What would a rainy day at the cottage be like if you couldn’t break out the board games? How many warm family memories were made while huddled around a Monopoly board or hunched over a rack of Scrabble tiles? The best board games—the kinds that transcend the generational divide—seem like they’ve been around forever. But even the classics have their origin stories. Here’s a look back at the most defining moments in board game history.
A simple game where players try to move around the board faster than their opponents, Sorry! was trademarked on May 21, 1929, by William Henry Storey in England. British manufacturer Waddingtons initially sold it before Parker Brothers adopted it in North America. Most people who grew up playing Sorry! were never aware that it was based on the classic “cross and circle” Indian game Parcheesi.
Game creator Charles Darrow started making Monopoly in 1933, selling an early version in the U.S. But it wasn’t until 1935 that he officially staked his claim to a spot in board game history when he filed his patent and Parker Brothers scooped it up.
The now ubiquitous Monopoly is loosely based on The Landlord’s Game, designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1904. She created her version to teach people about the perils of renting property and the dangers of bankruptcy.
Darrow’s less gloomy version has made an immeasurable impact on the board game industry. Monopoly has sold over 200 million games worldwide and been published in 26 languages, and over 400 different versions of the game have been created in North America alone.
There is no doubt that Clue (originally titled “Murder!”) is a pretty sinister board game, but you may be surprised to learn that its origins are equally dark. Englishman Anthony E. Pratt invented the game to help pass the time while hiding out in bomb shelters during WWII. While Nazi bombs rained down, Pratt was figuring out all the different ways to do away with Mr. Body.
Pratt filed for a patent in 1947 and sold Clue to Waddington Games, but due to a shortage of materials during wartime, it wasn’t released until 1949. Parker Brothers brought the game to America, and it’s become one of the world’s most enduring party games. Clue has had a huge impact on all the mystery-themed and deduction games that followed in its footsteps.
Unemployed architect Alfred Mosher Butts conceived the world’s most famous word game in 1938 during the Great Depression. He figured the downtrodden masses could use a distraction and combined the three most popular types of games—board games, numbers games, and letter games—into what became Scrabble. He actually counted the letters on the pages of the New York Times to figure out how many of each to include in his game. Shockingly, it was not an instant success. Butts spent years futzing with the rules, struggled to come up with a catchy name (rejecting “Lexico” and “Criss-Cross Words”), and was turned down multiple times by the patent office.
It wasn’t until Butts partnered with fellow New Yorker James Brunot in 1948 that the game’s signature style took shape and the name was officially changed to Scrabble, which means, “to grope frantically.” The game took off in the mid-50s and revolutionized word games, selling 100 million copies in 29 languages.
A wealthy Canadian couple created the grandfather of all modern dice games while they were sailing on their yacht. “The Yacht Game” was in high demand among their high society friends, and on April 19, 1956, they took it to toymaker Edwin S. Lowe for help bringing it to market. The newly titled Yahtzee spread through word of mouth to become the global phenomenon it is today. Hasbro estimates that 100 million people play the game regularly.
1957: La Conquete du Monde (Risk)
La Conquete du Monde (Conquest of the World), the epic game that would become Risk, was created by Academy Award Winning film director Albert Lamorisse (The Red Balloon) and released by Miro games in France.
The original title is probably a more accurate description of the addictive game that would occupy hours and hours of strategy enthusiasts’ time. Risk was the first war game to make a commercial splash, and it has inspired other successful games such as Axis and Allies (1981) and Settlers of Katan (1995)
December 15, 1979: Trivial Pursuit was conceived
Time magazine called Trivial Pursuit “the biggest phenomenon in game history” and it’s not hard to see why. It spawned hundreds of copycat trivia games and was a bona fide sensation in 1980s America.
It’s hard to believe that two Canadian journalists, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, came up with the game in a few short hours on a slow winter’s day while they were playing a round of Scrabble. They decided to invent their own game on a whim and spawned the North American obsession with Trivia. In 1990 Trivial Pursuit won a Mensa Select Award for its contribution to intelligent gaming.
1985: Pictionary was published
After this artistic drawing game hit the market in the 80s, dinner parties would never be the same. Designed by Rob Angel and released by Parker Brothers, Pictionary is essentially charades with more paper waste. But it injected new life into the quiet tradition of board games. Players were transformed into excited, noisy rabble-rousers, screaming out answers and whooping with joy.
The game was translated into a short-lived TV series in the 1990s, but it was also the primary inspiration behind the successful 1980s game show Win, Lose, or Draw.