Epic Gumdrop Ep 27: Electric Cardboard
This episode of Epic Gumdrop we look at the birth and life of electrified/electronic boardgames.
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(Length: approx 24min)
Here’s our notes for the show:
While many people might think of Operation as the original electric board game, it is not. I had originally intended to do a whole episode on Operation, but think that it fits in nicely with a larger history of electric cardboard. So let’s go back to what BoardGameGeek lists as the first game in their Electric category.
1910 brought us the aptly titled: ELECTRA, from Sala Games, Germany. The BGG description states: “A very early battery powered electric quiz game. Touch one contact to a question and when you holdthe other contact to the correct answer a bulb lights up. Contains 6 printed Q&A sheets, Inventors & Discoverers, History, The Great War, General Knowledge, Ancient History, Geography, and another hand written Countries and their Products. Instructions are printed inside the lid.” This game was also translated for an English speaking audience, which I’m guessing is what some 1920 year references are for.
1910 also brought us the similarly named Electro. What appears to be a later version, Multi Electro, is described at BGG as “a game where the players test their knowledge. The game board consists of 48 points where two and two points are connected with electric leads under the game board. On the left half of the board there are questions and on the right side answers. The two plug are connected to each end of the battery and when the plugs are placed on the two points that are connected (i.e. the correct answer to the question) the lamp will shine to indicate this.”
While we will continue to see a whole bunch of quiz style games in the decades the follow, the next big innovation seems to happen for sports games.
The Electric Game Company: Electric Baseball
The folks over at the site Baseball Games, note that “An application for a U.S. patent was filed in December 1927 by James M. Prentice of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Prentice was 17 years old. Electric baseball was battery powered and had electric lights for each of the bases. The patent, for “Electric Baseball,” was granted less than a year later, and Jim Prentice Electric Baseball, under a variety of titles and in a variety of forms, would go on to a production run of more than thirty years.”
Of course Electric Baseball was a hit, which led to the Electric Game Company producing Electric Basketball, Electric Football and Electric Hockey, and Electric Whiz Raceway Game. Bruce Whitehill over at The Big Game Hunter notes that “The Electric Game Company, in its heyday in the 1940s, employed 150 people and earned about $1.5 million each year.”
Now sports weren’t the only area where electric games happened. Jim Prentice had a string of other titles, mostly through the 1940s and 50s, including:
Electric Hot Potato
Hole in the Head
Electric Put ‘n’ Take
Electric Farm Round-up
Electric Fire Fighters
Electric Flash Quiz
Comin’ Round the Mountain
as well as the educational Master Electric Build-It Set
Try and search for Jim Prentice on ebay if you want to see all kinds of variations on these.
Tudor Games: Electric Football
But Jim Prentice wasn’t the only one wanting to bring us electric sports games. In 1948 Norman Anders Sas became president of Tudor Metal Products Corporation, later renamed Tudor Games for good reason – in 1949 they would bring us Electric Football. Norman Anders Sas’ 2012 obituary in the Washington Post had a great description of the game and its success:
The electric motor caused up and down oscillations in the metal sheet, which was painted green with gridiron stripes to resemble a football field. The vibrations caused plastic figures to bump and push one another in a miniature evocation of gridiron play that combined an appetite for competition, a fascination with football and an American inclination toward tinkering.
The game was inspired in part by a horse racing game — also produced by Mr. Sas’s family-owned company — that used a vibrating surface to make pieces move.
The tabletop football game, invented in 1948, became even more popular after it was licensed by the National Football League in 1967. “For the first 10 years, we generated more money for NFL properties than anyone else,” Mr. Sas once said.
The game was also a major hit in the toy world at large. About 40 million were said to have been sold. People “grew up with the game imprinted on their psyches,” said Jerry McGhee, a member of the board of directors of the Miniature Football Coaches Association.
While there are many other electrified games, many of them falling into the Quiz or Sports camps, I’m going to jump ahead a little and get to a big one…
I think when a lot of non-BoardGameGeek type people think of electrified board games the buzzer and light game Operation quickly comes to mind. Invented by a 20 year old industrial design student, John Spinello, in 1964, and subsequently scooped up for a song by Milton Bradley for $500 and the promise of a job offer. John says he needed the money to pay for tuition and thought, hey, I’ll have a job at a major toy company. The job never manifested. John estimates that Operation has a franchise value of $40 million.
The bitter irony is that the reason this information is out there is that in 2014 John needed surgery and couldn’t afford it. Game lovers and designers came together to try and crowdfund his surgery and John was also going to auction off his original game prototype. But hey, Hasbro was big enough to step in and, for an undisclosed amount, purchase the original Operation prototype that John was going to auction off anyway in order to pay his medical bills. However, I bet he’s still waiting to hear about that job.
Electronic Board Games: The TMS1000
The big game changer came in around 1974 – not just with the explosion of the pen and paper version of Dungeons & Dragons, but with cheap microcontrollers. The Texas Instruments TMS1000 fit the bill and after this you see a whole pile of games used an electronic component to accent gameplay or provide the user interface. Some popular examples are Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game (1980) by Mattel or Dark Tower (1981) by Milton Bradley. Or even The Omega Virus which came out in 1992. There are so many of these.
The microcontroller added not only buzzers and lights but now we could have voices and interactivity. One of the big beneficiaries of all this is, unsurprisingly, sports games, which really seems to be the main success story when one looks at electric cardboard. Sports are an odd thing to emulate in boardgame form, and a few technological innovations helped bridge the gap.
Although there are still games using electric/electronic components, or simply providing soundtracks to play on your digital devices, some have outsourced some their functions or user interface to app form, like XCOM: The Board Game. This seems to be where the future is, although we are really only on the edge of this next chapter in the story of electric cardboard. I think apps and boardgames is a whole other topic for entire episode.
There are so many games we didn’t talk about. Check out the great list Patrick Stevens made over at BoardGameGeek titled “Batteries not Included! The definitive list of Electrically Powered Games”