In hard times, board games flourish. Lucy Farmer finds out which ones sell best, where they came from and why we love them ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008
“Do not pass Go, and do not collect £200!” shouts Johnny gleefully, as Milly trundles her brassy boot round to Jail. “Not so fast,” pipes up Grandpa as Johnny’s top hat lands on the regal blue of Park Lane, “that’ll be £175 please.” And so goes the familiar scene of the Monopoly game, played out by an estimated 750m people since its launch over 70 years ago. Gone are the days when you could rent a house in Mayfair for £200, but the thrill of emulating Rich Uncle Pennybags, or Mr Monopoly as he is now known, still has us piling up our plastic houses and thumbing our wad of paper money with delight.
In the competitive world of board games, Monopoly is the perennial winner. More than 250m sets have been sold in 103 countries and 37 languages. Everyone who recognises the name will have an anecdote to tell. It inspires a passion that can over-ride old friendships and common decency, as Tim Moore relates in his book “Do Not Pass Go” (2002): “If you’ve played it more than twice, you’ll have seen title deeds fly.”
Monopoly is one of a handful of board games that hold our collective imagination and flick our competitive switch no matter how many times they come out of the box. The staff at Hamleys in London refer to them as “evergreens”. They include Cluedo, Scrabble, Risk and Trivial Pursuit—the conifers of the toyshop that flourish while others wither beside them.
As digital gaming aims for world domination, many fear that it will erode our imagination and send social interaction back to the Stone Age. Others argue that computer games do have their benefits: psychological studies have shown that they can improve hand-to-eye co-ordination and reaction times. Whatever your opinion, there should still be room for unplugged entertainment: games that encourage creativity, problem-solving and the odd altercation between family and friends.
Andrew Kay, a restaurant critic and board-game enthusiast, holds a monthly board-games night with six friends. He says they get the most enjoyment from games that rely on strategy and not just luck, so the competition is fierce but fair. Scrabble is the game that keeps him coming back and has done ever since his initiation at the age of seven. He tells me that it rewards players with clever tactics, not necessarily those with a Shakespearean vocabulary; he even managed to beat his parents sometimes.
The most appealing board games are those that are simple to learn but complex enough to give each player a fair game by hitting the right balance between strategy and luck. For this reason, the British Toy Retailers Association advises that board games are particularly good for intergenerational play. The games are engaging for all the family and educational for the young, even if Cluedo does occasionally result in little Johnny wrenching Professor Plum’s head off with the spanner. When Andy Murray needed to relax in the middle of his drawn-out semi-final with Rafael Nadal at the US Open, he and his girlfriend, mother and assorted coaches went for supper and then played Scrabble.
The ideas for these classic games emerged during the Depression and wartime years, when imaginations were nurtured by the lack of disposable income and readily available entertainment. They were not churned out by manufacturers looking for a quick buck, they evolved from the minds of entrepreneurial men looking for diversion and a means to entertain and exercise the brain. Scrabble was devised in the 1930s by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect from New York. He painstakingly analysed the pages of the New York Times in order to calculate the relative scores for each letter. Cluedo sprang from the forensic mind of a solicitor’s clerk and part-time clown named Anthony E. Pratt from Birmingham in 1944. The iconic Monopoly board (originally with Atlantic City landmarks) was first immortalised on oilcloth at a kitchen table in Philadelphia by Charles B. Darrow in 1933. Hamleys estimate that of the 20-plus board games launched each year, 60% won’t survive more than 12 months on the shelves. It takes something special to be picked year after year for the post-Christmas dinner pastime.
These classic board games are not just household stars. Their fame has spread across the globe and earned them cult status. Scrabble has three world championships every year, one each in English, French and Spanish. Monopoly fans have taken the game to extremes: in 1983 the Buffalo Dive Club played for 1,080 hours underwater. The brands have lent themselves to other media too, such as film, television and online games. Cluedo’s “whodunnit?” theme has spawned tv game shows with contestants solving the murder, and a 1985 film, “Clue”, which features three different endings. Monopoly is even reported to be heading for the silver screen in 2010, in the hands of Ridley Scott.
The cult following is unbreakable, and the spin-off products are successful, but the original games are not left to collect dust. Hasbro has recently adapted Cluedo to give it a shot of 21st-century tabloid culture. No longer will players accuse Colonel Mustard of killing Dr Black with the lead piping in the billiard room, but the culprit could be Jack Mustard, a football pundit, with the trophy in the spa. Risk has updated its warfare tactics in the new Black Ops version. Instead of striving for global domination, players are set the more moderate goal of completing three specific objectives, such as “control Asia” or “take over an entire continent in one turn”. Imperialism is not as attractive as it once was, but surely it can be allowed on a rainy afternoon around the kitchen table.
Manufacturers also reignite interest in the original game by creating anniversary editions and special editions such as Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. Countless versions of Monopoly based on different cities have been released, and in 2008 fans were encouraged to vote for their own city to feature on a new world edition called Monopoly: Here and Now. But does the board-game industry really need a Generation Z makeover?
Manufacturers should not overlook the element of nostalgia that is intrinsic to the appeal of these games, when just mentioning the name can prompt a deluge of fond memories. A dramatic change will erase the joy of this collective experience. When I told friends about the updated version of Monopoly, which replaces the paper money in favour of plastic debit cards and a Visa machine, reactions ranged from anguish to despair. When a group of us were faced with countless editions of Monopoly in the toyshop on a recent trip to Cornwall, which one did we buy? The Nostalgia Edition with the original (London) graphics and the wooden houses.
Andrew Kay talks fondly of the crisp board and well-made counters of the classic games, the tangible authenticity that you’re unlikely to find in a computer game or a piece of plastic: “You feel like you’re getting a lot of game for your box.” Hamleys and Hasbro both report that the original versions are still the bestsellers and show no signs of diminishing. When it comes to family entertainment, the past is not always a foreign country.
MORE GOOD MOVES
Beyond the big-name board games lie many lesser-known gems.
Here are five we can recommend:
GAME OF LIFE (1960)
Hop into your little car (blue peg for a boy, pink for a girl) and off you speed round the brightly coloured board on your chosen route—either career or university. Your ultimate goal is the millionaire’s mansion or the country cottage (with a bulging wallet) but watch out for life’s hiccups on the way: mid-life crisis, tax and expensive children as you gain more pink and blue pegs. Originally invented in 1861, it’s a satisfying mixture of skill and chance. ~ INGRID ESLING
You place four coloured pegs in a row, hidden from your opponent. They do the same, trying to crack the code. You mark each guess with little sticks—white for right colour in the wrong place, black for right colour in the right place—but they don’t know which peg has earned which stick. Mastermind is minimal, portable, compelling, wordless and good for your powers of deduction. Only two drawbacks: no good for under-eights, and a mildly sinister cover photo. ~ TIM DE LISLE
THE LONDON GAME (1972)
Simple but effective. The board is the Underground map—circa 1972, so no Jubilee line, let alone DLR. You are a tourist, racing your opponents to visit six landmarks and facing tricky decisions about what routes to take and (as in croquet) how nasty to be to your nearest and dearest. The upshot is that your children get a good grasp of London’s geography, but they may think they have the right to close stations at will. ~TDL
CATAN CITIES AND KNIGHTS (1998)
Unlike lesser games, Catan games are based on skill and strategy rather than luck. Dice are involved but each roll matters to every player as the numbers generate the resources required to play. Points can be earned in several ways, so you can play a quiet game and still win. There is no set board; the playing field is created by dealing hexagonal tiles that give you a different game scenario every time. The branding has a Dungeons and Dragons look to it, but don’t worry, there is no role-playing involved, just skill.
~ ANDREW KAY
TICKET TO RIDE: EUROPE (2005)
Tickets are dealt and players have to achieve the rail routes around Europe by collecting appropriate resource cards and building lines. The snag is that there are many tickets that require the same limited tracks and pretty soon you find yourself diverted. It’s fast (about 45 minutes), compulsive, easy to learn but hard to play well. The card version is easy too, and handy for real travel. ~ AK
Picture credit: Colin Crisford
(Lucy Farmer is an editorial assistant with The Economist and a writer based in London. Her last article for More Intelligent Life was about the new Saatchi Gallery in London.)