The games people played – and now collect

Humans have sought amusement at home from time immemorial.
Today's collectors enjoy the bounty of centuries of playing games.

by Leigh Elmore

People play games. We always have. It seems as if humans have been inventing games to play for as long as we have been able to communicate with one another. And while today the term "gamers" usually refers to electronic game enthusiasts, there has in the last decade been a resurgence of the popularity of board games.

The Sociable Telephone game, 1902, The J. Ottmann Lithographing Co., United States. The Game contains instruction sheet, two purple wooden cylinders connected by a string representing a "telephone" and several colored cards (blue, green, red, yellow, pink) with different phrases. (photo courtesy National Toy and Miniature Museum)

Sales are still dwarfed by the latest PC and console blockbusters, but recent years have seen board game purchases rise by between 25 percent and 40 percent annually, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. Thousands of new titles are released each year, and the top games sell millions of copies, it reports.

And while current interest in new games grows, the venerable games that Baby Boomers and their parents played have become a very popular collectible genre.


A brief history of gaming

The earliest evidence of man's penchant for gaming are ceramic dice uncovered in the Middle East. Peter Attia in his blog The Startup reports, "A series of 49 small carved painted stones were found at the 5,000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey. These are the earliest gaming pieces ever found. Similar pieces have been found in Syria and Iraq and seem to point to board games originating in the Fertile Crescent."

Mesopotamian dice were made from a variation of materials, including carved knuckle bones, wood, painted stones, and turtle shells. "Dice were eventually made from a large variety of materials, including brass, copper, glass, ivory, and marble. Dice from the Roman Era look very similar to the six-sided dice we're used to today," Attia stated.

Ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as depicted in this tomb painting. (Public Domain)

One of the first board games was popular among the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. "Primarily, the game of Senet is featured in several illustrations from Ancient Egyptian tombs. By the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BC), it had become a kind of talisman for the journey of the dead. Consequently, Senet boards were often placed in the grave alongside other useful objects for the dangerous journey through the afterlife," stated Attia.

He reports that the oldest continuously played board game is The Royal Game of Ur, which has been traced to 2650 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia. Researchers found a similar game still being played in present day India. "The game gets its name from its founding within the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq. There was also a set found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb," Attia states.

The "board" and pieces to The Game of Ur, (c. 2500 B.C.), a precursor to backgammon. (photo courtesy

That game was the precursor of the game we know today as backgammon, which became popular in the time of the Roman Empire. The oldest game with rules known to be nearly identical to backgammon described it as a board with the same 24 points, 12 on each side. As today each player had 15 checkers and used cubical six-sided dice. The object of the game, to be the first to bear off all of one's checkers, was also the same. The only differences with modern backgammon were the use of an extra die (three rather than two) and the starting of all pieces off the board.

Backgammon became a huge fad in the USA during the 1970s. Nightclubs installed special tables to accommodate the game, tournaments were common and world championships awarded.
However, few games can claim the breadth of history as chess, which is played worldwide.

The board for Vaikuntapaali, a morality lesson with origins in India, was the inspiration for Chutes and Ladders or Snakes and Ladders (photo courtesy

According to Collectors' Weekly, "As played in 6th-century India, chess used a die to determine which figure would be moved. The pieces represented the king and his four military divisions: foot soldiers, cavalry, charioteers, and troops atop elephants. When the game later expanded into Persia, a wise man, which would later become what we now know as a queen, was added."
Chess soon spread to Arab nations, where strict Muslim beliefs prohibited images of living things. So abstract chess pieces were designed.

"While collectors prize chess sets from the 18th century, some of those from the 19th century are even more sought after," Collectors Weekly reported. In 1849, Nathaniel Cooke designed the Staunton chess set, named for English chess master Howard Staunton. The sports and games equipment company Jaques of London distributed these widely regarded and highly collected sets.

Other venerable games that utilize "boards" are Mah Jong from China and cribbage, born in England. Mah-Jong sets imported by Piroxloid Products, Corp. in the 1920s are very collectible today.


Modern board games emerge

Pure board games as we know them today emerged out of the Victorian Era. In the 19th century, industrialization and the rise of the middle class led to more leisure time, allowing for more regular social gatherings, much like the French salons of the Rococo era. To keep their guests entertained, hosts would often suggest parlor games such as charades—games that were played on a board became known as board games. Because the Victorians valued virtue above all things, most of these games offered moral lessons.

When Parker Brothers republished The Mansion of Happiness: An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement in 1894, they claimed that it had been the first board game published in the US—way back in 1843. (photo courtesy

W. & S. B. Ives Company of Salem, MA produced the first American board game in 1843. It was called Mansion of Happiness, wherein players would be punished for landing on "sinful" squares and rewarded for landing on "righteous" ones. The winner of the game, which was invented by a clergyman's daughter, would be awarded the status of the most virtuous. "This is the ancestor to every American board game produced, including Monopoly," states Collectors Weekly.

Milton Bradley is a name familiar to nearly every American child for the last century. His game, The Checkered Game of Life used the traditional pattern of a checkerboard and superimposed the Puritan ideals of Mansion of Happiness. For example, landing on "Bravery" moved the player up, while "Idleness" brought him down. The goal of the game was to reach "Happy Old Age," as opposed to "Ruin." His game was a runaway success—he sold 40,000 by spring of 1861. It was the beginning of a gaming juggernaut that spans more than 150 years.

Clue board game, 1966, Parker Brothers, Inc., United States (photo courtesy National Toy and Miniature Museum)

But by the Depression, faux fortunes became the hot new thing. In 1934, a down-on-his-luck engineer named Charles Darrow came to George Parker with a hand-painted game called Monopoly, based on buying and renting real estate in Atlantic City. Parker rejected the game, giving Darrow a list of "52 reasons" the game would fail, including the fact that it took more than 45 minutes to play.

Parker underestimated the appeal of being able to accrue imaginary fortunes that most people would never see in real life. Darrow took his hand-painted games to the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia, where they sold like hotcakes. In 1935, Parker Brothers agreed to publish Monopoly, and it was a resounding success.

"The success of Monopoly ushered in a Golden Age of board games during the mid-20th century," Collectors Weekly stated. "Most of these games can be divided into three basic types: luck, strategy, and knowledge. Basic strategy and luck games from ancient times such as chess have often been remade multiple times. For example, the 1934 game Sorry, is really a knockoff of Parcheesi, which owes a great deal to ancient games played in Korea and India."

Kids could send away for the the Swift meat packing company's Swift Major League Baseball Game, today one of the most collectible board games. (photo courtesy

The 1960s may have been the apogee of board game popularity with games such as Twister putting the players themselves on the board. In the 1970s, video games began to cut into board games' popularity and game designers devised a few electronic board games, such as Voice of the Mummy. Yet, Boggle, which appealed to the traditional word puzzle-solving crowd that made Scrabble such a hit in 1953, emerged in 1972, which went through several iterations subsequently.


What to collect

There are thousands and thousands of board games and collectors for many of them. And condition is key. "Condition is not going to make a worthless game valuable but it is big in determining the value of a rare game," writes game collector Eric Mortensen on his blog "A rare game in good condition can sell for multiple times more than the same game that is in poor condition."

While released relatively recently, Star Wars, The Queen's Gambit is considered rare because of the many pieces that it came with. (photo courtesy

Mortensen notes that it is unlikely to find a game still sealed in its box, so it's important to ensure that all the pieces are there. "If you find a rare game that has a lot of the pieces but not all of them you can make quite a bit of money selling the pieces off individually to people that are just missing a couple pieces from their copy of the game," he said.

Age is not necessarily a driver of value. "If you can find a board game from the early 1900s (1930s or earlier) or even the 1800s it is likely to be worth money," Moretensen said. "A lot of board games from the late 1800s and early 1900s were made of paper and wood. Through the years many of the games from this era have been destroyed, damaged, lost pieces or been thrown away.

Thus finding games this old is quite rare and if you do find one they likely won't be in good condition. Most of the copies still in existence are already in the hands of collectors. If you can find one though, it will likely be worth a lot of money."

Following is a listing of very collectible board games listed on the Geek & Sundry website:


Toy and Miniature Museum plays for keeps in board game night for grown-ups

Board games reflect the larger human story. So says Katherine Mercier, museum educator at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City. "These are objects that show what is happening in the world at a particular time," she said.

The museum has an extensive collection of board games that date from the Victorian Era through the 1960s. "The years from the 1920s to 1970 really marked the golden age of board games," Mercier said.

The museum is planning "A Board Game Night for Grown Ups: Marble Madness," 6-9 p.m., Friday Feb. 23 at the museum, 5235 Oak St. In keeping with the museum's year-long focus on marbles, this evening is titled "Playing for Keeps."

"People can knuckle down in a regulation-size marble ring and play a variety of marble games, such as Hungry Hippos," Mercier said. Marble themed snacks will be served. Other board games will be made available as well.

Admission is $5. Free for museum members and with a UMKC ID. This is an adults only event, ages 18 and up. For more details go to

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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