Ben Schwartz / July 24, 2018
Ultra-prolific board game designer Sid Sackson made his first game when he was six years old; he militarized Uncle Wiggily, a 1916 children’s game based on a series of children’s books. In it, players race from the titular rheumatic-yet-cheerful rabbit’s house to Dr. Possum’s office, for reasons not elaborated upon in any rulebook I can find. It’s cute, in a turn-of-the-century, butterscotchy kind of way—calming, quaint, woefully unbalanced, and entirely luck-based.
In his endlessly entertaining 1969 book A Gamut of Games, Sackson explains how he began expanding upon the anemic rules of Uncle Wiggily. He started by allowing for each player to control multiple pieces, and for those pieces to be capturable. A captured piece got sent back to the starting spot again. “Before long the captures became more important than the race, the pieces changed from rabbits to soldiers and cannons, and full-fledged wars were being waged under the noses of Dr. Possum, the Bad Pipsisewah, and the Skillery Scallery Alligator,” Sackson writes. Gamut purports to be a catalog of games that “will not be found in ‘Hoyles,’” and collects the rules for 38 different ones, some almost completely forgotten, others newly minted by Sackson and his friends (Sackson himself designed 22 of the entries). But it’s also an early survey of the modern board gaming hobby by one of the foundational figures in that hobby’s history.
Sid Sackson has been called the Shakespeare of board game design. That’s an apt comparison in both profiligacy—Sackson designed well over 100 games—and influence. But he also became the hobby’s first true historian. When he passed in 2002, he left behind a museum-sized collection of board games and board game-related miscellany: commercial products, prototypes, handmade boards, bespoke oddities, compendiums of ludic lore dating back to the 16th century—over 18,000 pieces in total. Imagine if Shakespeare had kept a library of Western drama dating back to the Greeks in his house in Stratford-upon-Avon.
3M edition box, 1968
Sackson considered board games works of art, but he also clearly interpreted them as contests, tests of skill wherein a player or players win through smart play. There is a winner in Uncle Wiggily, but a player’s moves are determined by a card drawn from a deck. You simply look at the card and obey it, but can’t interact with it in any other way. The winner is decided when the cards are shuffled and the order of play determined. Moving the pieces, reading the cute rhymes on the card—these are just ways to pass the time while Uncle Wiggily’s simple machinery resolves itself. It’s more of a way to spend time together than to engage in any sort of skill-based struggle. This lack of competition was, presumably, what Sackson tried to correct as a bored first grader.
Years after injecting bloodshed into Uncle Wiggily’s bucolic paradise, the grown-up Sackson expressed his vision of skill-based gaming in original titles hundreds of times over. Although his choice of theme varies from game to game, most of his significant titles are framed in economic terms, placing players in the role of businessmen, investors, venture capitalists, general money-grubbers, and merchants. In Acquire (1964), Sackson’s most famous game, players take on the role of speculators that develop, grow, and eventually massively profit from hotel chains. Business jargon becomes game vocabulary in the Acquire rulebook: mergers, payouts, majority and minority stockholders, and so on. Players create and expand hotel chains by placing tiles on a numbered grid. When one chain connects to another with a tile, the “stronger” chain, i.e. the one with more tiles, consumes the other in a merger. Players can purchase stock in any company, and receive payouts during mergers depending on how much stock they own. The game ends when one chain has 41 tiles (about 38% of the total game board) or when all the chains are “safe,” which means they contain at least 11 tiles each—monopoly or corporate stalemate. The winner is—who else?—the player with the most money at the end.
Real life capitalism, pathologically competitive, aspires to warfare. Its jargon is militaristic: hostile takeovers, corporate espionage, price wars, fighting brands, penetration pricing. Businessmen even read The Art of War or The Book of Five Rings with the aim of applying Japanese martial philosophy to their modern Western corporate environs. Acquire takes the war metaphor literally with its battlefield board and a merger mechanic that really is a battle, with the “stronger” corporation defeating the weaker. The tile grid in Acquire, which so much resembles a board game battlefield, actually originated as one: the design stemmed from another childhood Sacksonian mod for a game called Lotto. Sackson was enchanted by the grid on which Lotto players would place their tokens to cover up called numbers (Lotto is basically Bingo). “The grouping of these discs reminded me of the mapped growth of empires in the history books,” Sackson writes. “The next step was to divide the sheet into the countries of Europe and to create my own history.” As a lonely child, this grid helped Sackson liven up long, empty afternoons; as an adult, he saw it as a place for hotel chains to develop, rather than nations, lengthening their domains like countries pushing their borders through battle.
Knowingly or not, Sackson pioneered the “economic” or “financial” board game genre with Acquire, which took the competition of capitalist economy and translated it into a tabletop contest. By definition, an economic game can concern itself with money or finance in any general way, but the touchstone for these games is almost always capitalism and its attendant panoply of systems, schemes, protocols, and general martial vibe. The winner is the person with the most money. How could it be otherwise? Monopoly set up that standard win condition 27 years earlier.
After Acquire, economic games poured out in droves. At the end of Gamut, Sackson compiled what he considered a fairly comprehensive list of modern, adult board games. He cites 21 titles in the “Financial” category on that list. Today, BoardGameGeek, an obsessively detailed online compendium for all things tabletop, lists nearly 6,000 titles as economic games. That’s a pace of one new game every three days since the release of Acquire.
Sackson continued to mine the capitalist vein with releases like Bazaar (1967), Venture (1969), and I’m the Boss! (1994). It’s hard to say now what he really thought of the system outside of a theme for board games. Personally, I find it hard to believe that Sackson was truly “woke,” but his chummy prose in Gamut and infectious, pervasive enthusiasm for game design don’t gel with the fundamentally poisoned worldview that unrestrained capitalism requires. He may not have thought it was “wrong,” and he clearly made a chunk of money designing games about making money, but neither do I think he knelt at its altar. So why then did he return to it so often thematically? And, what does it mean to find Acquire, or any other economic game, fun?
In Gamut, Sackson repeatedly states his preference for skill-driven games. It could be that he found capitalism’s purported vision of the economy conducive to the kind of games he wanted to make. A theme so inherently competitive is an easy fit for a board game. More docile themes—like farming—are less intuitive fits, and players wouldn’t cotton to them until much later. Even fantasy wasn’t a common theme at the time. In Sackson’s heyday, the big board game themes were politics, war, and economic competition. Mainstream adults—who game companies were actively scouting out as potential demographics in the ’60s and ’70s—were more willing to chase money than slay dragons, evidently (although you could say the reverse is true of today’s board game hobbyists, where modern, heavy economic games are a niche within a niche). And really, what the capitalism board games bring us is a fantasy, with no more corollary to reality than a half-elf paladin. In real life, capitalism’s not a competition at all, but an intricate system of exploitation and death. But as a game, capitalism is a fair system for victory, a set of rules that everyone learns at the same time and can leverage in the same ways. Everyone starts with the same amount of money. It’s a level playing field.
Virtually all games turn us into capitalists, because they make us believe, (hopefully) just for the duration of the contest, in winners and losers. Whether you’re buying hotel chains, slaying dragons, settling Catan, or sustenance farming in 1600s Germany, the winner is the player who has the most: the most money, the most victory points, the most cards, whatever. Games without definitive “ends,” like Dungeons & Dragons, aren’t exempt; they want us to quantify our play across multiple currencies: gold to buy weapons, experience to buy skills, levels to buy power. Getting better is equated with having more—always. Even role-playing systems that prioritize storytelling, like World of Darkness, can’t break away from structures of acquisition. Games are competitions, and competitions are always articulated in states of more and less.
Sackson believed in board games as competition, but he also believed in them as art; and art is antithetical to capitalism. Acquire and the genre of economic games it presaged endure not for faithfully simulating real life economics (no matter how hard they try), but, like all good media, for their repurposing of life into art. Board games serve us capitalism the only way we should want it: as a no-holds-barred, hyper-competitive, razor-sharp little fantasy we can put back into a box once we’ve had our fun.
Ben Schwartz is a freelance writer working out of Ohio.