American Board and Card Game History

The Strong National Museum of Play

The Strong | National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York

American Board and Card Game History
This online exhibit features a sample of the more than 13,000 board games, card games, and dexterity puzzles from The Strong National Museum of Play’s collection. These artifacts represent some of the most popular games and historically significant moments in American game history.


A law in Plymouth Colony bans the playing of cards and dice, with the second offense punishable by public whipping.

Copyright The Wallace Collection


English mathematician William Payne’s An Introduction to the Game of Draughts becomes the first guide to the ancient game of checkers (or “draughts” as it is called in England).


The Stamp Act outrages American colonists by taxing each pack of playing cards one shilling and each pair of dice 10 shillings. Americans revolt in protest.


New York bookseller F. Lockwood publishes the first-known American board game titled The Travellers’ Tour Through the United States. Based on a map of the early nation, the game teaches geography.

Image courtesy American Antiquarian Society


William and Stephen B. Ives of Salem, Massachusetts, publish a near-exact copy of an earlier English game that teaches morality through play. Their game, The Mansion of Happiness, becomes a steady seller for decades.


Nativist anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant biases in the early 19th century show up in a Game of Pope and Pagan in which players become missionaries trying to convert pagans before they’re caught by the Pope.


J. P. Beach’s publication titled The Jolly Game of Goose at first seems an innocent game in which players race along a path. Copied after an English game of the same name, it incorporates gambling, an activity condemned by many Americans.


American chess prodigy Paul Morphy tours Europe, beating nearly every person he plays except reigning champion Howard Staunton, who refuses his challenge.


In printer Milton Bradley’s best-selling game, The Checkered Game of Life, the winner is the first player to accumulate 100 points and reach Happy Old Age while avoiding poverty, ruin, and suicide along the way. Later, Civil War soldiers carry portable versions of the game on the march with them.

The Checkered Game advocates life lessons. Stopping on “gambling” sends a player back to ”ruin,” while landing on “intemperance” leads to “poverty.”


Authors challenges players to collect sets matching famous authors and their most recognizable works. Children learn while they play, in tune with a common belief of the time that games should amuse and improve.


The firm Selchow & Righter is called a game jobber during the late 19th and early 20th centuries because it purchases licenses and produces other owners’ games. Selchow & Righter secures rights to Parcheesi in 1870 and four years later trademarks the name, which is based on the ancient Indian game Pachisi.


Board games such as Game of the District Messenger Boy or Merit Rewarded increasingly emphasize career advancement over moral improvement, especially in the colorful games from McLoughlin Brothers.

District Messenger


Toymaker Charles Martin Crandall invents the popular and addictive ball maze puzzle called Pigs in Clover. It sells so well in the United States and Europe that demand outpaces production.


Most likely “pin the tail” games begin as homemade party activities with hand-drawn pictures tacked to the wall. Selchow & Righter mass-produces Grand Old Party, an overtly political version on cloth.


The term “talking board” originates in Ohio in 1886 when the planchette, an automatic writing device, is paired with a board. According to legend, around 1890 three players asked the game its name and the board answered “ouija.”

Image courtesy Robert Murch, Talking Board Historical Society

Found in Western New York State, this talking board may predate the earliest production Ouija boards. Beginning in 1886, people made such boards for home amusement.


George Parker begins manufacturing games in 1883 and is soon joined by his two brothers. The firm’s fun games spurn overt educational or moralistic themes for good game play like that found in PIT, a trading game in which players try to corner the market on commodities like wheat, rye, and barley.


Elizabeth Magie publishes a board game she invented in 1904 titled, The Landlord’s Game, to promote Henry George’s theories for solving inequalities of land ownership and wealth. Players soon modify it to emphasize bankrupting other players, and eventually the game evolves into Monopoly.

Image courtesy Thomas Forsythe


Milton Bradley Co. bases a board game on Howard Garis’s stories. Uncle Wiggily remains in publication until the present day, and is still recognizable through many variations.


American manufacturers simplify an ancient Chinese game to create a fad that sweeps the United States before slowing to a pastime, mostly among Jewish women. Some form the National Mahjong league in 1937, and the game is still played in the United States and Asia.


The 19th-century card game whist evolves into several variants called bridge by the early 20th century. In 1925, Harold Vanderbilt adds complexity to the contract—when players bid on how many tricks (hands) they can win—and his “contract bridge” becomes synonymous with bridge itself.


Germans publishers reshape an earlier American game called Halma to a hexagram-shaped game board, calling it Stern-Halma, meaning “Star Halma.” The Pressman Company publishes the game in America, first calling it Hop Ching Checkers. Other makers produce versions that they call Chinese Checkers, though it has no connection to China.

A Popular Game During Difficult Times
In 1934 Darrow first sold Monopoly directly to the Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia; he soon interested Gimbels, and F.A.O. Schwarz in the game. After Parker Brothers noted the buzz and picked up the game, sales skyrocketed. By 1936 the company could barely meet demand. Americans loved to play as monopolists, gleefully bankrupting opponents and gouging them with excessive rents.


During World War II, Londoner Anthony Pratt devises a murder mystery board game to help pass the time while waiting in bomb shelters. Granted a patent in 1947, he takes the game to the manufacturer Waddingtons. Cluedo (in England) and Clue (in America) appear simultaneously.


Nearly identical to an earlier French game called L’Attaque!, Stratego pits two armies against each other with hidden flags to conquer and hidden bombs to avoid. The first sets are made of wood.


As improbable as it may seem, the game that uses a vibrating steel football field and little metal (later plastic) players that often move completely at random, is a hit. Official NFL sponsorship of Electric Football in the late 1960s gives sales a boost.


Recovering from polio in 1945, Eleanor Abbott designs a game to entertain young children who are also recuperating in the hospital ward. They like Candy Land so much she submits it for publication by Milton Bradley.


The first printing of Candy Land’s game board shows a line on the running boy’s leg, perhaps intended to resemble the braces that polio victims wore. Later versions of the game eliminated this artistic detail.


Invented in 1938 by architect Alfred Mosher Butts and manufactured in 1948 with revised rules by James Brunot, Scrabble does not catch on until Jack Straus, president of Macy’s, plays the game while on vacation in 1952 and orders large numbers for his store.



Former infantryman Charles S. Roberts sells his first war strategy games out of his garage by mail order and eventually names his firm Avalon Hill. Tactics pioneers the use of odds-ratio combat results and cardboard counters to simulate warfare and command, and many of its mechanics and conventions become standard for later types of wargames.


People have played sequence dice games for centuries, but Edwin S. Lowe plays one variant called The Yacht Game with friends and, seeing its possibilities, markets it as Yahtzee.


Parker Brothers publishes Frenchman Albert Lamorisse’s 1957 game La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World) as Risk. The game resonates with players at a time of Cold War hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union.



In celebration of the firm’s 100th anniversary, Milton Bradley hires noted designer Reuben Klamer to create a game that celebrates post-war values: getting a job, spouse, and enough children to fill a station wagon. The Game of Life becomes a classic.


Hal Richman produces an innovative baseball simulation game in which players become managers, choosing players by statistics. Sales for Stratomatic Baseball take off when he includes cards for each current major league player.


Noted game designer Sid Sackson creates this classic wealth-building game in which players build and invest in hotel chains. Acquire influences the development of the later Eurogame movement.


The famous Chicago firm Marvin Glass Associates designs the Mouse Trap Game for Ideal Toy Company. The game looks like and is based on mechanical drawings made famous by cartoonist Rube Goldberg, though Glass never pays Goldberg licensing fees.


Marvin Glass Associates’ game for girls centers on which boy they’ll get for a date—a dream or a dud. Mystery Date highlights traditional gender expectations about to be shattered by social upheavals of the ‘60s.


Critics accuse Milton Bradley of selling “sex in a box” when the firm releases Twister, the game that uses human bodies as playing pieces. Sales take off when Tonight Show host Johnny Carson plays a match with the lovely Eva Gabor.



During the height of the Vietnam War, Milton Bradley publishes the first plastic version of a pen-and-pencil guessing game first created during World War I. Later, Battleship is also among the first games reinterpreted as an electronic game.


A barber from Ohio invents Uno, a new card deck to play a variation of the game crazy eights. Uno becomes a perpetual best-seller.


Dungeons & Dragons, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, introduces players to worlds of adventure and imagination as the first role playing game. Thousands of analog and computer variants follow.

Dungeons & Dragons
Electronic Wizardry
In 1981 Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower harnesses the latest technology to combine elements of role-playing and epic strategy games, as it uses a computer within the board’s central tower to control the game’s events.


At least 20 million copies of the trivia-based board game, released in 1982, sell in 1984 alone. Like other top-selling games, this popular culture phenomenon appears in multiple specialty editions.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Trivial Pursuit became a major source of home entertainment for adults.


The first World War II strategy game published by mainstream manufacturer Milton Bradley becomes a best-seller at the same time Ronald Reagan is building up the United States military.

From 1984 to 1986, Miolton Bradley produced five war simulation games as part of their GameMaster series. These games consisted of Axis & Allies, Conquest of the Empire, Broadsides and Boarding Parties, Fortress America, and Shogun.


Some games call for a party. Reminiscent of the classic charades game, quick-draw Pictionary cartoonists sketch a subject for their teammates to guess.


This tabletop game is soon reworked with an electronic voice telling shoppers where the great sales are found. Kids love it, adults find it funny, and critics sniff that Mall Madness promotes consumerism.


The first collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, appears and soon earns the nickname “cardboard crack,” because so many players seem hooked on it. The game wins 1994’s Mensa Select award because of its complex play mechanics.


Klaus Teuber’s island settlement game, Die Siedler von Catan (The Settlers of Catan), becomes the most popular of a new style of Eurogames that brings many adults back into board game play by combining high-quality design with accessible, compelling game mechanics.


Apples to Apples a laugh-inducing card game inspires many specialty versions as well as parodies, such as the adults-only Cards against Humanity.


Carcassonne, a tile-building game themed around a medieval French city becomes one of the first popular Eurogames and even prompts a player to coin the term “meeples” for the human-shaped tokens representing people in any board game.


Game inventor Alan Moon earns multiple game awards with Ticket to Ride. Elegantly simple rules contribute to the appeal of the competitive railway building game.


A complex game concerning a quasi-medieval family farm begins simply but adds layers of complexity through 14 rounds of play including 6 harvests. Players of Agricola employ countless strategies, both offensive and defensive, in this award-winning game.


The kingdom-building competitive card game has the excitement of a collectible card game but comes complete with a huge number of included cards that provide Dominion with endless possibilities of play.

Credits: Story

American Board and Card Game History is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Learn more at

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google