It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan

By Asbury, Susan | American Journal of Play, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan


Asbury, Susan, American Journal of Play


It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan Tristan Donovan New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017. Introduction, references, acknowledgments, and index. 292 pp. $26.99 paper. ISBN: 9781250082725

In It's All a Game, Tristan Donovan explores the roots of board games' persistent popularity. Analyzing the influence of social, political, and economic influences on board game designers and manufacturers, Donovan maps the evolution of our modern-day relationship with board games across time, international boundaries, and cultures. He also examines the impact this leisure activity has had on popular psychology. Donovan concludes that games have "shaped us, explained us, and molded the world we live in" (p. 7).

In sixteen chapters, the author takes his readers on a journey that underscores the history and evolution of ancient games and their contemporary counterparts. Donovan traces the Indian and Persian influences on chess, highlighting the game's journey along the Silk Road trade routes and how the rules and game pieces evolved to reflect first Muslim and then European societies. He examines how games such as backgammon, Milton Bradley's The Checkered Game of Life, and Monopoly developed as games that required both strategy and luck. As with chess, Donovan emphasizes the ways in which the original versions of these games addressed the concerns of the day and then evolved over time.

Donovan devotes much of his book to twentieth-century games and illustrates the international influences of modern games and how changing mores affected games and game play. He discusses the development of popular games such as Clue and Scrabble, and he recounts the history of Marvin Glass, an eccentric and paranoid toy inventor whose infusion of plastics into board games (such as Operation and Mouse Trap), melded the board game industry with the toy industry. Donovan also highlights the importance of Twister and how it was designed as a party game but became a game that unintentionally "echoed Western society's sexual journey" and paved the way for other games with sexual themes (p. 178).

In addition to exploring game development, Donovan dedicates a portion of his book to connecting board game play to warfare, most notably Kriegsspiel, a type of war game invented by a Prussian army officer as a way to calculate military operation outcomes. These games mapped tactical maneuvers for global conflicts until computers, with their more accurate ability to determine artillery-firing rates, replaced plotting scenarios on a board. The concepts of re-creating, developing, and practicing military strategies inspired modern games, such as Risk, and launched Avalon Hill, a company that "helped foster a community of armchair generals" (p. 102). Building on this analysis of military themes, Donovan examines the roles of games in both geopolitical and ideological conflicts. He recounts how the British government used Monopoly in World War II, infusing the game with secret compartments containing money, compasses, and silk maps before sending them to British prisoners of war via military intelligence agencies disguised as relief organizations. Other games-particularly the venerable game of chess-came to reflect the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Donovan also traces the history of world chess tournaments and the Soviet Union's use of its domination of the game as a means to highlight the superiority of communist rationalism. …

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