Game-playing is and always has been a central part of the human experience and is as vital to – and reflective of – a society’s culture as music, dance, literature or the other arts. Chess, checkers (known as draughts in British English), and backgammon are board games that date back thousands of years — and they weren’t even the first of their kind. Senet, found in Predynastic and First Dynasty burials of Egypt c. 3500 BC and 3100 BC respectively, is the oldest known board game (four sets were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb); other such forms of ancient entertainment were Mehen, from Predynastic Egypt; Go, originating in China; Patolli, originating in Mesoamerica played by the ancient Aztec; and Pachisi and Chaupar, ancient board games of India. What these games share is the goal of outwitting one’s opponent by strategically seizing points, property or territory using a process or combination of counting, logic, or luck.
Board games predated the development of writing and literacy, and although it’s no surprise that language eventually found its way into the world of parlor entertainment, it seems to have taken its time, only joining the fun in the 19th century when board and parlor games started to develop and broaden to amuse and entertain the whole family rather than just the older, nerdier teenagers and adults. Words in all their glory — whether strutting their spellings, their definitions, or their usage in expressions and phrases — now form the basis of a number of popular modern games that have been enjoyed by humans large and small over the past century.
Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that board games are given “publication” dates: I didn’t realize that games were “published”, like books — and it seems especially strange when the games in question have nothing to do with language.
Here are some of the more popular and enduring wordy board games, with their tag-lines and a very brief description of their rules and origins. Any others I’ve missed?
“Crossword game”: The grand old man of word games: two to four players score points by placing tiles — each bearing a single letter — onto a board in such a way that the tiles form words, crossword-style. The words must be defined in a standard dictionary.
The first version of Scrabble was created in 1938 by the American architect Alfred Butts under the name “Criss-Crosswords”, as a variation on an earlier word game he invented called Lexiko. In 1948, James Brunot, a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, bought the manufacturing rights in exchange for giving Butts royalties on sales. Brunot made some slight changes to the board, simplified the rules, and changed the game’s name to “Scrabble”, which means “to scratch frantically”. Legend has it that Scrabble‘s big break came in 1952 when Jack Straus, president of Macy’s, played the game on vacation and placed a large order for his department store …
“The game of words”: Reminiscent of the simple two-person game Hangman, up to 4 players try to guess a word chosen by another player by revealing specific letters. Probe was introduced in 1964 by Parker Brothers.
“The 3-minute word search game”: Using a plastic grid onto which lettered dice are shaken and settled (with a single letter facing up), players search against the clock for words that can be spelled from adjacent cubes, ie. those neighboring each other horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Invented by Alan Turoff in 1972 for Parker Brothers. Turoff’s wife was also a toy designer, and they exchanged their marriage vows to the tune of “Babes in Toyland”.
2 to 6 players score points by thinking of names – unique among players in the particular round — of items in different categories with a given initial letter, all against the clock. Published in 1988 (the designer seems to be unknown).
“The game of unspeakable fun”: The object of the game is for a player to get her partner or team to guess the word on her card by defining it without using the word itself or any of the five additional words listed on the card. Taboo was designed by Brian Hersch and published in 1989 by Hasbro.
Apples to Apples:
“The game of hilarious comparisons”: From two decks of cards — adjectives and nouns — a player (referee) selects an adjective card; the other players choose and play from the noun cards in their hands the nouns that best match the chosen adjective. The referee then chooses the noun card that appeals most to them and awards the card to whoever played it. Designed by Matthew Kirby and Mark Alan Osterhaus, it was published in 1999 by Out of the Box publishing.
“The anagram game that will drive you bananas!”: 2 – 8 players arrange their own tiles into a grid of connected words faster than their opponents. The winner is the first to complete a word grid after the pool of 144 tiles has been exhausted.
Abraham Nathanson, a Rhode Island artist, invented Bananagrams at the age of 76; the game debuted at the 2006 London Toy Fair. According to the New York Times, in its obituary for the inventor after his death just four years later, Nathanson “hit on the idea for Bananagrams while playing Scrabble with his grandson and chafing at the slow pace of the game. ‘We need an anagrams game so fast, it’ll drive you bananas.'”
“The game of quick draw”: The word-guessing game is played in teams, with players trying to identify specific words from their teammates’ drawings. Pictionary was invented by Robert Angel with graphic design by Gary Everson and first published in 1985 by Angel Games Inc.
The Origin of Expressions:
“The origin of expressions: Phrases – Fakery – Finesse – Fun”: Players receive a common everyday phrase, such as “Baker’s Dozen,” and write an explanation for the phrase’s origin. Players try to convince the others that their own origin is the true one. Players vote for the most plausible origin. A recent game, published in 2007 by Discovery Bay Games, the designer is uncredited.