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5 Popular Board Games with Unusual Stories of Origin

From bizarre inspirations and challenging socially-acceptable norms to unexpected inventors and rudimentary factories, some board games have fascinating stories of origin that might just make you see it in another light.

1. Scrabble

Scrabble is arguably one of the most popular board games to ever exist with more than 150 million sets sold in 121 countries ever since its creation back in 1931. The idea of Scrabble was first conceptualized during the Great Depression by Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed architect in New York. Thinking his fellow Americans could do with a distraction during the bleak economic times, he combined the three most endearing types of games in history — board games, number games and letter games like crossword puzzles to create his own concept for a board game. Butts struggled to come up with a name for his creation, naming it “Lexico” before finally settling on “Criss-Cross Words”. For more than a decade, Butts not only tinkered with the game’s rules but also applied for a patent at the Patent Office, yet his application was rejected twice.

The first ever Scrabble factory was anything but fancy.

In fact, it was an abandoned schoolhouse in Rural Connecticut.

Soon Butts handed over the whole operation to fellow New Yorker James Brunot, whose contributions to the game was monumental. Brunot came up with the game’s iconic color scheme, formulated the 50-point bonus for using all seven tiles during a turn and even devised the name “Scrabble”. The first ever Scrabble factory was anything but fancy. In fact, it was an abandoned schoolhouse in Rural Connecticut, and with the help of a few of Brunot’s friends, they managed to crank out about 12 Scrabble sets per hour. After the chairman of Macy’s came across the game and decided to stock his shelves with it, the popularity of Scrabble skyrocketed. By the time 1952 rolled around, Brunot’s unconventional factory was churning out about 2,000 Scrabble sets a week.

Brunot and Butts finally decided to sell the rights to the game in 1971 to a company called Selchow & Rigther. Butts received a total of $265,000 in royalties while Brunot received nearly $1.5 million. For a while, the rights to the board game seemed to play a weird game of musical chairs as each company that took over either collapsed completely or went bankrupt. Eventually the rights to Scrabble landed in the hands of Hasbro Inc.


2. Cluedo

The story of how Clue came to be all starts with a British musician named Anthony Pratt. A few years before World War II, Pratt was often hired to play on a piano during murder-mystery parties in wealthy European country mansions. Seeing the guests play-act dastardly crimes and fall ‘dead’ to the floor sparked his interest immensely, and soon he found himself paying more attention by making mental notes of what happened during each and every party he attended.

The game's original lead pipe token was made out of actual poisonous lead.

Luckily it was replaced with a steel one in 1965 before finally being replaced with one made out of pewter.

After a few years, World War II finally broke out, which ultimately sent Pratt to work at his local munitions factory in Birmingham. Most nights, Pratt and his wife, Elva, was forced to stay cooped up indoors due to air-raid blackouts. To pass the time, the two set out to recreate those murder-mystery games in miniature form by devising a board game first called “Murder!”. Between the years of 1943 and 1945, Pratt worked on the suspects and weapons featured in the game while his wife designed the game board on their dining-room table. In the midst of it all, Pratt became a crime aficionado by cultivating a love of murder fiction and a fascination of the criminal mind.

Pratt patented his game and sold it to U.K-based game manufacturer Waddington’s and its American twin Parker Bothers (now owned by Hasbro) in 1947. The game’s release was delayed until 1949 due to post-war shortages. It was released as Cluedo in England and Clue in the United States. Ever since its release, the game has undergone countless updates. For instance, Pratt’s original patent called for 10 characters and additional weapons such as a shillelagh (an Irish walking stick) and a hypodermic syringe. To make the game for efficient, only six characters and six weapons was released in the first version of Clue. The rope token was changed from an actual piece of string to a plastic mold of one. The lead pipe token, which was originally made out of actual (and poisonous) lead was replaced with a steel one in 1965 before finally being replaced with one made out of pewter. Throughout the years, the board game has undergone numerous changes to keep up with modern-day fashion trends and pop-culture.


3. Candyland

Candy Land is a colorful board game that encourages players to explore a vast array of candy-themed places, yet the origins behind it is anything but jolly. The inventor of Candy Land was Eleanor Abbott, a retired schoolteacher that was diagnosed with polio in 1948. While recovering in a San Diego hospital, she found herself surrounded by children suffering from the same disease. Seeing those children suffer through a painful and lonely time in their lives was what inspired her to create Candy Land, a board game that would soon captivate their imaginations and ultimately offer a small escape from their depressing surroundings. The game became so popular with the hospital patients that Abbott decided to pitch it to big-time toy manufacturer Milton Bradley. It wasn’t long before Candy Land became the company’s highest selling board game.

Candyland was inspired by children suffering from polio.

The creator of the game saw how lonely the kids were while in hospital and wanted to give them something to do to distract them from their depressing circumstances.

The reason for Candy Land’s success is quite simple. The U.S economy was thriving after World War II, kick-starting the baby boom era into overdrive. It was a time where parents had the means to spend money on their kids, which created a huge market for toys at the time. Even though Candy Land was immensely popular among children, it was their parents who were the true consumers of the board game. Since children aged 3 years and older could play the game along with only the ability to identify colors needed, parents were happy to buy their kids something that would keep them busy for hours on end.

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Even though the board game was made with children suffering from polio in mind, the game never promoted its connection with the dreaded illness. Abbott was very generous with her original intentions for the game by donating all the royalties she earned from the game to charities and causes dedicated to helping children in need.


4. Twister

In 1966, Reyn Guyer was working in the advertising industry and needed to come up with a mail-in giveaway for a shoe polish made by Johnson’s Wax when he stumbled upon an idea for a new board game. His initial idea was for players to act as the game pieces themselves as they stepped on a checkered mat with coloured squares. Soon he set out to make the first prototype by drawing 24 squares in a 4-by-6 arrangement and inviting a few of his friends to play. At first, the players moved like chess pieces, but the game was a hit nonetheless.

Since Guyer didn’t have any experience in the toy business, he hired artist Neil Rabens and industry expert Charles Foley to refine his concept. Raben came up with the suggestion of having the players place their hands on the mat as well as their feet while Foley suggested redesigning the mat to have six circles of the same colour in four rows to make players tangle themselves up in one another. The patent was filed in April 1966, and called for an “Apparatus for Playing a Game Wherein the Players Constitute the Game Pieces”. Foley and Rabens were listed as the inventors of the game while Guyer received all the royalties.

The game was first called ‘Pretzel’, and soon after they refined their creation they decided to pitch it to game-maker Milton Bradley. The company’s head of research and development, Mel Taft, was sold on the idea while other executives criticized the game for being too provocative. Taft was warned of the socially unacceptable implication of having other people — especially those of the opposite sex — that close to each other. Yet, those grievances were ignored and the company soon agreed to start producing the board game, the only exception being that the company had to change the name to Twister. The reason for this was because of a toy dog named Pretzel already being on the market at the time.

Twister was heavily criticized as being "sex-in-a-box".

Despite using cartoon characters on the box, it wasn't enough to ward off the sexual associations made with the game.

Milton Bradley used a company that manufactured shower curtains to produce the vinyl mats for Twister and designed the packaging of the game to include cartoon characters to ward off any sexual association with the game. Yet, their attempts were futile as the came was still criticized as being “sex in a box”. Milton Bradley considered pulling Twister off of the market, but before they could do anything of the sort, their public relations firm managed to organize a demonstration of the game on the most popular late-night television program in the United States — NBC’s “Tonight Show”.

The episode aired on the 3rd of May 1966, and it was undoubtedly the make or break moment for the future of Twister. As host Johnny Carson got tangled up with actress Eva Gabor, the audience was in stitches. That small segment of the show was ultimately what saved the board game from extinction as it went on to become one of the most popular games in modern history.


5. The Game of Life

Life (also known as ‘The Game of Life’) encourages players to live the American dream of buying a house, having a family and becoming a millionaire. Yet, it wasn’t always that way. Since the game is more than 150 years old, the first renditions of it wasn’t as superficial as we know it today; the original goal of the game was to live a good life. As a consequence, players stood the chance of suffering from some pretty depressive setbacks such as suicide (which threw you out of the game completely) or poverty.

So, why did the game change so drastically? Well, it all starts with the game’s inventor, Milton Bradley. Born in 1836, he dropped out of college to start his own printing business. As it turned out, he managed to build his own monopoly by owning one of the few lithography machines outside of Boston. His success was short-lived after suffering from a major printing blunder in 1860. Abraham Lincoln’s presidential nomination was in full swing. Bradley wanted to capitalize on the event by printing thousands of portraits of the presidential nominee. Yet, after Lincoln grew a beard in the meantime, the portraits failed to sell and nearly bankrupted Bradley.

The original version of the game was actually pretty depressing.

Players could suffer from setbacks such as poverty or suicide, which could throw you out of the game completely.

From Bradley’s biggest failure came his greatest success as he invented the Checkered Game of Life shortly after. It reflected all of his ups and downs during his career, and soon turned out to be a hit. By the time 1861 rolled around, he sold more than 45,000 copies of the game and even bundled it together with other popular board games for Civil War soldiers to enjoy. He patented his creation in 1866, and he used the money he received from it to fund his other passions such as education and his quest to live a pure life.

Since Bradley associated dice with gambling, he developed a spinner for the game instead. The original game also portrayed his morals in other ways, too. For instance, the game didn’t have any mention of money in it. Instead, players had to calculate the points of each square they landed on to figure out who was the winner. The player that won achieved “happy old age”, which was what Bradley saw as the goal of the game of Life. The board game changed to what we know it as today after Milton Bradley passed away in 1911, where it changed from a game that teaches morals to a game that provided an escape to its players.


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