Origins of Ameritrash: Milton Bradley and 1970’s Part I

It’s time for some more history of board games from everyone’s favorite amateur historian–yours truly. We discussed the origins of Ameritrash games about a month ago. Specifically, we looked at Milton Bradley’s American Heritage games. It is my contention that the genre of Ameritrash games was born in that game series. The American Heritage Command Decision game line ended in the 1970’s. But Milton Bradley continued to produce games that continued in that ilk. Here we will look at the games of the 70’s that Milton Bradley published which would bridge the gap between the American Heritage Games of the 1960’s and the Gamemaster Series of the 1980’s.


Ameritrash games evolved during the 70’s

70's Disco ball history of board gaming
It’s the 70’s, baby!

The biggest design considerations for Ameritrash games is theme or narrative (hence the “Ameri-” in Ameritrash). The secondary consideration is plastic components (hence the “trash” in Ameritrash). All the games in the American Heritage game series had a strong theme with plastic components. But the themes were all centered around American history.

This changed during the 1970’s. Milton Bradley released several Ameritrash style games. But the themes much more varied. Let’s see what different themes Milton Bradley tackled.


Military Ameritrash

Board game history Chopper Strike
Chopper Strike’s 3D Board

Milton Bradley left the magazine American Heritage and its historical based games. But Milton Bradley didn’t stop making military based Ameritrash. There were several immersive games from the publisher in the 1970’s. The first was 1973’s Sub Search.

Sub Search (1973)
Sub Search from Milton Bradley 1973 History Board Gaming
Sub Search from Milton Bradley

Sub Search is a classic example of Ameritrash. It’s a 3D board with four board levels. The subs hunt on the lower three levels whilst the destroyers drop depth charges from the surface. Players take turns calling out either torpedo shots or pinging their opponent’s locations. The game is like a juiced up version of Battleship.

Board game history Sub Search
Four levels of submarine prowling

This game fits into the definition of “Ameritrash” because it has awesome plastic pieces plus the game board is all chrome. These help sell the narrative and drama of being a white knuckled sub captain prowling for his prey.

Tank Battle (1975)
Milton Bradley's Tank Battle (1975)
Milton Bradley’s Tank Battle (1975)

Milton Bradley released a series of games dealing with land, air and sea battle. The line was so popular that it was re-released in 2003 as the Mission Command family.  The original game in that later series can be seen here: 1975’s Tank Battle.

American tanks stand ready to fire
American tanks stand ready to fire

Each player is a tank battalion commander. Tank Battle is a cross between Stratego and Battleship. Players move their tanks but also must predict which locations their opponent is bombarding. If you successful bombard where your opponent moved to, his tank is destroyed. If not, his tank can fire at a target it is adjacent too.

Making improvements to Stratego or Battleship may not seem like a lofty goal. The importance of Tank Battle is the toy factor. Gamers could play Tank Battle and get a more immersive experience than they could by playing Stratego or Battleship which are largely abstract games.

Chopper Strike (1976)
Milton Bradley's Chopper Strike
Milton Bradley’s Chopper Strike

Milton Bradley loved to make multi level game boards. They adapted checkers to a multi level board and added cool plastic helicopters and jeeps. Players attempt to jump their opponents jeeps and choppers before getting their own forces jumped. What Chopper Strike lacked in depth it made up for in toy factor. Kids of the 70’s were primed for 1981’s Axis and Allies after playing Chopper Strike.

Carrier Strike! (1977)
Carrier Strike (1977) history board games
Carrier Strike (1977)

Milton Bradley liked 1977’s Carrier Strike! so much they couldn’t resist adding an exclamation point to the title. And they couldn’t resist republishing it in 2003 under the Mission Command series.

The yellow squadron closes in on the red CV
The yellow squadron closes in on the red CV

Each player controls two aircraft carriers and two squadrons of planes. Players launch their fighters and torpedoes to sink the enemy carriers. Players must maneuver their fighters and their ships so they can get the betters shots on their opponent.

The game offers more than just strategy, though. The game comes with four large plastic aircraft carriers and 16 plastic fighters. Milton Bradley could have made the exact same game with cardboard chits and lots of spreadsheets, a la Avalon Hill. But Milton Bradley went the way of Ameritrash, not wargames.


 Horror & Science Fiction

Board game history Voice of the Mummy
Milton Bradley’s Voice of the Mummy (1971)

Milton Bradley expanded into non-military themed games too. These games have a huge toy factor in their components along with innovative ways to sell their theme. The first game in this list is Voice of the Mummy.

Voice of the Mummy (1971)

Long time followers of this blog know that 1971’s Voice of the Mummy is one of my grail games. Justifying $200+ for it is has been difficult. Why would this game make a grail list? Or command high triple digit prices to this day? Because it’s a classic Ameritrash.

The sarcophagus game board
The sarcophagus game board

Voice of the Mummy creates the theme of being a tomb raider by having a plastic sarcophagus game board adorned with Egyptian like icons  along the side. Players attempt to loot the gems from the tomb before the mummy awakes.

Voice of the Mummy really lives up to its name when players trigger the hidden record player beneath the sarcophagus. Before the advent of the modern phone or computer, Voice of the Mummy would play random tracks to evoke the theme of horror and suspense. Milton Bradley capitalized on this again a year later with Seance.

Séance (1972)
History board games Seance 1972
Seance (1972)

Séance somehow flew under the collective radar of the religious Right. For ages 7 and up, Séance allows players to have a ghostly summoning of one of their deceased relatives. This game also has a hidden record player. Random tracks are played that dictate which relative (player) is betrothed which piece of wealth. The wealthiest relative wins.

Bermuda Triangle (1976)
Bermuda Triangle (1976)
Bermuda Triangle (1976)

There was a considerable revival in Bermuda Triangle lore in the 1970’s. This was due to the popularity of Charles Berlitz’s conspiracy filled book Bermuda Triangle published in 1974. I’ll save a deep dive into the cause and effects of popular culture and board games for a different blog post. Here we will only look at how the theme of horror and suspense was captured in a board game–and how only an Ameritrash game could do it justice in the 1970’s.

A sinster cloud is closing in on a ship
A sinister cloud is closing in on a ship

Milton Bradley made a pick up and deliver game in 1976. Wait! Isn’t that a de facto Euro game? Well, yes. But when you make the pieces out of plastic and you include a sinister cloud that literally hovers over the Atlantic, the game moves quickly from Euro to Ameritrash.

Players seek to deliver their goods to different ports. It’s a race to $350K. But players have to contend with their opponents and a magnetic storm. The magnetic storm can pick up your ships which have also are magnetic. If your ship gets sucked up by the cloud, it’s removed from play, never to be heard from again!

The cloud moves in a random direction. This adds to the suspense and drama. The plastic pieces help sell the theme too. I have to admit that pick up and delivery games would be much more exciting if there was a magnetic storm lurking in the middle of the ocean.


To be concluded

I thought I could cover this topic in a single blog post. I’m already over 1,000 words and still have several more genres to cover. Yes, Milton Bradley was a prodigious publisher in the 1970’s. They published economic Ameritrash games along with suspense and intrigue. We will look at these and other games that bridge the gap from the American Heritage game line to the Gamemaster line in our next post.

Until then, follow us here…


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