‘Disaster/Désastre’ Board Game, 1979

Exhibit / March 28, 2017

Object NameDisaster/Désastre
Maker and Year: Parker Brothers, 1979
Object Type: Board Game
Image Source: Board Game Geek/eBay
Description: (Michael Grasso and Rob MacDougall)

GRASSO: Disaster, created by American board game titan Parker Brothers for the Canadian market, transposes nearly every cinematic disaster scenario of the 1970s—the Decade of the Disaster Movie—onto the game board. Disaster films usually consisted of a huge ensemble cast, uniting current Hollywood stars with has-beens and stars of yesteryear, and they “explored” a common theme: the implacable destructiveness of nature and the inability of human structures to protect against it. Airport (1970) was arguably the first of these films, and would be followed by The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1975) and a series of increasingly threadbare sequels to Airport right through The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979).

As 1970s outlaw cinema chipped away at the major studios’ share of the movie-going public, disaster flicks unconsciously re-enacted the decay of “old” Hollywood’s influence, as well as the perceived loss of American influence and stature in the face of Watergate, economic malaise, and other bleak trends like airliner hijackings.

MACDOUGALL: I didn’t know any of this when I was ten years old. I had not seen Airport or even Airplane! (1980), and I would not have known Burt Lancaster from Ernest Borgnine. But I did have Disaster (or Désastre), and I loved it. As pop culture themed board games went, it got far more play time in our house than either Happy Days (aka “Fonzie’s Real Cool Game”) or Charlie Brown’s All-Stars (a stripped down Strat-O-Matic Baseball that was nevertheless beyond me).

Disaster was simple but intense: you just marched your token around the board like a lemming, from doomed airplane to towering inferno to doomed ocean liner to active fault line. If only the board were bigger, perhaps there could also have been a doomed super-train, or killer bees. Whenever a disaster hit, everybody in the danger zone had to scramble frantically for survival in a kind of sudden death mini-game. Then it was back to the marching. I particularly remember the way you’d slide back down the tilting deck of the ocean liner as you rushed for the lifeboats (or, somewhat less plausibly, for the parachutes at the back of the crashing plane). When I saw James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) two decades later I immediately flashed back to that little green cardboard ship.

The physical components of the game were definitely part of its appeal: the ship and the plane, the aggressively bilingual board (it’s great fun to shout “INCENDIE! INCENDIE!” or “TREMBLEMENT DE TERRE!” as your sisters plummet to their doom), and especially the bespoke tokens, which were Muppet-esque hunchbacks with bowl haircuts and googly eyes. The game offered no backstory on these guys and zero explanation as to why they marched so mechanically from disaster to désastre, grinning the whole time. I just assumed that was what adult life was going to be like.

GRASSO: I’d like to take a closer look at the memorable graphic design of the game, especially that wildly-tinted game board. The color palette and even the graphic elements are downright early Peter Max-ian. Whether the design decisions by Parker Brothers were au courant enough for the end of the 1970s is debatable, but it’s still a striking example of mass-produced post-pop art. The jagged, electrified typeface of the game’s title is called Shatter. It was developed in 1973 and frequently seen on the cases of VHS horror movies in the 1980s (as well as on the cover of AC/DC’s 1978 album Powerage). The relatively simple drawings of potential disasters on the game cards complement the busy-ness of the game board nicely, and they immediately reminded this American of the hazard cards in the bilingual car-racing game Mille Bornes (1954).

2 thoughts on “‘Disaster/Désastre’ Board Game, 1979

  1. Pingback: ‘Your Eyes Can Deceive You’: How the Boldness of Star Trek Became the Blind Faith of Star Wars

  2. Pingback: “God Likes Winners”: Catharsis and Community in 1970s Disaster Movies

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