because they had been connected with a pyramid scheme. Instead they took on 32 investors, who all chipped in $1,000.

Luckily for the investors, the game exploded in popularity shortly after they handed over their money. People would line up for hours or drive hundreds of miles to buy the game. By 1984, more than 20 million copies of Trivial Pursuit, which amounted to nearly half a billion dollars in sales, had been sold in North America. In 1988, Trivial Pursuit was purchased by Hasbro for $80 million.

With his new found riches, Haney partied hard and developed medical problems later in his life. He passed away on May 31, 2010, at the age of 59.

4. Scrabble

scrabble

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1899, Alfred Mosher Butts was always a good student, and attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he pursued an architecture degree and played on the school’s chess team. After school, he got a job as a draftsman, designing suburban homes.

When the Great Depression struck, Butts’ salary was cut by 20 percent in 1930, and he was laid off in 1931. Like many other people at the time, he didn’t hold a steady job for years. During that time, he tried his hand at writing, did some painting, and worked as a statistician. He found a little bit of success in all them, but wasn’t able to build a new career for himself.

Another project that Butts started working on when his salary was cut was a board game that mixed anagrams, chess, and crossword puzzles. Butts’ first thought was to design a game that involved making words, using letters on tiles. Next, he scanned the newspapers and culled the most common letters in the English language, and devised a point system on their usage. He also thought that drawing letters from a pool would add a level of randomness, which would level the playing field in terms of skill.

In October 1933, Butts started selling the first incarnation of the game, which he called Criss Cross Words, out of his apartment in New York City. Originally, the game didn’t have a board; it was just letters with number values glued onto pieces of plywood, and the tile holders. Over the next 10 months, Butts tweaked the rules and added a board and by August 1934, he had sold 84 copies of the game for $1.50, which brought Butts to a grand total of a loss of $20.43. He tried to get a patent on the game, twice, and tried to find manufacturers, but had no luck. In 1935, Butts’ architectural firm began to get more business and he went back to designing homes.

Twelve years after Butts stopped selling Criss Cross Words, James Brunot, who was the director of the President’s War Relief Control Board during World War II, got in touch with Butts. Brunot was a fan of Criss Cross Words and wanted to buy the rights to it. He would manufacture and market the game under the name Scrabble. For each copy sold, Butts would get two-and-a-half cents, and Butts agreed.

Over the next few years, Butts’ slightly modified game sold moderately well, but it didn’t take off until 1952. That summer, the president of Macy’s was vacationing in Long Island and saw people playing the game, so he decided to stock it. By 1954, they sold 3,798,555 copies of the game, including 100,000 foreign language copies and a Braille edition.

In 1971, Butts agreed to sell the rights of Scrabble to one of the companies that originally turned him down in 1934, Selchow & Righter, for $265,000. Butts believed he made over $1 million on Scrabble, but it ultimately didn’t change his life much. He continued to work as an architect until 1978. After that, he invented another board game called Alfred’s Other Game, but not many copies were sold. In the fall of 1987, Butts was in a car accident that he never fully recovered from, and he died in April 1993.

3. Clue

cluedo

Board games are quintessential for times when you can’t leave the house, and in England during World War II, Britons who were suffering Nazi bombings and blackouts had some very good reasons to stay inside. Anthony Pratt, of Birmingham, was working in a factory and thought that the bombings were killing the social lives of the British, so he invented Clue‘s precursor, Murder! In 1944, he filed a patent for the game.

Pratt’s neighbor had just published a popular game called Buccaneers with Waddington’s Games in Leeds, and this led to a meeting between Pratt and Waddington’s in 1945. Waddington’s liked the game and agreed to sell it with a few minor changes. Notably, some of the characters were changed; there would no longer be a Dr. Black, and a bomb and a syringe were no longer weapons, for example. Also, the name of the game was changed to Cluedo.

The problem with the game was that a lot of materials were needed to manufacture it, and England was still rationing material so the game wasn’t released until 1949. When it was released, it was also licensed by Milton Bradley for overseas sales, sold under the name Clue.

Success didn’t come in the first few years and in 1953, Pratt agreed to sell his royalty on overseas sales for £5,000, which is about £130,000 today ($188,000 USD). In hindsight, this was a massive mistake because the game took off and has since become the second bestselling game of all time, along with spawning a movie and television series. Pratt never got rich or famous from inventing one of the best known board games of all time, and he died in 1994 at the age of 90.

2. Monopoly

monopoly

Monopoly, aka The Great Destroyer of Friendships, got its start in 1903 in Washington, D.C., when it was designed by stenographer Elizabeth Magie. Magie was a progressive, single woman who saved up her money and purchased her own house, which was fairly unusual for the time. At night, she tried to teach people about the dangers of possible monopolies brought on by the large accumulation of wealth by a small group of people, which was going on during the Gilded Age with families like the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, and the Morgans, who gained massive amounts of wealth and controlled major industries. However, she didn’t think she was reaching enough people. To spread the word and show how problematic a monopoly is, Magie designed The Landlord’s Game and patented it in 1904. However, instead of mass producing it, it became a folk game and was passed along from person to person. All someone had to do was copy the board and playing pieces.

For years, the game spread throughout the Northeastern United States. Then in late 1932, an unemployed Philadelphia man named Charles Darrow played the game with friends. He enjoyed it and he drew his board on a tablecloth. He took the game to Parker Brothers, who bought it and agreed to pay Darrow a royalty.

Knowing that Darrow’s game was based Magie’s patented game, Parker Brothers agreed to buy the rights to The Landlord’s Game and two other games created by Magie for $500. Then, in an unbelievable jerk move, Parker Brothers didn’t mass produce The Landlord’s Game, instead releasing Monopoly in 1935. It became an instant success – and one for which Magie was not entitled to receive any royalty or recognition.

Charles Darrow went on to be rich and famous. When he was asked where he got the inspiration, he said it was just one of those amazing freak eureka moments. He passed away in 1978 after becoming the first millionaire game “designer.” Magie passed away in 1948 without being given proper recognition for her work.

1. The Game of Life

game of life

In 1860, Milton Bradley was 24-years-old and owned a lithograph studio in Springfield, Massachusetts, that sold a popular picture of Abraham Lincoln, who was running for President at the time. That’s when something unusual happened, and forever changed American culture. On October 15, 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell from Westfield, New York, sent Lincoln a letter, encouraging him to grow a beard, and amazingly Lincoln wrote back…and agreed to do so! When Lincoln grew his beard, not only did people no longer want Bradley’s lithograph, they wanted their money back for the ones they had already purchased.

Seeing his business was in trouble, Bradley, who had worked as a draftsman, started working on a board game that depicted the drastic ups-and-downs that happen in life (gee, we wonder what his inspiration for that could have been?). His game was on a checker board and a teetotum, which is a top, was used for the dice. The object of the game was to collect 100 points by landing on the right squares. You could lose points by landing on squares labeled “Disgrace,” “Crime,” and even “Suicide.” He called the game The Checkered Game of Life.

The game was an immediate success, and in 1864 he launched Milton Bradley and Company, one of the most famous board game companies in history. Bradley died on May 30, 1911. The modern Game of Life was published in 1960, 100 years after Bradley first started selling The Checkered Game of Life…all because an 11-year-old girl asked Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard.

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Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website.

The history of all kinds of games is vast and varied.

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