The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

A Question of Semantics

Al Newman

July, 2000

Erik Arneson, on his interesting and feature-packed Web site (http://boardgames.about.com), recently mused, "those individuals who are responsible for the creation of American games often consider themselves to be 'inventors' while those who create German-style games seem to think of themselves as 'designers.'"

Mouse Trap detail

The distinction noted by Arneson is real, and there are several reasons. One is that over the years, children's games in the U.S. evolved from board games like Snakes & Ladders into action games like Mouse Trap and Operation. There were only so many things you could do with a two-dimensional board and dice for six-year-olds. By taking the concept of a game to another level, American manufacturers opened a cornucopia of new ideas that relied on inventions and could keep the interest of the little ones for hours on end. Clearly, Mouse Trap and Operation were invented at least as much as they were designed. Even today, roaming the shelves of Toys R Us, you can see a half-dozen new games in the action category. Perhaps Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Loopin' Louie are no longer around, but a host of invented relatives certainly are.

Another reason that Americans consider themselves inventors really has more to do with those in the toy industry who pass on and publish these designs than with the inventors or designers themselves. Most games that were published during the period that I was most active (1973-1985), were handled by "inventors' agents." For decades after Charles Darrow's Monopoly became an all-time best seller, ensuring royalties to Darrow's family probably in perpetuity, the industry was bombarded by many thousands of unwanted submissions from all over the country every year. The only logical way to handle the deluge was to return them all unopened and to evaluate only those that had been "filtered" through people who understood the industry and the kinds of products the game companies might actually be interested in. Those people became widely known as inventors' agents. In fact, the management of Milton Bradley, Parker Bros., Mego, Ideal, and others I dealt with, routinely called game designers inventors. For a few years, Parker Bros. set up an annual cocktail party at Toy Fair and sent out invitations to "Game Inventors." Those who had a foot firmly planted in the door with no need for an agent still had to sign the required corporate disclosure forms, acknowledging the submitter as an inventor.

"There is very little left of the traditional board game industry in this country."

Some of the most popular games of the period clearly fit into the "invented" rather than "designed" category. The Marvin Glass organization in Chicago was responsible for many successful games in the seventies and eighties, most of which involved devices invented expressly for the board game in which they were featured. Billionaire sported a randomizer with two thin rectangular pieces of plastic that revolved around a horizontal axis. Each piece had a flat top and flat bottom, one end of which was red and the other green. The player flicked the plastic pieces, which came to rest showing one of four combinations on the face-up end: red-red, red-green, green-red, or green-green. This was really a very silly way of accomplishing what could have been accomplished a lot more cheaply with four cards or a four-sided die, but the device attracted the curiosity of game players, and the theme of making a billion bucks in the business world didn't hurt.

Another popular game was Magnificent Race, which featured a roulette-type device. The circular tray accommodated as many as a dozen colored marbles, one of which was targeted to land in a lone depression near the center of the tray. The device was spun and the marbles took off in a race, which was fun to watch while one marble won by landing in the depression. Despite the fact that the game play was otherwise quite weak, the game sold over a million copies.

And then there was The Inventors. This game featured the silliest device of all, a plastic tower with two uses. First, it carried a slot for metal clips that clipped onto Invention cards. When you placed two dice in the top of the tower and pressed a plunger, the dice fell down and out while ringing a bell. This totally unnecessary invention nevertheless was likely the main reason the game sold over a million copies.

So we see that, in several ways the description of designers domestically as "inventors" is a hangover from earlier days.

"Competition from video has effectively shut the door to a large segment of the potential board game audience."

The truth—sadly—is that there is very little left of the traditional board game industry in this country. Video games have extracted an enormous toll, leaving only a handful of so-called classics like Monopoly, Clue, Risk, Payday, Life, and a plethora of party games, each more bland than the one that came before. There is almost no reason for U.S. manufacturers to attempt a renaissance of the traditional board game, since competition from video has effectively shut the door to a large segment of the potential board game audience—males over the age of eight. (Ironically, most Americans probably think of video-game developers as designers, when in reality, the art of video-game design has as much to do with invention as it does with the actual design of a game and game play.) In my view, American board game manufacturers have always considered design secondary to invention and placed the novel and gimmicky over solid ideas. To wit;

Milton Bradley's foray into 3D plastic molds for games to make them appear modern and "invented." They sure looked neat. But in at least one case, a game called Tri-Trac, the game itself was horribly broken. The invention mattered. Design did not.

For what it's worth, I always thought of myself as a designer, not an inventor. When I attempted to duplicate the then current trend of inventing devices in the seventies, the design process became sidetracked and what resulted was the same type of silly fluff as Magnificent Race. Yet one of my "invented" designs actually passed my personal criteria for a good game. Masterspy featured a plastic "microscope" that dispensed plastic microdots that enabled spies to complete their missions at the Embassies on the board. Unfortunately, by the time I completed the game, none of the domestic publishers were interested in spy games. So, all the time I spent on the invention (and others!) was wasted. Since that time, any involvement with games has been on the design end, not invention!

My most successful game was Super 3, which sold 500,000 copies in Europe a generation ago and was rated a top score by Germany's Spielbox magazine in the summer of 1985. You can see this game in action this year in the U.S., where it will be published by Broadway Toys as Double Tic-Tac-Toe. Don't let the name throw you off. This is a very neat two-player game, reminiscent of the same skills found in Backgammon. Throw in a doubling cube and it will require every bit as much skill. Although the game went through several incarnations before the finished product finally emerged, it was very definitely not invented—it was just a solid idea, and in my very humble opinion, well designed.

- Al Newman

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