10 Popular Board Games with Surprising Origins

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Video games have become a massive industry in recent years, but there remains a thriving market for those who enjoy board games. In 2014, the hobby games market took in about $880 million in North America, which marked a 20 percent increase from the previous year. Many of the most popular board games sold today have been around for decades; some are even based on games that date back centuries. Here’s a look at the origins of some of the most beloved and best-selling games of all time.

 

10. Risk

A French filmmaker developed the forerunner to Risk. © Jorge Royan

A French filmmaker developed the forerunner to Risk. © Jorge Royan

On a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry referred to a match between Kramer and Newman as “a game of world domination being played by two guys who can barely run their own lives.” In 1957, French film director Albert Lamorisse (The Red Balloon) invented the forerunner to Risk, La Conquete du Monde (The Conquest of the World). One can only hope he had his life more together than Kramer and Newman. Two years later, Parker Brothers released Risk in the United States.

 

9. Chutes and Ladders

A 19th century version of the Indian game Snakes and Ladders (left), which inspired the Milton Bradley game Chutes and Ladders (right, the 1952 version).

A 19th century version of the Indian game Snakes and Ladders (left), which inspired the Milton Bradley game Chutes and Ladders (right, the 1952 version).

Released by Milton Bradley in 1943, Chutes and Ladders began as an improved version of “England’s famous indoor sport,” Snakes and Ladders. The British in turn had gotten the game from India, where it had been known by many different names dating to the 16th century, although its origins may date all the way back to the 2nd century B.C. These Indian versions are believed to have been used to teach children Hindu values about the effects of moral choices. The game as we know it today, however, does not retain this element; the outcome depends entirely upon random chance.

 

8. Stratego

Stratego traces its roots to an old Chinese game, Jungle. © Matej Batha

Stratego traces its roots to an old Chinese game, Jungle. © Matej Batha

This militaristic board game version of Capture the Flag has its roots in the Chinese game Jungle (aka Game of the Fighting Animals). Over time, Jungle developed into Land Battle Chess, but the first version of the game that essentially looked like Stratego as we know it arose in France in 1910. Named L’Attaque, Mademoiselle Hermance Edan’s creation featured standing cardboard rectangular pieces rather than the chess-style pieces with animal heads of Jungle. The blue and red armies had numbers indicating each piece’s rank. The name Stratego first appeared in a 1942 Dutch version; Milton Bradley introduced the game in United States in 1961, featuring Napoleonic armies.

 

7. Battleship

Russian officers serving before World War I may have been the first to proclaim, "You sank my Battleship!" © Unloveablesteve

Russian officers serving before World War I may have been the first to proclaim, “You sunk my Battleship!” © Unloveablesteve

Long before the 2012 film of the same name sank (sorry) at the box office, Battleship was a massively popular game of naval strategy, evolving from pencil and paper in the 1930s to the version with electronic lights and sounds introduced in 1983, which was updated again in 2010. First played in America as Salvo in 1931, Battleship is believed to have been based in part upon the French game L’Attaque (as was Stratego) and an E.I. Horseman game from 1890 named Baslinda. Russian officers and aristocrats may have played an early version of Salvo prior to World War I. Perhaps a Russian naval captain became the first to exclaim, “You sunk my battleship!”

 

6. Sorry!

Sorry! is one of several games today based on the ancient Indian game of Pachisi. © Frankie Leon

Sorry! is one of several games today based on the ancient Indian game of Pachisi. © Frankie Leon

Sorry! is a variation of Pachisi, an immensely popular game in ancient India. If that name sounds familiar, it should, as Parcheesi (“the Royal Game of India”) is itself a game played and loved by many today. After an early version of Sorry! gained notoriety in England, Milton Bradley put it in American stores in 1934. The game’s ultimate objective — to be the first player to bring all four of his or her pieces home — is exactly like Parcheesi’s. The main difference is Sorry! uses cards instead of dice.

 

5. Candy Land

A retired teacher battling polio developed Candy Land to play with young polio victims in her hospital. © Becky Bokern

A retired teacher battling polio developed Candy Land to play with young patients in her hospital. © Becky Bokern

It’s hard to imagine a more touching origin story for a board game than that of Candy Land. In 1948, retired schoolteacher Eleanor Abbott was suffering from polio in a San Diego hospital. With many children stricken with the same disease there, Abbott wanted to create a game that could be a fun escape for them. The kids loved it and in 1949 Abbott sold her game to Milton Bradley, where it became a much bigger hit than the company ever could have imagined. Nearly 70 years later, the game is still adored by children everywhere.

 

4. Jenga

The biodiversity version of Jenga, a game developed by a British national living in East Africa © Martin Sharman

The biodiversity version of Jenga, a game developed by a British national living in East Africa. © Martin Sharman

A British national born in East Africa, Leslie Scott grew up speaking English and Swahili. After moving to Ghana, she played a game with her family as a teenager in the early 1970s using children’s wood blocks, eventually developing it into Jenga, which is Swahili for “to build.” Scott unveiled her game at the London Toy Fair in 1983, ultimately selling it through her own company. A couple of years later she sold it to companies in the U.S. and Canada and Jenga has since sold over 50 million sets (that’s about 2.7 billion individual blocks) throughout the world.

 

3. Twister

A version of Twister from 1966, the year it became a cultural phenomenon in the United States.

A version of Twister from 1966, the year it became a cultural phenomenon in the United States.

Highly controversial upon its release in 1964, this Milton Bradley game soon earned the nickname “sex in a box” from critics (notably the company’s competitors). Wanting to steer clear of the issue, Sears Roebuck refused to market it. However, after Johnny Carson played it with Eva Gabor on The Tonight Show in 1966, Twister became a cultural phenomenon, appealing to players of all ages and economic classes in a way that few games ever have. In that spirit of inclusiveness, there have been alterations in the rules for people with color-blindness and total blindness.

 

2. Operation

A college student developed the game Operation, but sold the rights to a toy company for $500. © Pernell

A college student developed the game Operation, but sold the rights to a toy company for $500. © Pernell

It’s hard not to feel bad for John Spinello, who invented this much-beloved board game but never reaped the full rewards. In the early 1960s, Spinello created Operation as a design student at the University of Illinois, earning an “A” for his efforts. Thanks to a family connection, Spinello got a meeting with a toy designer, who bought all rights to the game for $500. He also promised a job to Spinello after graduation. Spinello never got that job and unfortunately, due to the deal, Spinello has never received a penny in royalties. By one estimate, Operation has accounted for about $40 million in sales. Yet Spinello is not bitter about not getting any royalties from the game. “I prefer not to dwell on that aspect and focus more on the joy that the game has brought to so many over the years,” he told the Huffington Post in 2014.

 

1. Monopoly

Part of the 1904 patent submission for Lizzie Magie's the Landlord's Game (left) and Charles Darrow's patent submission for Monopoly, which he was granted in 1935.

Part of the 1904 patent submission for Lizzie Magie’s The Landlord’s Game (left) and Charles Darrow’s patent submission for Monopoly, which he was granted in 1935.

For years, the creation story behind this iconic board game outlined a rags-to-riches tale befitting the game with a winner-takes-all theme. The story involves an unemployed man, Charles Darrow, who dreamed up the concept of Monopoly during the heart of the Great Depression. He then sold the game to Parker Brothers and became a millionaire. Darrow’s heartwarming tale became almost inseparable from the game itself, reprinted with the instructions in each Monopoly set. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new story emerged. Turns out that in 1904, an Illinois woman named Elizabeth Magie patented a very similar game known as The Landlord’s Game (above left), with the intention of teaching Americans about tax theory. Although a small gaming company produced only limited hand-made editions of the game, it earned a cult following in parts of the U.S. over the next two decades; Magie received an updated patent on a new and improved Landlord’s Game in 1924.

At some point around the start of the Great Depression, four other people who enjoyed playing The Landlord’s Game became instrumental in tweaking the design (one woman, Ruth Hoskins, took the game to Atlantic City, changing the street names to honor local places). Learning that the word Monopoly could not be trademarked, a man named Dan Layman created a knockoff game known as Finance. Eventually, these games caught the eye of Darrow, who pitched the notion of a game known as Monopoly to Parker Brothers; after initially rejected the idea, the game company changed its mind. Layman received a patent (above right) with a version similar to the one people around the world know and love today.

(Slideshow photo credit: © Colleen Kelly)

Written by

Bob Connally is a writer from Seattle with a love of film/TV, baseball, and history, among other things. He is a lifelong and devoted fan of the Baltimore Orioles and his favorite movie of all-time is "Withnail and I." He someday hopes to go to a ballgame with Bill Murray.