Second in a series of reviews of books about games.
While they are now both owned by Hasbro, at one time Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley competed aggressively for the game market in the United States. Even today, when most people in the United States think of a game publisher they will almost inevitably think of one company or the other—even though they couldn't tell you which released even those games as popular as Monopoly.
Books detailing the histories of these companies and their founders are therefore not surprisingly very interesting reading for fans of games—even those for who care little for the games they published. While It's All In The Game and The Game Makers ostensibly have different focuses, with the former presenting itself as a biography and the latter as a company history, the subjects covered are nearly identical, and they therefore make for excellent back-to-back reads.
It's All In The Game is now over forty years old, but remains an interesting history of the Milton Bradley (the company). Written on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Checkered Game of Life, it is really two books in one. The first half of the book is primarily a biography of Milton Bradley (the man). Of course, much of Bradley's life was the company, so the transition to the years after Bradley's death is very smooth. The final seven chapters of the book are directly credited to Mercer, and describe the time encompassing Shea's presidency of the company.
What I found most fascinating about the book is just how little Milton Bradley the man had to do with games. Bradley's passion was clear—education. This is not to imply that Bradley didn't care for or disapproved of games—just that he cared more about education, and throughout his life his company's product line reflected this. It's also worth noting that the games Bradley invented and published would generally not be of interest to gamers today.
The most disappointing aspect of It's All In The Game is the lack of coverage of the early games from the company. Following Bradley's priorities, the emphasis is on the educational products of the company. It's interesting reading but there's another story I wanted to see but was not there. Thankfully, the book ends with some detailed information about the games published during Shea's reign: Candy Land, Uncle Wiggly, Go to the Head of the Class, Park and Shop, and Racko, among others. A similar level of coverage for the earlier games would have made the book necessary reading for gamers; even without the information, it's a worthwhile read for anyone curious about the history of the American game industry.
Philip Orbanes, the writer of The Game Makers, is a gamer at heart—and it shows. The book is every bit as much a biography of George Parker as It's All In The Game is a biography of Milton Bradley. But Orbanes tells about the games (and many of the important toys) the company produced, both during and after Parker's reign. The illustrations in the book also reflect Orbanes' interest in the games, with numerous pictures of both the hits and others of interest. (It's All In The Game, in contrast, has seemingly random choices for illustrations.)
While Milton Bradley cared most about education, George Parker cared most about games. From the picture of Parker painted by Orbanes, there's no doubt that were he alive today he would be playing Settlers and Carcassonne. The many games Parker designed reflect this—the emphasis is clearly on fun, stimulating games. He wasn't afraid to publish challenging games either—such as his own design, Chivalry. While Parker had the advantage of outliving Bradley by over forty years, throughout the years of his leadership Parker Brothers published far more games of interest to gamers today: Pit, Rook, and Monopoly are still played and other games such as The Game of Politics remain playable as well.
The least enjoyable aspect of The Game Makers is the story of the slow decline of Parker Brothers, ending with its acquisition by Hasbro. Orbanes was a key employee of the company for over a decade during this period and he does an excellent job of remaining objective—but the sad nature of the situation leaks through anyway. As a result, the book has a rather odd pacing—an exciting and exhilarating ride through the company's early years, a hopeful middle to the 20th century, and then a failing of that hope. Orbanes does provide a glimmer of hope to end the book and the very fact that the Parker Brothers archives have survived, allowing the research for the book to be written, is in and of itself a positive note.
Gamers with an interest in history are well advised to find and read both books. In addition to a wealth of information about classic American games, there is plenty of information about the game industry and some of the men and women who have shaped it. I would strongly recommend The Game Makers to all gamers—it is an excellent, easy read and the greater focus on games and more recent publication give it a wider appeal. Anyone who enjoys The Game Makers would then do well to search out It's All In The Game as a worthwhile follow-up; I suspect only those interested in the history of educational tools would find Shea's book of greater interest.
- Joe Huber