Board games—children’s entertainment structured by the roll of a dice—are generally thought of as a frivolous pastime. What’s there to learn from, say, the bad luck of landing in jail in Monopoly or the zing of tweezers touching metal in Operation? But board games have been used as teaching tools since their inception: chess, along with many other popular games, was originally a war simulation, used as both a way to spend an afternoon, and a tool for developing strategies on the battlefield. The game now commonly packaged as Chutes and Ladders began its life in India over 2,000 years ago as a sort of illustration of karma, with each snake and ladder representing a vice or virtue.
Victorian board game creators, the first to be able to mass produce their offerings, mostly riffed on the concept of games imitating life in the broadest sense possible. They churned out simple games in which a roll of the dice sent children through narratives involving the exotic (safari expeditions), the everyday (running a department store, studying the Bible), or the theoretical, in which players faced potential consequences of their future choices—the province of most Chutes and Ladders variants.
Being subject to the whims of fate while passing through these scenes was, in theory, enough to instill in young minds whatever game designers willed—civic virtue, workplace efficiency, education about exciting new technologies. Or, at least, the world’s board game manufacturers managed to convince large numbers of parents that this was the case. Milton Bradley’s 1895 Game of Mail, Express or Accommodation promised to “impart to the players a considerable amount of geographical and statistical information, and convey a vivid idea of the variety and extent of our country’s productions.” Manufacturer J.W. Spear & Sons’ early 1900s game International Mail: An Instructive Gameproclaimed: “the usefulness of such a game as this is obvious.”
This deep-seated sales pitch didn’t go away after the Victorians made board games widely accessible. In 1935, game manufacturer E.E. Fairchild Corporation’s W.P.A. game sent players moving through the projects of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency designed to put unemployed Americans to work on infrastructure projects. Zippy Zepps (1925) depicted the range of possible trips one could take on a zeppelin, the supposed transportation method of the future. The McLoughlin Brothers, who were, for years, one of America’s biggest board game manufacturers, described their game North Pole (1897) as the children’s equivalent of a “cinematograph lecture,” delivered by a real Arctic explorer. Play required moving between spaces depicting episodes of ice fishing, setting up camp, and dog sledding. How else were North American youth going to learn about conditions in the northern tundra?
Most people who play popular 20th-century board games would probably not recognize their original iterations. As Tristan Donovan writes in his 2017 book It’s All a Game, Life began as a knockoff of a Puritan moral education tool. The original, called The Checkered Game of Life, was created in 1860 and forced players to compete to see who could attain “Happy Old Age” as determined by their ability to accrue virtue and avoid vice. The recognizable version that eventually made its way to department stores in 1960 determined victory solely on how much money the players accumulated, as decided by a single, lifelong career and the various ways luck could influence fate (including, notably, the auspicious discovery of a uranium deposit on one’s property). A relatively popular parody, The Game of Real Life, self-published by Chris Pender in 1998, includes possible outcomes like early death, losing one’s job, and getting divorced, and determines its winner with scores for happiness rather than wealth. When Hasbro tried this same shift—a version of Life that measured success in abstracted happiness units, rather than dollars—test players rejected it, asking where the money had gone.
It’s not hard to think of the reasons why people might measure their own success solely in terms of money, but in the specific context of board games there’s only one explanation: Monopoly. The earliest version of the game was created by Elizabeth Magie, an educator and artist who invented The Landlord’s Game and patented it in 1904 as a way of promoting the socialist single-tax doctrine of economist Henry George. Though most of the original game’s mechanics would be recognizable to contemporary Monopoly players, its ideological agenda appears directly opposed to what came later. One of Monopoly’s most salient features—that the game ends when one player has successfully accumulated all of the wealth—was introduced by Magie to show players who may not have been as lucky or aggressive during gameplay that such a ruthless capitalist system is fundamentally unjust. (The Landlord’s Game originally had two sets of rules—those we know from Monopoly, and a modified version in which the creation of wealth benefits all players.)
After its release in 1906, The Landlord’s Game became a popular folk game, frequently played on homemade boards with house-rule tweaks by people all along the Eastern seaboard. That changed when a down-on-his-luck businessman named Charles Darrow discovered it years later when he was was invited to play a version of The Landlord’s Game, then popularly known as "The Monopoly Game,” with friends in Atlantic City. He lifted his friends’ board, took it to Parker Brothers, and, in 1935, successfully sold it as his own invention—transforming The Landlord’s Game into the voracious, capitalistic staple of millions of American rec rooms. Many years later, economics professor Ralph Anspach invented a game called Anti-Monopoly, which, in criticizing unthinking market economics, hewed far closer to the original ethos of The Landlord’s Game. (When he was sued by Parker Brothers in 1974, Anspach engaged in a lengthy research process during which he unearthed Magie’s role in creating Monopoly.)
Monopoly’s secret history, presented in Mary Pilon’s 2015 book The Monopolists, is well-known in board game circles. But for the uninitiated who may simply have grown up with the game at home, it comes as a revelation. The intellectual theft of Monopoly became foundational to American board gaming. For the next several decades, game designers with a social message relied on the iconic layout and gameplay of Monopoly, and were often emboldened to get their message across after learning about the game’s real history.
In 1970, the game Blacks and Whites, a variation on Monopoly where property is divided into an “integrated” zone, a “ghetto” zone, an “estate” zone, and a “suburban” zone, invited players to “Experience the ghetto. Live on Welfare. Try to buy a place in a white suburb.” In this game, players choose whether to play as a white person or a black person, each subject to its own set of rules. Black characters, for example, are restricted from buying property in certain areas, though there are some in-game “advantages”: when a black character loses all of his money, he goes on “welfare” and gets to take $5,000 from each white player.
Blacks and Whites was a product of the magazine Psychology Today, which boasted a board game division throughout the early 1970s. The Psychology Today games, published by Dynamic Design Industries, were birthed by a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, Robert Sommer, who came up with the idea for a series of educational board games after observing his family engaging with more mainstream fare—in particular, Monopoly—in the 1950s. Sommer recently described the origin of Blacks and Whites as a reaction to “how unrealistic the board rules were…everyone starting out with the same amount of money, being allowed to purchase property anywhere on the board (no restricted housing), etc.”
Over the course of play-testing early versions of the game—originally an attempt at a more “realistic” version of Monopoly—it became clear to Sommer that black people, originally one of several minorities depicted in the game, were uniquely marginalized by rules surrounding housing and property. What had begun as an attempt to realistically depict American diversity in a Monopoly-style marketplace evolved into Blacks and Whites. Sommer’s notes from this time describe an extended play-test process of tweaking the rules surrounding race, trying to depict “how it is” by representing institutional racial bias in housing within the game. Under what conditions could people buy property, and how would they move through a system that was often openly hostile to the idea of their success? The results weren’t reliably “accurate” to life, given that the designers of a game meant to replicate the black experience were all white. And the racial make-up of the play-testers had the unfortunate and entirely predictable side effect of replicating real-world biases, which is how they ended up with comically racist rules like the “welfare advantage.” In an unpublished note, Sommer observes that this rule led white players playing as black characters to give up the accumulation of property and wealth, and instead attempt to turn welfare into “a way of life.”
Another Psychology Today game was 1971’s Woman and Man: The Classic Confrontation, which attempted to do for the women’s rights movement what Blacks and Whites was attempting to do for racism. The board game’s aesthetic, reminiscent of a series of exaggerated comic strips, features an illustration of a woman “seductively” surrounded by panting men. In one space, a woman gets a 5-point bonus for looking pretty, while a man gets a 10-point bonus for working hard. The game’s winner is determined by which player gets a promotion first. Women should take advantage of their natural assets, the game seems to suggest, though one of the ways female characters can gain a leg up on the male characters is by forcing them to engage in trivia about the history of women’s movements. A sample question might ask which leader of a leftist organization said, “The only alliance I want with the National Organization of Women is in the bedroom.” (It was Abbie Hoffman, in the late 1960s.)
The magazine’s other projects from the early 1970s included Who Can Beat Nixon?, a game with a rather self-explanatory objective; The Cities Game, about navigating urban life via constant negotiation between the four player factions (business, government, slum dwellers, and agitators); and Body Talk, a game about developing the players’ nonverbal communication skills. In 1971, Dynamic Design Industries published Wine Cellar, a game that claimed to solve the problem of not knowing the differences between types of wine. That these are all presented as equally important in the Dynamic Design catalogue says a lot about the priorities of “socially conscious” game designers at the time.
How did people respond to these attempts at dice-based sociology? Writing for LIFE magazine in December 1970, associate editor Paul Trachtman identified what was, to him, the most important aspect of these games: they “give rich people a new insight into the problems of the poor.” Trachtman played several rounds of Blacks & Whites, and found that the players playing black characters won by “swapping property and sharing the bread,” while the players playing white characters were out for themselves. He found that white characters could win when they played with racism as their defining strategy, keeping the black characters out of the neighborhood. The redlining worked: “Together, we soon had bought up everything from Sugar Hill to Shaker Heights. It wasn’t even a game.” Eventually, Trachtman’s player group felt comfortable referring to each other with racial slurs “in good company.”
In the late 1970s, one board game managed to become a minor media phenomenon, spawning coverage in almost every major newspaper, radio segments, and even an interview on the Today show. It was, of course, America’s first communist board game, Class Struggle.
Class Struggle was created in 1978 by Bertell Ollman, a Marxist and professor of political science at NYU, who discovered the history of The Landlord’s Game during his quest to find a socialist counterpart to Monopoly. Without existing copies of The Landlord’s Game and little way to find other games with the same political message, Ollman created his own. Class Struggle marketed itself as a game “for kids from 8 to 80” and encouraged extended class warfare. The story of the rather rocky business of developing the game is depicted in Ollman’s 1983 memoir Class Struggle is the Name of the Game. The game went on to sell over 230,000 copies before going out of print in 1994.
Players in Class Struggle don’t get to choose which class they represent, but, as in real life, are assigned one by a roll of the dice. Those lucky (or unlucky) enough to play as capitalists are given quite a bit of power: they control who runs the bank, choose the order of play, and always get to roll the dice first. The workers, meanwhile, have access to a select few forms of recourse against the capitalists, like a general strike. The minor classes—students, professionals, farmers, and small businessmen—must choose to ally themselves with either of the two main classes in order to win the game.
The success of Class Struggle was no doubt helped by the fact that Ollman was already a celebrity of sorts, mired in a controversy over his 1978 appointment to chair the University of Maryland’s political science department. (He was the first candidate in the university’s history to be rejected by its president, and he eventually fought—and lost—an extended lawsuit over the overtly political motivations for the decision.) Class Struggle is a political board game that has had a discernible effect on the kids who played it: Ed Miliband, former leader of Britain’s Labour party, played Class Struggle as a child, and devoted part of the 2017 Christmas episode of his Reasons to be Cheerful podcast to a session. Inspired by Ollman, even Abbie Hoffman himself began working on his own games.
Abstracting his players into classes was one of Ollman’s primary innovations as a designer, along with the healthy dose of humor he injected into Class Struggle’s chance cards and cardboard world. (One square late in the game informs players, “Government orders the destruction of all copies of dangerous game Class Struggle.”) In his memoir, Ollman describes players’ reactions to the role-playing component of Class Struggle as even more enthusiastic than he expected. His first-ever game session, a play-test with friends of his family, included a friend’s 10-year-old daughter, playing as the workers, shouting at her father, representing the capitalists, to protest his strike-breaking tactics. By the end of the game, she was demanding revolution instead of bedtime.
In 1981, three years after Class Struggle’s debut, Ollman, suffering from the stress of running a business, decided to sell his game to a war game publisher called Avalon Hill. But that didn’t dampen its influence; Class Struggle had tapped into something. In his memoir, Ollman says that throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s his home was inundated with calls from players who wanted to talk to the creator of the game. One of Ollman’s callers spent most of the conversation boasting about the imminent sales of his own game, which he thought “was a natural to piggyback off the success of Class Struggle.” Published in late 1980, it was called Public Assistance: Why Bother Working for a Living?
Public Assistance was created by Robert Johnson and Ronald Pramschufer, two libertarians from Annapolis, Maryland, who came up with the idea for their game while crabbing in June 1980. Together they formed Hammerhead Enterprises, the company that eventually put out Public Assistance as well as Capital Punishment, a game in which players were asked to sneak “criminals” past liberals in order to get them into the electric chair.
Like most 20th-century American political board games, Public Assistance riffed on the foundation established by Monopoly, with a splash of Life thrown in. In this case, players moved around the board, collecting cardboard cutouts representing illegitimate children, engaging in Saturday night crime sprees (robbery, drug use, prostitution), and trying their hardest to avoid being caught in the Working Man’s Rut, where they might be subjected to—god forbid—a union job.
Public Assistance manages to simultaneously be sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, classist, and every other form of offensive you can imagine. (For the game designers, this is a feature, not a bug.) Several cards suggest that welfare recipients can be enrolled in a “Judicare” program, which will set them up with pro bono help from an “ethnic” lawyer. Another card tells a player caught in the Working Man’s Rut that his daughter has brought home an “ethnic” boyfriend, immediately forcing said player to spend several hundred dollars in hospital bills after “the incident” to treat what are implied to be injuries from domestic violence.
The text in the game’s rulebook takes a similarly glib touch with its subject matter, including sections describing a welfare recipient in Baltimore who reportedly had 22 illegitimate children — “all by the age of 32!” By the end of the rulebook, Johnson and Pramschufer suggest moving the game from one’s living room into the real world: “Two players may decide to take this great game to the waiting room of their local welfare office and invite two real life able-bodied welfare recipients to join them in the game while they are waiting for their food stamps and welfare checks.” By the end of 1980, Hammerhead had sold 10,000 copies of Public Assistance. Like Ollman before him, Johnson went on the Today show.
Public Assistance attracted a sizable public outcry, to the point where Patricia Harris, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Jimmy Carter, criticized the game for being “callous, sexist, and racist” and engaging in a “vicious brand of stereotyping.” As libertarians, Johnson and Pramschufer responded: “We didn’t invent this game, government liberals did. We just put it in a box.” The pair repeatedly admitted they knew nothing about the actual details of how public assistance worked, instead describing the game as being based on “street knowledge and common sense”—picked up, presumably, while crabbing.
Writing for the Washington Post in November 1980, Nicholas Lemann attempted to fact-check the game’s representation of welfare, finding, unsurprisingly, that it had little basis in reality. Rather than the basic $500 a month Public Assistance suggested be given to an “able-bodied welfare recipient,” Marylanders would likely have received a fifth of that sum, and though the game tried to get players to think otherwise, most of the people on welfare programs in the United States were white, and went on and off assistance as their life circumstances changed. “Life on welfare is not a lark,” Lemann wrote, lightly scolding Johnson and Pramschufer for going too far. (He went on to describe the game as “pleasantly racy.”) Lemann’s most generous defense of Public Assistance was that it served as a sort of necessary outlet for Johnson and Pramschufer’s “genuine feelings” of anger and frustration directed at the “perfect symbol” of welfare. In other words, Public Assistance was a game about “economic anxiety,” the popular euphemism for racial resentment.
That same month, Stanley Brezenoff, head of the Human Resources Administration and Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York, sent a letter to the CEOs of 13 New York retailers, including FAO Schwarz and Macy’s, expressing his disapproval of the game. “By perpetuating outdated myths,” Brezenoff wrote, “I believe the ‘Public Assistance’ game does a grave injustice to taxpayers and welfare clients alike; by its insensitivity and plain shoddiness, it is a discredit to those associated with its manufacture and marketing.” The end of the letter read: “Your cooperation in keeping this game off the shelves of your stores would be a genuine public service.”
Naturally, Hammerhead sued. Its lawsuit named Brezenoff, as well as Mayor Ed Koch and the City of New York, for “alleged defamation, and interference with commercial relations and with free speech.” The ensuing trial, which took place in 1982 at the federal court for the Southern District of New York, was odd, to say the least. It included the testimony of a sketchily credentialed “investigative reporter” named Cathy Groudine, who claimed Brezenoff hid the existence of his letter to the CEOs from Hammerhead, simply because it was somewhat difficult for her to obtain a copy. (Brezenoff’s office promptly provided one in response to a FOIA request.) The designers had publicly admitted that their strategy was to “make people mad” in order to sell games, i.e. to trigger the libs.
Judge Milton Pollack’s decision in favor of Brezenoff (the suits against the mayor and City of New York had already been dismissed) came down December 6, 1982. Pollack found Brezenoff to be “acting in good faith” by responding to Public Assistance the way he did, and determined that there was no potentially libelous content. He also found that the Hammerhead cofounders had opened themselves up to criticism by “injecting themselves into the welfare controversy for profit.”
Ironically, part of the reason Pollack ruled against Hammerhead was because the retailers who received the letter were not threatened by its contents. Many of the stores that received Brezenoff’s letter ended up stocking the game in response to the publicity drummed up by the legal controversy, and city administrators had no regulatory power capable of reining in the stores’ exercise of free enterprise. At least at first, the people making decisions for these stores just didn’t like the game.
In a July 1981 interview with Mother Jones around the release of Capital Punishment, Johnson and Pramschufer complained about the nonexistent Brezenoff boycott, claiming that all of the stores that received the letter still stocked Class Struggle, a game they characterized as being about “overthrowing the government and not listening to your mother.” Criticized for making a racist game about killing black people, Johnson told Mother Jones: “Black liberals just want to create racial issues so they can scare white people and stir up black people.”
Pinning down the cultural impact of a game like Public Assistance can be difficult. The medium naturally lends itself to an assumption of fundamental unseriousness, and it’s easy to simply conclude that the whole enterprise is, at bottom, a curiosity. This is what Hammerhead executives claimed out of one side of their mouths when they repeated during the lawsuit that their game was a “spoof” and a “commercial satire,” an idea that is hard to square with their simultaneous claims that Public Assistance was an effective and sharp form of political messaging. The idea that the game had no real influence becomes even harder to believe after learning that Brezenoff first encountered it at a cocktail party in Reagan-era Washington, DC.
To engage with the history of Public Assistance is to see a forerunner of contemporary conservative media strategies: using a format commonly held to be frivolous as a way to shield against the implications of “serious” political speech, claiming the entire point of the project is to play a joke on the overly politically correct liberals, then becoming the aggrieved victims in an effort to drum up more attention from a quasi-sympathetic, blinkered press. It’s easy to imagine some modern version of Public Assistance painting all DACA recipients as vulgar criminals or decrying the beneficiaries of insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act, safely cloaked under the veil of “populism” in a time when major American media outlets are unable or unwilling to call white nationalism by its name.
Johnson and Pramschufer, now in their 60s, rereleased Public Assistance in 2011 with a new mascot, “Obozo the Marxist Clown.” (The pair continue to insist that they are not racists.) “We could have written a book to communicate our philosophy, but nobody reads anymore,” Pramschufer said in that same 1981 Mother Jones interview. “So we put it in a box.” In his estimation, a half hour spent playing one of his games was the equivalent of reading a 400-page book. (“They’ve got good reason to be afraid of us,” he said of the liberals outraged at his game. “We’re getting our message across.”) In 2009, in a blog post on a website called “American Thinker,” Johnson wrote, “Implicit in the efforts to ban the game is the totalitarian notion that the American people are too stupid to know which games are worthy of their own independent purchase.”
The current boom in board game sales—domestic sales rising by 28% in 2016, with a $300 million increase in sales globally—has largely come from adult gamers, who tend to play games that are more complex than Clue or Sorry. (The old standards are still profitable, if only because there is general sense of obligation that every suburban home should contain a copy of Monopoly.) But no game is without a set of values that its creators set out to impart, even if those values are implicit and almost invisible to the players—or the developers themselves.
In moments of social change, the real purpose of board games becomes overwhelmingly, often hilariously, clear. Just ask the inventors of Mystery Date, the 1965 game about trying to avoid dating a nerd (“dud”) in favor of an attractive athlete. Or What Shall I Be?, the 1966 game where young girls determined their future career, choosing from options that included “charm school,” “nursing school,” and “ballet school.” Or Drug Attack, a 1971 game billed as a “springboard to family communication” that revolved around investigating whether or not any teens in the family were on the dope. These are not games of chance.
In a 1993 piece published in the New York Times Sunday Styles section, writer Rick Marin attempted to give readers the lay of the land for the post–Class Struggle era of games. His piece included mention of a short-lived game called Street Life: The Homeless Survival Game, where players engage in dumpster diving and other similarly disreputable activities just to stay alive. John Ventimiglia, the game’s inventor, reportedly came up with the concept while he was himself homeless, and employed homeless people to make the first 1,000 copies of the game. Marin also described games that struggled against the boundaries of the format altogether, like The Transformation Game, which crowned no winner but provided a scaffold for players to work through a life issue in their own “personal game.” (One game Marin missed: 1992’s Harassment, an Apples to Apples–style game where players were asked to gauge whether a particular semi-fictional case was or was not “harassment.”)
Marin took these board games somewhat seriously, but ultimately concluded: “Trend-pandering games are by nature ephemeral.” His most powerful example was a game created in 1989, again based on Monopoly but with a much smaller board, in which players had to roll and move to win auctions for luxury properties, ruthlessly fire their friends to knock them out of the running, and, if they were lucky, become the loneliest, wealthiest person at the top of a glitzy heap. Its name? Trump: The Game.
Most games shown here are courtesy the collection of David Galt.