Board Game History: The Birth of the Modern Board Game

Mechanics & Meeples had been absent these last few weeks, and that’s only been partially due to the holidays. I’ve spent the last two weeks cramming to finish my first new Designers & Dragons books, which detail the history of the roleplaying industry, one company at a time.

That got me thinking of another project. A few years ago I started putting together a history of the gaming industry generally, in the same style. I only wrote a few sections, and it only came to 5000 words or so, but it’s a good start for a project I may come back to some day. To commemorate my recent work on Designers & Dragons, I thought I’d share one section with you.

The Birth of the Modern Board Game: 1820-1869

What we’d recognize as modern board games first came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries technological changes resulted in new industrial techniques and in turn social changes as well. This allowed for the creation of a new genre of games supported by these various changes.

First and most obviously, there were new printing techniques that made it easier and cheaper to mass produce a printed game. Second, the change from agrarian to industrial work slowly began to result in the concepts of the middle class and of leisure time. Third, as peoples’ work moved out of the house and into factories, homes became a distinct location for both socialization and education. Games would take advantage of all of these changes.

The first modern board games in the United States date to the 1820s. A Traveller’s Tour Through the United States (1822) was an early example, published by a New York bookseller. The best-known early game is doubtless The Mansion of Happiness (1843). It was based on an English design, as were most early American releases. Milton Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life (1861) was another early offering.

Early board games expressed a strong Puritanical ethos. Both Mansion and Life were simple race games where players tried to get to the end of a track first. Virtue spaces (such as bravery in Life or honesty in Mansion) could move you forward, while vice spaces (such as idleness, which appears in both games) could move you back. Snakes and Ladders (England, 1892) is another example of a 19th century game based on morality.

Puritanical ideals were also reflected in early game components. Cards and dice were both frowned upon, as they had been throughout the Middle Ages. They were seen as tools of the devil, and so good Christians often refused to use them. As a result many of the 19th century racing games used “teetotums”. These were tops that could be spun, and would then fall down on a side which displayed a number (or possibly a letter). They were dice in all but shape.

Racetrack games such as Mansion, Life, and Snakes comprised the vast majority of early gaming releases. No matter what the theming — be it the history of Napolean’s life, an actual steeple-chase, or a race around the world — players would inevitably try and move along a track, usually by rolling dice and hoping to roll better than their opponents.

Other popular games were social-conversation games, were players would ask questions and offer answers off of cards, trivia games (which were particularly popular as educational tools), and strangely enough given the Puritanical and Victorian morals, fortune-telling games. Almost all of these games depended heavily on cards; if there was a board, it probably showed a racetrack.

Early games were all printed in black and white, then colored in by hand due to the limitations of printing presses at the time. In the 1830s a new printing technique appeared called chromolithography, which allowed the first true color printing. It was being applied to board games by the 1870s, and it produced full-color boxes and boards that often reflect the art nouveau style and are entirely beautiful works of art.

As chromolithography use increased in the U.S. board game industry, it would slowly begin to swell, eventually outpacing its English roots and becoming a true American industry. At the same time a smaller gaming niche was developing, wargaming. It too would eventually become dominated by the United States.

I suspect my sources for this section were The Games We Played by Margaret K. Hofer and maybe The Game Makers by Philip E. Orbanes. (I just have one bibliography for the whole article.) This section needs an accompanying section on Victorian parlor games, which might cause some updates to this one as well, but that’s a puzzle for another day. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this article, as interest is what I’ll need to get this going some day. In the meantime, I invite you to read my other sorta-related article, on Hasbro eating the gaming industry—SA, 1/7/13.

6 thoughts on “Board Game History: The Birth of the Modern Board Game

  1. Shannon –

    Thanks for this. I’ve read a couple of histories of the board game industry and my sense, from a business perspective, is that the initial commercial game industry was really printers who had some idle time on their presses and used games as a secondary income stream. This was certainly true for Avalon HIll, but I think that the pattern was with us from the beginning.

    I think that this economic element as a side-business is important as virtually all modern game publishers are really closer to venture capital firms than printers… and also why it is so hard to make a good living in board games.


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