Board Game History: The American Board Gaming Century Begins

I’ve been lagging in my Mechanics & Meeples posts again, and it’s for the same reason as last time: I just finished up work on book #3 of Designers & Dragons, my four-book history of the roleplaying industry.

To commemorate that event, I’ve opted to share a second part of my fragmentary history of board game. This one falls a bit after my article on The Birth of the Modern Board Game

Wargaming would eventually become an American-dominated industry. However, first the United States had to develop its own gaming national identity, and that would begin in late 19th century. Though the earliest major publishers aren’t remembered well today, they nonetheless form the start of a long stream of publication.

The first leader in the American board game industry was McLoughlin Brothers & Co. (1858-1920). By the 1880s they dominated they industry. Though their games are little known today among the general public, they remained the most desirable games for this period from collectors. With the emergence of chromolithography their beautiful designs truly began to shine.

Other early companies that were active by the time McLoughlin rose to ascendance include the aforementioned Milton Bradley (1860-1984) — then primarily an educational company despite their production of The Checkered Game of Life — and Selchow & Righter (1867-1987), best known in early days for Parcheesi (1870).

But these three companies were a prelude for what came next.

The American Board Gaming Century Begins: 1883-1935

In 1883 a new force appeared on the gaming scene, marking the start of the American Century of board game design. George S. Parker, then 16, began selling a self-published card game called Banking (1883). Among other things Parker’s game marked a notable shift in American gaming away from morality and toward capitalism. This was reflected in other games of the period including Bulls and Bears (McLoughlin Brothers, 1883), Monopolist (McLoughlin Brothers, 1885), and The Game of Playing Department Store (McLoughlin Brothers, 1898).

George Parker formed George S. Parker Co in 1886 and then Parker Brothers (when he was joined by his brother, Charlie) in 1888. Many of Parker’s games were in the old race/track style, but he also tried to expand the genre. One of Parker’s favorites was Chivalry (1888), an abstract strategy game that never really caught on. Parker also published one of the first licensed games, Innocence Abroad (1890), based on a Mark Twain story, and tried out lots of dexterity games over the years, including Tiddledy Winks (1890s), Pillow Dex (1897), and Ping-Pong (1902). In 1887 Parker Brothers also purchased W. & S.B. Ives, the makers of The Mansion of Happiness. They’d later republish Mansion in 1894, labeling it “the first board game ever published in America”. Although not actually true, it might have been one of the first American-published board games that was widely available.

Though Parker designed many of his own games, and though the community of American designers was slowly growing, many of the games released by early American board game publishers originated in England, and were then licensed across the sea. It would take  time for the American Board Gaming Century to truly catch on.

In the 1900s Parker found notable success in a series of card games. They were cheaper to make and sold better than board games. Pit (1904) was the first. It allowed for real-time trading in order to corner a commodity market. It was probably based upon Gavit’s Stock Exchange (1903), a nearly identical game, but it was Pit that found success. Trying to replicate Pit’s success, Parker next published Flinch (1905), a sort of competitive solitaire game, then Rook (1906). Rook was introduced for those fundamentalists who still considered cards to be “tools of the devil”. It used a new deck of cards that fundamentalists were allowed to use, and including many games using those cards — most of them point-taking trick games. Rook didn’t take off like Parker’s other card games, but it slowly grew in popularity. Today it remains popular in Eastern Kentucky and in Mennonite communities across North America.

Through the success of Innocence Abroad, their various dexterity games, and their card games, Parker Brothers rose in prominence until it eclipsed McLoughlin Brothers in the early 1900s as the premier American gaming company. McLoughlin Brothers would entirely disappear in 1920 when its gaming assets were purchased by Milton Bradley.

In 1925 Parker Brothers picked up another notable game, Touring (1906), which had previously been published by Wallie Dorr Company. It wasn’t truly popular until it was republished as Mille Bornes (1954). Touring is a simple game of trying to complete a cross-country car trip by playing mileage cards, but it has a notable aspect: you can play disasters like “broken spring” and “populated area” on your opponents to slow down their journey. As such it was perhaps the first “take that” game — a very American style of gameplay where players actively attack each other, usually by playing cards from their hands.

The 1920s and the 1930s were generally kind to the American gaming industry. Following the shortages of World War I, in the 1920s people were given a license to have fun again—and they did. Though the Great Depression of the 1930s did contract the industry, it quickly bounced back because out-of-work Americans had lots of time on their hands and games could be played and replayed after just one purchase.

The Great Depression also saw the popularization of what would become the canonical American board game: Monopoly (1933). Similar homemade games had circulated as early as the turn of the century. One of them, The Landlord’s Game, was patented in 1904 and published in 1910. However Charles Darrow, the inventor of Monopoly, was the first one to  popularize this gameplay. He self-published and due to that success he was able to sell the game to Parker Brothers in 1935. It sold phenomenally during the Great Depression, as people dreamed of being able to live a better life. Today the Guinness Book of World Records claims Monopoly as the most-played commercial game in the world, citing 500 million plays as of 1999.

2 thoughts on “Board Game History: The American Board Gaming Century Begins

  1. I enjoyed Rook in my youth. It was popular in Northwestern Iowa (where my grandparents were located…) It (and Skip-Bo) were tolerated among the (non-Mennonite) conservative folks in that area…

  2. Pingback: Going Across Country – Turns Through History

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