Friday, March 17, 2006

Gaming from 60 B.C. to 1 A.C/The pre-history of modern games

60 years before Catan to the release of Catan.

The modern era of boardgaming began during the Great Depression. Prior to the widespread release of Monopoly in 1935 themed boardgames were viewed as a childish pastime. Boardgames often had a Biblical theme, or were merely tools to help teach children to count and read.

Most of the readers to this blog know that the following story is a load of malarkey, but for our purposes it will suffice. Actually, this small snipette of the story is probably true.

According to the popular story Charles Darrow was making copies of a game in his garage for his friends. Soon demand was greater than he could meet in his home workshop. Charles took his game to Parker Brothers who after several refusals eventually picked up the game and started mass producing it under the name Monopoly. In doing so boardgaming would make an epic shift for the better.

Who knows why popular culture takes the turns that it takes? In the case of Monopoly it seems to be a matter of timing.

During the Great Depression Monopoly provided a diversion which allowed adults to momentarily forget about the poor state of the economy and to play with large sums of money, albeit play money. In times of economic downturns people tend to be more inclined to stay at home to find entertainment, hence the traditional increase in birth rates during times of economic downturns (the Baby-Boomers being the notable exception to that rule). These two forces; the fantasy spawned by tossing around money frivolously and the economic impetus to stay at home converged (a convergence in the forces if you will) to make Monopoly popular with adults.

Who knows all the reasons Monopoly caught on with adults? I suspect there is probably a certain amount of truth to both of the reasons I presented, but I doubt that either can account for the current popularity of Monopoly. However it happened, catch on it did and our culture has changed for the better.

More boardgames designed with adults in mind followed in the wake of Monopoly. The Monopoly Stock Exchange Add On in 1936 (which may be the first game expansion); Stock Ticker in 1937; Tripoley in 1938; Scrabble in 1948; Yahtzee in 1956; among many other games captured the fancy of many adults.

The release of Tactics II in 1958 marked another turn in popular culture. Not only was Tactics II a game designed for adults, it had no pretensions about being a family game. With the release of Tactics II we see the coalescence of tactical wargames as another branch of boardgames. Charles Roberts, the creator of Tactics II, founded the Avalon Hill game company in 1958 and promptly released another wargame, Gettysburg. Diplomacy and Risk were both released the next year and the era of popular wargaming was officially underway.

Although renown for its line of wargames Avalon Hill published many types of games many of which were targeted at a young adult (read: college students) and older audience. AH published the original 18xx Railroad games, Rail Baron, Shakespeare, the Status Pro series, numerous race car games and other games too numerous to mention. In 1974 AH acquired the rights to many games in the 3M line including the venerable game of Sid Sackson design, Acquire.

Acquire was first published in 1962. At the time of its release Acquire was considered to be a pretty good game, and stayed in print for the next 40 years. Acquire wasn’t a game that changed boardgame culture on its own, but its influence has been felt for decades after its release. I have often considered Acquire to be the “Velvet Underground” of boardgaming. Brian Eno once said of the band Velvet Underground: “Only a few thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground record, but almost every single one of them was inspired to start a band.”

I doubt anybody was inspired to start a band after playing Acquire, but the game has come to be known as a very inspirational design.

Acquire has only recently, within the last 10 years, become widely recognized as the original designer game or German game. No one gets eliminated in Acquire. Each player is in control of his own destiny and not at the mercy of dice. Skillful players have an advantage, but random tile draws give new players a chance to win and keeps each game fresh. Players don’t actually control game tokens in Acquire, players own stock in companies and can only influence companies in a small way each turn. Several players can own stock in the same companies. This concept in game design, arguably, did more to influence future game design than anything since the invention of dice.

That’s a lot of innovation for one game. At some future time I will argue that Scrabble actually did several of those thing prior to Acquire, but no game designer ever put all those elements together in the same game as successfully as Sackson did with Acquire.

By the late 1980s boardgames were again considered to be a childish pursuit in most circles. Dungeons and Dragons had long before started its meteoric ascent and a slew of role playing games designed for the teenager and very young adult would appear in its wake. Most importantly the era video games, both arcade and home versions, was in full swing. The wargaming arm of the boardgame hobby and possibly Scrabble were the two exceptions where adult players still thrived. Luckily in Germany boardgames were still considered a family hobby.

Game design in Germany developed along different lines than the rest of the world. In Germany the topic of war was taboo. Wargames were taboo. Not only were wargames taboo, but game boxes that depicted certain German WWII insignias were illegal to import (and still are). This aversion to war games, coupled with the fact that more games are produced and sold in Germany than any other country, eventually lead to a new worldwide shift in the way adults think of boardgames.

In the mid to late 1970s the era modern "German games" was starting to bloom. The German designers had scrapped the traditional "roll and move" mechanism, and were designing games with no player elimination. Some of the other hallmarks of a German game were, and still are; simple rules, clever mechanisms, <2 hours in length, if there was any luck in the game it was managable, lots of player interaction, and quality production.

In 1978 the German game industry created the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award to promote the best family games coming out of their country. The first winner was Hare and Tortoise (Hase und Egal) in 1979. In the years since the Spiel des Jahres was established it has become a mark of excellence. Today a winner of the SdJ can easily sell a quarter million copies.

By the 1990s games of German origin were starting to make their way out of the country and into the hands of game enthusiasts in other countries. Word of mouth and small publications like Mike Siggins’ Sumo helped spread the word about the “German games”, but the rise of the internet in the mid 90s was the real turning point for German games. Or should I say; the rise of the internet coupled with a minor game that you have probably never heard of called “Settlers of Catan”.

The internet became a point for enthusiasts of boardgames to congergate and exchange information about games. With the internet a gamer in Jerkwater, Alberta could read a review about a game produced in Germany, and buy it from an on line store. Not only could he read a review, but an English translation of the rules would eventually get posted, and reposted to other boardgame websites. Gamers who had never heard of Sumo nor Mike Siggins could now easily get information about games produced around the world.

For many (self included) the internet opened our eyes to a boardgame world that we never new existed.

Just as the internet was becoming a household word the spark that was the German boardgame industry turned into a blaze with the release of Settlers of Catan. How odd that Monopoly, the game that gave legitimacy to boardgames for adults, would come to be viewed as a child's game in the wake.

But again, who knows why cultures take the turns they take?


GROGnads said...

I often wonder about these folks with the 'aversion' to DICE-based "games", or heavily weighted with "Luck"-just WHAT are they 'afraid' of? ARE they so bereft of "divine" influence, or is there some 'Cosmic~Karmic' "thang" that they've incurred the wrath upon themselves for this? Maybe they 'feel' that their "strategem" OUGHT to 'succeed' no matter what, and in spite of "variables" that are NOT within their 'influences'? Well, they can "fool" themselves ALL they want, but it doesn't belay the FACT that "life" AND "gamings" aren't 'predictable', while you're better OFF to "deal with such" WHEN those situations arise. Yes, I fully realize that certain "games" try to emulate just what they consider as "best play" for themselves, so what's the 'point' of continuing beyond an initial "playing" OF that? Maybe to impart this 'notion' upon some "n00bz" and the like? Sure, even I will 'blame' some situations upon "bad die rolls", but it was ME doing the "rolling" for those, so I just might HAVE "incurred" the 'wrath' of the "dice GODs" at the moment, for whatever 'reason' this might involve. I'll usually just re-adjust my ongoing 'plan' and then "continue to MARCH!", along with occasional cussing OUT of them 'damm dices' as well, since I expect my opponent to have just as "bad luck" for himself~I hope! Well, at least I do try to "will" just such in their 'cases' heh heh heh.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article! I have a new respect for Acquire but I still don't enjoy playing.

Even though it makes sense for boardgaming to come about during the depression, isn't it a little odd for THE boardgame to be Monopoly, a game that focuses on money and winning by making everyone else poor?