Encroaching Technology in Board Games: a History

We’ve had some spirited discussions at The Gaming Annex as of late. We’ve been discussing games that have apps like the new Descent 2.0 app and XCOM. There is a concern about this encroaching technology in our hobby. We’ve decided to turn our discussions into a three part blog series. We will look at how technology has historically shaped board games, then we will look at where the technology is now and finally look at where the technology seems to be headed. This post will look at the past: technology that was added to games leading up to the 1990’s.


Before there were computers: Buzzers

Tudor's Electric Football game
Tudor’s Electric Football game

The use of buzzers was probably the earliest example of “high technology” to be used in board games. Several games have implemented buzzers. The first was in the 1940’s.

Tudor’s Electric Football game is the earliest example I could find. The game comes with an electric buzzer that vibrates the sheet metal game board. This is supposed to cause the miniature football players to move in a controlled football formation.

It fails.

The football players move like epileptics. But what did you expect from the 1940’s?

Hasbro's Operation
Hasbro’s Operation

The most familiar example of a board game with a buzzer is probably Hasbro’s Operation game (1965). Players take turns with a pair of electrodes trying to remove a Charley horse or butterflies in the stomach. If your electrode touches the metal contact on the game board, the buzzer goes off, typically causing the player to have a heart attack from its sudden alarm.

Radar Search
Radar Search

The most interesting example of a buzzer in a board game would have to be Ideal’s 1969 release: Radar Search. In this asymmetrical naval simulation, one player secretly moves his ships from his hideout to the other side of the board and back to his hideout. The other player scans the ocean in his helicopter, trying to find the hidden ships. While this game sounds amazing, the electronics technology was not strong enough to accomplish the design intent of this game. Players could often miss where the ships were due to poor components.


Before there were computers: Springs & Gears

Pie Face board game
Pie Face board game

The novelty of buzzers mostly wore out in the 1960’s, save for Operation which is still a popular children’s game. The late 60’s and early 70’s saw the addition of gears and springs to the component bill of materials in board games.

Slinky: an industrial spring becomes a toy
Slinky: an industrial spring becomes a toy

Hasbro’s Pie Face comes to mind. Players crank on the handle, awaiting the inevitable dousing. This game has a spring loaded mechanism similar to a Jack-in-the-box. In fact, Pie Face could easily be called “Jack-in-the-box the Board

Game”. While a spring loaded handle might not be impressive technology to millennials, it still constitutes “encroaching technology”. Prior to the advent of modern wire-forming, springs could not be turned into toys or games.

Milton Bradley's Town Dump
Milton Bradley’s Town Dump

In the case of 1977’s Town Dump, the main game token is a spring loaded bulldozer. Players pull back on the bulldozer and let it roll on the board in an attempt to push the garbage onto their opponent’s landfill. This game required the advent of the pull back car toy. On a side note, the adorable 5 year old girl on this game box looks like she’s having a bit too much fun for  game that teaches children about the financial rewards of ignoring environmental stewardship.

Milton Bradley's Down Fall
Milton Bradley’s Down Fall

Before 2012’s Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar there was 1970’s Down Fall. Both use an sophisticated gear system to drive the game. Players spin the gears in an attempt to collect all of their tokens. But the gears on your side differ from your opponent’s so you cannot be sure if you are helping or hurting your cause.



Before there were computers: Record Players

Voice of the Mummy from Milton Bradley
Voice of the Mummy from Milton Bradley

Board gamers can be a demanding bunch. Before the advent of computers and modern circuitry, game publishers had to get creative. And the product of that creativity was to add record players to board games.

The first example of this would be Milton Bradley’s Voice of the Mummy (1971). Players race around a sarcophagus, collecting gems. The record players sounds with an ominous voice which gives instructions affecting game play. When the midpoint is reached, the record is flipped over and players try to escape.

Milton Bradley's Séance
Milton Bradley’s Séance

Milton Bradley followed up with a sequel in 1972’s Seance. Players invoke the spirit of their dead relative in order to affect how much wealth they will be bequeathed. Fun children’s theme!

Seance was not as widely popular as Voice of the Mummy because it feels much less  adventurous. But you have to hand it to Milton Bradley: their game ideas and their game technology was way ahead of its time.

Mattel's Talking Football Game
Mattel’s Talking Football Game

One of the more popular Mattel games that also fits into this category is 1971’s Talking Football. The game comes with 13 records. Each little record has several tracks. Players pop a record into the record player, push the lever and listen to the announcer describe what happens. “The kick is away. It’s good!”


Games with computers

Adding record players to games made games much more immersive than previous games. This would portend the coming technology of today’s app driven games. But before the advent of the “app”, game publishers used simple computers to get the job done. All the major publishers of the 1980’s took a crack at adding computers to their games.

Game board for D&D Dragon Labyrinth
Game board for D&D Dragon Labyrinth

Mattel collaborated with the unlikely TSR to come out with 1980’s Dungeons & Dragons Computer Game. TSR supplied the theme; Mattel supplied the electronic toys division. Players navigate a treacherous path in a dragon’s labyrinth. Players can detect walls by listening to the beeps. The game

comes with magnificent pewter figures and a 3D board. Precipitating the Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon, this game should arouse the nostalgia of kids from this era. The game play leaves a bit to be desired. It’s rating on BGG is a mere 5.9–typical of Mattel’s input into our hobby.


Parker Brother's Lost Treasure
Parker Brother’s Lost Treasure

Parker Brothers took a stab at this genre in 1982’s Lost Treasure. Players ping for treasure with the diver control computer. Using this information, players can narrow down where to dive. Then

Electronic Driver Control Center for Lost Treasure
Electronic Driver Control Center for Lost Treasure

players race to get the lion’s share of it. Watch out! These waters are the hunting grounds of pirates! The cooperative and yet competitive aspect of this game was also ahead of its time. Players work together to narrow down where the treasure is but only one can win! This game still commands a respectable 6.2 game rating on BGG.

Dark Tower from Milton Bradley
Dark Tower from Milton Bradley

The most famous game of this genre has to be Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower. The game comes with a large, black three dimensional tower (hence, Dark Tower) that has a computer chip in it. This computer regulates all aspects of the game. Players input their moves into the computer. The computer assigns damage, let’s the player know what happens on the board, etc.

Published in 1981, Milton Bradley really put forth a strong effort for this game. The computer in Dark Tower was a marvel of game design. Milton Bradley was undoubtedly trying to

Milton Bradley's Dark Tower is a Holy Grail game in Muskegon
Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower

stymie the effects Atari was having on the game industry. In addition to a robust computer, Dark Tower also sported a robust marketing campaign. Milton Bradley hired none other than Orson Welles to do the TV spots for this game.



Games that assume you own consumer electronics: VCR & DVDs

And now we get to the crux of the material. The final portion of this history blog post will deal with VCR and DVD games. These games show the encroachment of technology in board games. The encroachment in this case assumes you own consumer electronics. If you didn’t own a VCR, you couldn’t play the game. This is the direction the app driven games are headed. But the focus of this blog is history so let’s take a look at the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Clue VCR Game
Clue VCR Game

Coming closely on the heels of the cult classic “Clue” movie, we have Clue the VCR game. Instead of popping the Clue movie into the VCR, families could use their VCR to play this game. The game comes with one VCR, 18 separate cases to solve, plenty of overacting from the acting troupe and sore thumbs from all the required rewinding.

Nightmare VHS Game
Nightmare VHS Game

While Clue may have been the earliest VCR game, Nightmare is probably the best received. Nightmare (later called Atmosfear) spawned ten sequels or spin offs.

All of these games are exercises in stress. Players are in a rush to take their turns because the dreaded Gatekeeper could appear at any time. If it’s your turn when he appears, you would have to endure some obstacle. The components in the Nightmare/Atmosfear line were generally decent plastic bits. But the overacting made the game a bit campy.

Mattel's Wayne's World VCR Game
Mattel’s Wayne’s World VCR Game

Turning Clue into a VCR game could add ambiance to your game sessions. And Nightmare used the VCR as a game clock, pressuring players with a time crunch. Both of these ideas have merits worthy of our hobby. But publishers realized that adding a videotape to a game could allow them to drive up the price. Take Mattel’s Wayne’s World VCR game. If ever there was a theme that didn’t need a board game, it would probably be Wayne’s World. Sticking a VHS into the box afforded Mattel the ability to raise the price.

Monopoly Tropical Tycoon
Monopoly Tropical Tycoon

DVD games are generally better than VCR games. DVD players can be the controller of random mechanics in a game that a VCR cannot be. An interesting example of this is Monopoly Tropical Tycoon DVD game.

Unlike most Monopoly dreck, Tropical Tycoon is won by the person with the most victory points. Tracks play on the DVD player to determine random events like Chance and Community Chest. The CGI cartoons splash across the screen to convey a tropical real estate feel.

Since DVD’s allow some random output, DVD games can be seen as the progenitors of the app driven games of today. Both require the ownership of some consumer electronic: either a DVD player or a tablet. The use of tablets or smart phones will be the topic we cover next.

-Chris, on behalf of the Muskegon Area Gamers














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