Over the last 200 years, board games have brought us together with delightful new forms of play that entertain, educate, and (occasionally) exasperate us. Here are five of the most influential games of all time.
The Checkered Game of Life (1860)
Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life became the first widely popular American board game. Its strong moral themes reassured adult purchasers that children would learn life lessons. A travel version entertained Civil War soldiers. Players avoided pitfalls like Idleness and Gambling while aiming for boosts from Perseverance and Bravery. The first to 100 and "Happy Old Age" won. The game’s success turned Milton Bradley into a publishing powerhouse.
Monopoly’s history is ironic. This celebration of capitalism descends from the Landlord’s Game, a teaching tool developed by Elizabeth Magie to highlight the baleful effects of great concentrations of wealth. Charles Darrow, an out-of-work plumber during the Great Depression, created Monopoly after playing a version of Magie’s game. He made this round version for his own table, then started selling the more familiar square ones.
Eleanor Abbott invented Candyland to entertain children with polio. A survivor of the disease herself, she used colored cards to allow even young players to participate. Its magical world of sumptuous sweets has pleased players of all ages for 80 years, though desperate parents have sometimes resorted to somehow making the longed-for card appear that will mercifully finish a game.
Dungeons & Dragons (1974)
Dungeons & Dragons was a new type of role playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. One person became the dungeon master, the referee describing what was happening as players—in the guise of brave adventurers—explored fantastic realms filled with monsters, magic, and treasure. The game proved well suited to computers, and today millions play variations of it digitally.
Settlers of Catan (1995)
A recent board game renaissance has produced thousands of games both beautiful and fun. Many come from Europe, where the German Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) award annually honors creative and compelling titles like Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan. In the game, players compete for resources by rolling dice and trading with others. It’s a lively mix of barter, bargains, and banter!
Five Games that Changed Us
These games succeeded because they offered more than just good play value. The Checkered Game of Life harnessed play to transmit life lessons. Monopoly inspired generations of budding entrepreneurs. Candy Land offered hope and sweet dreams. Dungeons & Dragons opened new worlds of the imagination. Settlers of Catan and other modern board games celebrate the joys of face-to-face play in our digital age.
Produced by The Strong National Museum of Play.