Day 6

Spies, propaganda ... Monopoly? Inside the subversive history of board games

Playing board games doesn't feel like much of a revolutionary act, but over the decades, they've played a role in everything from the attack on Pearl Harbour to the sexual revolution.
(Michelle McMillian/Thomas Dunne Books; F. Roy Kemp / Stringer; Hasbro, Inc.; U.S. Navy / Handout)

These days, playing Monopoly or Clue hardly feels like a revolutionary act. But board games haven't always been so wholesome.

According to Tristan Donovan, many of the world's most popular board games were once seen as downright subversive.

Donovan is the author of the new book It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan.

As he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, that history contains plenty of controversy.


Milton Bradley and the puritanical board game

More than 275 million Monopoly boards have been sold since the game officially arrived on the scene some 80 years ago. But earlier versions pre-dated the game as we know it today. (Hasbro Canada)
 Early board games were very religious in tone, Donovan says.

One of the first board games published in North America was a puritanical game called Mansion of Happiness — a somewhat misleading title.

"You'd go round the board and you would land on squares like, you know, you're the Sabbath breaker," Donovan explains.

"And the rules would then say, 'Right, you must go back to the whipping post and be whipped.' So, you know, don't even think of happiness while playing this game."

But over time, board game manufacturers like George Parker of Parker Brothers started to push back against that puritanical streak with games that focused less on religion and more on entertainment.


Getting rid of Reverend Green: the story of Clue

As board games moved away from religion in the 20th century, one British game-maker found inspiration in the golden age of detective fiction.

Anthony Pratt, a factory worker in Birmingham, developed the game we know today as Clue during the Second World War, building on the popularity of crime novelists like Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace.

The classic Parker Brothers board game "Clue." (Parker Brothers / Hasbro Inc.)

But while the game was well-received in the U.K., its British publisher hit a snag when it approached Parker Brothers about selling Clue in the U.S.

The Parker Brothers were appalled by the game's premise. They could not fathom the idea of marketing a game about murder.

According to Donovan, it took six months to convince the company that the game could be a success in the U.S.

Even then, there were compromises to be made.

All references to murder were removed from the rules and replaced with the more elusive phrase "the act." Certain characters were also considerably altered.

Parker Brothers thought, 'There's no way we could have a member of the clergy as a murderer. We've got to change him to 'Mr. Green.'- Tristan Donovan

"In the U.K., we have a character called 'Reverend Green,'" Donovan says. "[But] Parker Brothers thought, 'There's no way we could have a member of the clergy as a murderer. We've got to change him to 'Mr. Green.'"

"So, you know, it got watered down… some of the things that were seen as acceptable in the U.K. just didn't translate," Donovan says.

Clue went on to become one of the world's best-selling board games. By 1975, around 2 million copies were being sold globally each year.


'Sex in a Box': Twister's big break

A group of friends playing a game of 'Twister' in 1966. (F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
When Twister hit the market in 1965, most retailers didn't dare to stock their shelves with it. The birth control pill and the sexual revolution had yet to take hold, and the game was seen as scandalous.

"There were accusations [of] 'this is sex in a box,'" Donovan says. "It's like, 'people shouldn't be clambering around on the floor together, getting into awkward, compromising positions.'"

The backlash from retailers was so fierce that Milton Bradley decided to pull the game out of production.

But then the game caught a lucky break.

There were accusations [of] 'this is sex in a box.'- Tristan Donovan

"They had arranged for it to appear on The Tonight Show [Starring] Johnny Carson … who had guest Eva Gabor on the show," Donovan says.

"Eva Gabor and Johnny Carson ended up playing Twister on the floor, and [it was] quite provocative and captured, obviously, a lot of adults' attention."

"So basically, suddenly demand for Twister soared through the roof. And they put it back into production, and it's still with us today."

A boy and girl play the game Twister as other young people watch, circa 1968. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Pearl Harbour and prisoners of war

According to Donovan, board games didn't just influence the moral fabric of America; they also played a role in the outcome of the Second World War.

Strategy games, which eventually spawned board games like Risk and Axis and Allies, were used extensively by Allied and German forces during the war.

The board game played a very crucial role in helping swing opinion within the Japanese military to going ahead with the Pearl Harbour attack.- Tristan Donovan

And in the lead-up to the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese army used strategy games to test the plausibility of its plan.

"It was seen within the Japanese military as this slightly crazy plan dreamt up by some vice-admiral who was a bit 'out there,'" Donovan explains. "So they decided, 'We're gonna test this on the board game.'"

The Japanese tested their military attack several times on the board. Eventually, they found a military strategy that seemed to work.

"This was a bit of a tipping point. ... The board game played a very crucial role in helping swing opinion within the Japanese military to going ahead with the Pearl Harbour attack, which of course brought the U.S. into World War Two and changed the course of history."

The USS Shaw exploding during the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at their base in Pearl Harbour on the island of Oahu, Hawaii in 1941. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Monopoly also took on a subversive role during the Second World War. According to Donovan, the British intelligence service used Monopoly boards to smuggle escape kits to prisoners of war in German camps.

"They would take the paper [overlay] off [the game board], and carve little indents inside the cardboard where they would place very small compasses, silk maps, files; other sort of equipment to help people escape."

"Then they would put the paper back over it so it was concealed, and they would slip German money into the Monopoly money."

"And then they would package this up under fake charities, and send them over to the prisoner of war camps as sort of aid parcels. And quite a lot of them got through."

"The prisoners would get all the equipment out, burn the board so there was no trace of it. And it did help people escape from places like Colditz Castle."

According to Tristan Donovan, Monopoly boards were used as makeshift escape kits by the British intelligence service during World War 2.

Even before the war, Monopoly was subversive, Donovan says. Originally, it was an anti-capitalist game called The Landlord's Game, designed to show the pitfalls of capitalism by leaving most players bankrupt while one person held all the money.

Today that message is lost on most players.

"We see it like, 'I want to be the winner; I want to be the one leaving everyone out on the streets."

But Donovan doesn't see many modern board games that seek to overthrow the status quo.

"Board games tend to, these days, be more about cooperation between players," he says.

To hear Tristan Donovan on how board games helped shape the modern world, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.