From Scrabble to Monopoly to Crazy Eights, America has always loved board games.
But have you ever considered the stories behind these games? How the inventors came up with the ideas that have entertained us for years?
The stories behind our favorite games are fascinating. From Viking inspiration to an inequality expose gone wrong, we break down the stories from some of our favorite games below.
Monopoly is a beloved game – but it wasn’t supposed to be as entertaining as we find it now. Monopoly was designed to teach Americans about the dangers of capitalist greed. In 1904, writer and feminist Lizzie Magie received a patent for a game called ‘The Landlord’s Game’ – an early version of the game we now know as Monopoly. According to an article from Smithsonian, the board was very similar, featuring nine squares, a go-to-jail space, and a place representing a public park. Players went around the board – buying properties, paying rent, and collecting money. Magie made up two different sets of rules: “‘monopolist’ and ‘anti-monopolist, but her stated goal was to demonstrate the evils of accruing vast sums of wealth at the expense of others.”
The game was a hit and played by plenty of Americans – however, it didn’t exactly have the effect Magie wanted. Now known as a family staple, the game glorifies capitalism instead of vilifying corporate greed in the way that Magie intended. However, Monopoly has many benefits – it’s now used as a tool to teach children about financial management and to while away the hours on a rainy afternoon.
According to the experts at Global Poker, the exact origins of this popular card game are unknown. However, most experts suggest that the very first forms of poker games originated in Asia in the late 900s – more than one thousand years ago. Most cultures have some form of card game or another, whether to trade or to while away the time. The Persian form of poker, ‘As Nas,’ was one of the first games that used cards made from leaves, woods, turtle shells, and ivory.
Poker soon spread to other parts of the world as the Middle East began to trade with Europe and the West. According to Global Poker’s experts, “the card game followed more or less the same ruleset in every country, with the only differences being the suits and deck sizes. Later, betting and elements of bluffing were added when the Germans created their own version that they dubbed Pochen. In Ireland, they adapted Pochen into their own game of chance called Poca. The English also adapted Pochen into their own game of chance but changed the name to Brag.” These games all had elements of modern poker games that we play today, such as the five-card draw and five-card stud.
Whether you’re playing for millions (or just M&Ms), poker has become a ubiquitous part of our society – a cultural phenomenon in its own right.
Have you played this American favorite? Uno hit the game market with a splash in 1971 and hasn’t looked back since. It’s been a remarkable success and is known as one of the very few games children and adults can play contentedly together. How did inventor Merle Robbins come up with the idea for the game, and how did Uno become such a spectacular success?
According to the Museum of Play experts, the idea for Uno came from unsuccessful family game nights in barber Merle Robbins’ household. The Robbins family loved card games, and one of their absolute favorites was Crazy Eights. However, Crazy Eights is complicated – there are plenty of rules when you draw each card that led to arguments. Robbins decided to get around the issue of remembering what needed to happen (and when) by writing each card’s action on the card itself with a pen. After a few very successful game nights, he realized that he’d created a new game – and one that appealed to people of all ages. Robbins decided to take a risk and had 5,000 copies of the game printed for sale. His family traveled all over the United States, selling the card game at campgrounds and clubhouses. They sold out of the initial order and decided to join forces with prolific marketer Bob Tezak – and Uno as you know it was born.
According to Mental Floss, Scrabble is one of the only games in circulation today that looks almost identical to how it was invented. Scrabble was created in 1933 by a New York City architect, Alfred Mosher Butts. The fascinating part? According to Mental Floss, “to determine how many tiles there should be and how many points each letter should be worth, he calculated letter frequency on the front page of The New York Times.”
The game wasn’t successful initially – until the president of the department store Macy’s found the game and placed an enormous order. The other fascinating bit of trivia about this game is that it changes every year, even though the rulebook isn’t updated often. How can this be? Well, new words are added to the dictionary every year!
2020 was a good year for the game Catan – according to National Public Radio (NPR), sales for the game increase by 144 percent. But what’s the story behind this game of trade and development? It all started when Klaus Teuber realized he was bored out of his mind as a dental technician. He began designing games in his downtime, and in the early 1990s he was inspired by the Vikings. In the NPR article, Teuber says: “I was fascinated that they sailed the open sea and explored new lands like Iceland… In my imagination, I considered what will they do when they come to Iceland? They’ll need wood, they’ll need to harvest food. And this gave me the idea to create a game of exploration and settling.”
The game took Teuber four years to develop but is now one of the most popular games in the world. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has even played the game in job interviews to size up potential employees. However, Teuber credits much of the game’s success to its variability – you’ll never play the same game twice.
Whichever of these games is your favorite, we hope their backstory has inspired you to get them out the cupboard and play them once again. Or why not investigate the origin of another of your favorite games that we haven’t covered here? Happy playing!