It's All a Game: The lively history of board games

by Greg Dixon / 04 March, 2019
Trump: The Game was extremely successful.

Trump: The Game was extremely successful. Photo/Supplied

RelatedArticlesModule - It's all a game Tristan Donovan book review

In his new book, Tristan Donovan shows how board-game inventors have long thought outside the box.

Scrabble players really will stop at nothing to win. In It’s All a Game, a short and breezy history of board games, British author Tristan Donovan reveals that someone, somewhere in New Zealand “regularly” sends lists of Māori words to Collins, Scrabble’s official “rest of the world” dictionary makers (there is another for North America).

Apparently, the sender isn’t hoping to have te reo included for cultural reasons. No, they want Māori words added to the Official Scrabble Words dictionary – presumably words the sender knows as a speaker or has memorised – because they’re hoping to “get an edge” in the game.

So far, they haven’t got one; Collins has declined to include any te reo. It’s an entertaining story, especially for New Zealanders, and one that underlines that if you want to win at Scrabble – or most other board games – you do need plenty of “māminga” (cunning), a Māori word worth a respectable 12 points, at least, on the Scrabble board, if only Māori words were allowed.

In its charting of board games from the ancient world to modern times, from chess to Monopoly to Trivial Pursuit and beyond, It’s All a Game is a happy miscellany of similarly amusing stories and gee-whiz yarns.

We are told, for example, that the English game Cluedo was almost not picked up in the US by board-games giant Parker Brothers because its founder, George S Parker, had long before made an iron rule “never to publish any game dealing with murder”.

In another case of almost missing out on a fortune, American mega-retailer Sears Roebuck nearly killed the game Twister at birth in the mid-60s by not stocking it for being “too risqué”. Twister was saved, Donovan claims, by The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson playing it live on TV with popular actor Eva Gabor, who happened to be wearing a low-cut dress.

Then there was the shocking news, to me at least, that not only was there a property-speculation game published in 1989 called “Trump: The Game” – based on Donald Trump’s book Trump: The Art of the Deal – but also the game was extremely successful. Donovan reports, in pseudo Trump-ese, “it did extraordinary numbers”. And still does; people are now asking as much as US$450 for it on eBay.

Donovan’s book isn’t all fun facts and Trump stories. There is no disguising that this a highly selective and largely once-over-lightly history, but he does make an earnest effort to look beyond the popular and the disposable to examine, for example, how table-based war games influenced real historical events, the paranoia of Cold War chess and the key role that the Japanese game Go has played in the development of artificial intelligence.

If the book has weaknesses, it is that it’s almost completely Western-centric, has a tendency in some chapters to digress to the point of padding and doesn’t really explain why some games succeed and others don’t.

Still, for players of risqué, childish, co-operative (the last European-inspired trend) or classical games, It’s All a Game is a lively enough history of life (and māminga) over the board.

IT’S ALL A GAME, by Tristan Donovan (Atlantic, $27.99)

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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