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History Matters: The story behind board games, and their connection to Delaware

The Delaware Historical Society recently offered community members an insider look at board games from their collection, and even gave them a chance to play some games.

The event attracted game enthusiasts like Donald Dutton - eager to learn about the history of board games -- and play a few of them.

Dutton was a tennis umpire for six years and said he’d play backgammon during breaks between umpiring shifts.


“When I was a tennis umpire lots of times you’d have 45 minutes of work and then 45 minutes of rest. Umpires like to blow off a little bit of steam because it’s a very tense situation being on the court," Dutton said. "So playing a game you can play but that you don’t have to finish when you go back out on the court – you can just leave the board sitting there and then come back in and finish on your next break.”

He appreciates the portability of the game, and says it’s easy to teach someone how to play it as well.

He learned on his grandfather’s backgammon board as a kid and adds it must have been easy for soldiers like his grandfather to play and carry around.

Jason Inswasty and his wife were also among those in attendance at the Historical Society’s first UnTapped History event, a series exploring less conventional items in the Historical Society's collection.

They are avid board game players, even members of a local board game meetup group. One of Inswasty’s favorite board games is a new one called 1860, on the subject of the election of 1860. He says in the game, you get to play one of the election candidates like Lincoln or Douglas.

But he had another recommendation.


"There’s a website called board game Geek. It’s been #1 on board game geek for as long as I can remember: it’s called Twilight Struggle. Someone actually sat down and made a game about the Cold War, the entire Cold War. It’s a very interesting game," Inswasty said.

He and his wife brought a card game called Dutch Blitz. Jason’s wife says they really got into board games when Jason was in law school and they were trying to save money.

For this month's History Matters, produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society, Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly sat down with the Historical Society’s Curator of Images Leigh Rifenburg to discuss her board game research, as well as Delaware’s part in the story of the origin of Monopoly.

Thanks to the Delaware Historical Society for providing the below descriptions about board games in their collection. As part of their UnTapped histiory series, they will explore the history of night life in July. 

The Game of the Goose, Circa 1790-1800 

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The Game of the Goose

The Game of the Goose is a very old “race” style game in which the first player to get to the #63 at the center of the board wins the game. This “board,” printed on very fine handkerchief linen, made it very portable and easy to play anywhere. The rules of the game are also conveniently printed at the center.

This game is played with dice and players advance based on the sum total of each throw.  Along the way, players have to deal with various traps & consequences and advance or retreat based on these. Two players cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Whenever a player lands on a space already occupied by another player, the second player “kicks out” the person already there, who then has to go back to the space the new player came from. If a player lands on a goose, that doubled the dice throw.  If this lands you on a space with another goose, advance again until you land on a space without one.  The #63 has to be reached by an exact dice throw. If you overshoot, then you have to move forward to 63 and then backwards again (this is doubled again if you happen to land on a goose!).  You can, however, use the number from one dice to reach 63, but it must be exact (eg. if you need to advance 2 spaces to get to 63 and you throw a 2 & 6, then you can use the 2 to advance & win).  Anything else results in the advance, then retreat rule.

This is an actual transcription of the rules printed in the middle of our game in case you were wondering:

1) This game is played with a pair of dice and any number of persons may play it.

2) Whatever the number it is that anyone throws that person must place his counter in the white space under the same number, for example should the cast be 6 & 3 he must place the counter at 9, if the cast be 6 & 5 he must place it at 11 and when he throws again he must add the number to that where his counter lyes and to remove accordingly.

3) He that throws 6 must pay a stake for his passage over the bridge and go to number [? - could be 12; the cloth of the board is damaged there].

4)  He that throws a goose must double his cast forward from his cast places.

5) He that throws 19 where the ale house is must pay a stake and drink till his turn comes to throw again.

6) He that throws 3 where the well is must stay there till anyone has thrown twice unless someone else throws the same and then he must return to that person's place.

7)  He that throws 42 where the maze is must pay a stake and return back to the number 29.

8) He that goeth to 52 where the prison is must pay one and stay there a prisoner till someone relieves him by throwing the same number.

9) He that seeth to 58 where death is must pay one and begin again.

10) He that is overtaken by another must return to his place that overtook him and both must pay a stake.

11) He that overthroweth the number 63 must return back and begin as at first _______.

12) He that throweth the just number 63 winneth the game.

The New Game of the American Revolution, 1844

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The New Game of the American Revolution

By the 1840s, board games were starting to become popular parlor standards in many middle class homes, and those with religious, moral, or educational value were especially favored for young people.  This historically-themed game can be played by any number of players, who advance along the board by spinning a top-like teetotum. Along the way, each circle contains historic high-lights from the American Revolution in addition to a number of picture squares that can either further advance players or impose penalties.  The first player to reach “the land of freedom and plenty” at the center wins the game.

The Checkered Game of Life, 1866

Milton Bradley introduced “The Checkered Game of Life” during the Civil War and it became immensely popular, selling over 40,000 copies in its first year. This game was originally designed for four players (but could be played by more or less). It was played using a six-sided spinner rather than dice because of the association with gambling. Like many nineteenth-century games, this one was highly didactic and focused on communicating solid virtues and moral values.

According to the rules, the spinner dictated the number of spaces, but players had a choice as to how to move in each direction in order to simulate the combination of luck and planning that happen in real life (thus, they could advance through choosing “good” behaviors, while “bad” ones prevented advancement). Red squares were neutral and white ones contained various good and bad scenarios and points. Beginning at “Infancy,” the objective was to reach a “Happy Old Age” and acquire 100 points in order to win. If a player got to “Happy Old Age” without 100 points, they kept playing (moving out from that square and subject to all its surrounding pitfalls). Pointing fingers and text indicated the direction a player should go if they landed on a named square. Landing on “Suicide” put a player out of the game. Landing in “Prison,” the player loses a turn and if a player lands on a space occupied by another player, the first player gets sent to prison.

Checkers/Backgammon board, Circa 1875

By the late nineteenth century, chromolithography and other advances in printing technology made board games cheaper to produce and more widely available to the general public.  This reversible board combines two traditional gaming favorites, checkers and backgammon, in one place.

Tactics – The Game of World Strategy, Copyright 1940

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media

Created by Michael Fielding & Vernon Calhoun, the idea behind this World War II era strategy game was to reproduce then-current wartime conditions and allow the players to come up with their own winning strategies.  The game is meant for two to four players and the objective is for the "belligerent" players to try to defeat each other by blockading the opponent’s seaports and for the "neutral" groups to trade with any /all of the other players in order to make money. Belligerents move across the board one square at a time and try to destroy the opponent’s pieces by jumping them (as in checkers). Neutrals try to move safely around the board to trade at different ports and can impose consequences on belligerents via diplomatic protest cards.  The game also includes chance cards to introduce an element of luck for players.  The game continues until one belligerent seaport is fully blockaded.

Monopoly, Copyright 1935

Now a well-loved favorite, this game began life around 1904 as “The Landlord’s Game” with the objective of high-lighting the evils of concentrating land in private monopolies. By 1933, things had taken a turn in the opposite direction and the wheeling and dealing game we know today began to take shape. Parker Brothers began selling “Monopoly” in 1935 and one year later began licensing the game for sale world-wide.  This monopoly game is a very early version dating to 1935.

Airplane Spotter playing cards, Circa 1942-45

This standard deck of World War II era "Airplane Spotter" playing cards originally belonged to Wilmington native, Robert Moosmann, who served in the 211th Field Artillery Division of the U.S. Army from 1942-1945. Each card is printed on one side with three different views of various World War II aircraft.  Each suit represents the aircraft of a different nation involved in the war: Diamonds (German), Spades (U.S.A), Hearts (Great Britain), and Clubs (Italian & Japanese).

Around the World in Eighty Days, Copyright 1957

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Around the World in 80 Days

Released around the same time as the popular 1956 film starring David Niven and Mexican actor, Mario Moreno (known professionally as “Cantinflas”), this travel board game allows players to recreate the travels of PhileasFogg and his faithful valet Passpartout as they struggle to win their bet with the London Reform Club that they can indeed travel around the world in eighty days.  The game is intended for two to six players, who move around a circular board with different destination stops.  Each player moves two independent pieces (one for Fogg; one for Passpartout) and a separate dice is rolled for each piece. The first player to get both pieces around the world and back to the London Reform Club wins the game.

Space Race card game, 1957

This Cold War era card game is designed for two players, although more can play with additional card decks.  The objective is to complete a round trip through the Solar System by drawing ten planet cards in their proper order. The game consists of two identical decks with cards numbered 1-10. These cards represent round trips of the Solar System, starting with "Take Off" (# 1) and ending with "Landing On Earth" (#10). Players take a deck and shuffle it, then place it before them. The first player draws a card. If it is the "Take Off" card, they place it in front of them and draw the next card. If the next card is a planet but not card 2, they discard it in a pile next to their original pile and draw again until they draw a card that says "Next player goes". The next player takes a turn, and draws until the same thing happens. Chance cards such as "lost on the moon," "Sputnik," and "Danger--Comets" can affect the course of the game. Players may draw cards from either pile, so there is a memory element, as you must remember which pile your next planetary target was in.

The Game of Life, Copyright 1960

“The Game of Life” is a later evolution of its 1860s counterpart “The Checkered Game of Life” and is also played with a spinner rather than dice.  In this version, anywhere from two to eight players move around a game board encountering various forks in the road that allow them to choose their own paths through the game.  Along the way, they also encounter various rewards and pitfalls.  Unlike its 1860s counterpart however, where the objective was to reach a happy old age, the objective in this version is to have the most money at the end of the game, which does not conclude until the players reach either The Poor Farm or Millionaire Acres.

Chug-a-Lug Drinking Game, Copyright 1974

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media

This raucous, hedonistic adult board game for two to six players really captures the carefree spirit of the 1960s and 70s. The board has an inner circle and outer circle with very contemporary themes ("the Happening, Street Prophets, Skid Row, Free Sprits") and there are also “Drunk Tank” and “Dry Out” corners.  Players move around the board and draw from two piles of cards: "Alcoholics Unanimous" and "Chug-a-Lug".  The Chug-a-Lug cards generally require you to do embarrassing things that get funnier as people get drunker. Penalties are imposed by requiring players to smoke or drink, and they can either draw from a list of suggestions or make up their own. The game is won by the first player to collect ten "Alcoholics Unanimous" cards. If a person gets too drunk to go on, they have to forfeit all their AU cards back to the pile.