Two Dice And A Time Machine
Antony Brown is a games analyst and inventor who writes regularly on board games. This article explains how by picking up two dice you can roll back the years.
The board game, like the vinyl single and the picket line, had its heyday in 1979. This is not to say the games then were better than today but that the board game market was at its height, reaching its largest sales volume (in real terms), coincidentally at the same time that single sales and days lost to industrial action would also reach a peak. For board games, the buoyant market meant that it could sustain an enormous variety of themes to suit virtually any idiosyncratic interest, from playing a scheming charioteer in Circus Maximus to strategically munching carrots in Hare and Tortoise, which won the first-ever Spiel des Jahres in this year.
Board games have always been a snapshot of popular culture - they capture our concerns and pursuits of the time and even mirror our past TV viewing habits. For example, in the mid-1970s we see North Sea Oil by Omnia and Bermuda Triangle by MB, both of which reflected a media preoccupation of the time, and On The Buses and Dad's Army, both by Denys Fisher, which capitalised on the mass viewing figures of popular TV shows then broadcast across only three TV channels. The same is true of many vintage games from other decades. Opening up a vintage game box is like opening up a time tunnel; just pick up the ubiquitous two dice and roll back the years. In this article I hope to stir some nostalgia and reveal snippets of our cultural past by taking you on a brief tour of a few retro games.
Staying with the 1970s for a moment, were you among the ten million or so who regularly tuned in every Thursday evening to watch Top of the Pops? If so, you may have also passed by a Woolworths store displaying the eponymous board game by Palitoy, the box lid parading the epitome of a pop star of the day - a long-haired glam rocker. There is no official Top of the Pops logo or any other reference to suggest the game had been licensed from the BBC. The game's objective is to be the first player to cut a million-selling disc. Although its play mechanism may be too simple even for children and virtually all luck, the game is a nostalgic gem because the depicted record deck, with its real vinyl record spinner, and graphic design were state of the art when the game was published. It now looks like a museum exhibit and actually is one, being part of the Childhood Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
To get a real nostalgic kick out of the game make your own tabs and cards of your favourite '70s hits, create a playlist of them, insert iPod into docking station and reminisce over a bottle of wine with friends about the singles you bought from John Menzies, Our Price or even Boots. Yes, those were the days when chemists sold records, retail loyalty meant licking Green Shield Stamps and shops had half-day closing during the working week. However, the game is rare (perhaps the BBC lawyers had something to do with this) and can be worth £150 today. Quite a return if you bought the game for £4.50 when it was published.
Let's roll the dice and slip further back in time. Read all about it! "First Lunar Landing. Far Eastern rocket lands on the surface of the moon." So proclaims one of the news stories in Scoop, a game about Fleet Street. If you think the headline sounds more Quatermass Experiment than Apollo programme you are quite correct. Scoop was originally published in 1953, the year when the Quatermass Experiment was shown on TV for the first time and the faint bleeps of Sputnik echoing through space were still years away. Not even Elvis was around - he wouldn't be staying at Heartbreak Hotel for a few more years.
Scoop is a classic family game that was published in a variety of versions over a period of about thirty years. The object of the game is to fill the front page of a newspaper with the highest value stories and advertisements. Each player gets a newspaper front page to fill. You can choose from Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, The Times, News Chronicle and Daily Sketch. The selection of newspapers immediately reveals the game's era. After publishing for nearly a century the News Chronicle folded in 1960 and was absorbed into the Daily Mail. The same fate befell the Daily Sketch in 1971.
Two factors make Scoop one of the finest retro games to collect - its ingenious telephone device, which remains a marvel of cardboard engineering to this day, and the dated look and feel of the news stories and adverts. The telephone depicts a picture of Bakelite rotary dial telephone, the type used in the UK from the 1930s to the late 1950s. The adverts take you back to an era when Lyle's Golden Syrup "spread a little happiness", when BOAC would fly you "worldwide in supreme jet comfort" and Dinky Toys had over 160 models and "new additions every month." The phone and the ads make you realize how design is a date stamp, immediately affirming something belongs to another era. Perhaps the one thing the original Scoop doesn't have is a front page of The News Of The World, which ceased in July 2011 amid the phone hacking scandal - itself a story that could never have been even conceived back in the era of the Bakelite dial phone. However, the paper is included in the revised 1988 edition along with another now-defunct newspaper, Today.
Let's remain in the 1950s, when the first edition of Careers was also published. The object of the game is simple: to be successful in life. This lofty goal is realized by fulfilling your own Success Formula in terms of money, fame and happiness by visiting different career paths on the inner board. 'Hollywood' is more likely to reward you with fame, for example, while 'Teaching' may give you lots of happiness. The occupational paths also include 'Uranium Prospecting in Peru' and 'Expedition to the Moon' which reflect the mood and aspirations of post-war America. In fact, the entire game is a microcosm of 1950s American optimism - setting goals in life and then achieving them is surely the essence of the American Dream, which probably explains the game's greater popularity in America.
The graphic design radically changes in the 1970s along with some of the careers: 'Ecology', 'Teaching' and 'Sports' are introduced, reflecting the greater social consciousness and the growing dominance of sports culture. No doubt today we would see 'Celebrity', a career for acquiring and losing fame quite cheaply, and 'Internet', an occupational path in which you can gain ridiculous amounts of money if you happen to land on the Killer App square. But For me, the first edition Careers remains a gem of a retro game because not only is it an enjoyable and original game but it so innocently depicts a bygone era.
Let's roll the dice again and fall further through time, to a time of War rationing and austerity. It's 1943, some seven years after Monopoly was first published in the UK. Waddingtons are facing supply shortages and include a notice in the sets of its best-selling game regretting that the components are not as good quality as "in peace time." The trinkets have been replaced by printed card pieces on wooden bases (the only time a rocking horse would be one of the tokens). A card spinner is substituted for the dice, although it would often be thrown away after the War by its owners and replaced by a pair of common wooden dice. Varieties of this "austerity edition" would continue for several years until rationing ended. Today this edition is perhaps the most distinctive vintage Monopoly set and, in good condition, is prized by collectors.
Despite the impositions of rationing, the board layout, the properties and rents remain unchanged. The only major change that affected the deed cards occurred after the War, in 1948, when the stations changed from L.N.E.R. (London and North Eastern Railway) to the newly nationalised British Railways.
It is believed that during the war Monopoly sets were used to smuggle escape equipment to allied prisoners; actual currency, silk maps and a compass were ingeniously hidden in the components. These sets could be identified by a tiny red dot in the corner of the Free Parking square. Despite some estimates claiming that as many as thirty thousand POW sets were produced, none has apparently survived.
Unfortunately, time has run out and we must return to the present, having looked briefly at only a few of the thousands of vintage games out there. Some gamers may scoff, claiming that many vintage games like the ones I've highlighted have simplistic play mechanisms that involve too much luck. This may be true but would miss the point entirely. What you get out of playing any game depends on what you put in. Regardless of the game play or the production values, the timeless truth is that games are about having fun with friends and family. And a vintage game adds another dimension to this enjoyment by creating a nostalgic glow of do-you-remember-this and oh-look-at-that moments that few contemporary games can hope to match.
Roll the dice and enjoy the retro ride!