Fun & Games: The board games people play and collect

By Doug Koztoski

Caressing the dice in his right hand, the player surveyed the board at a recent game night gathering. After a couple seconds he hoped for the best and unfurled the Chiclet white cubes with, in this case, the dungeon dark pips, the small black dots that give each face of a die some character. Tumbling onto the multicolored game surface the dice soon froze in place, a trio of dots topped one, a quintet on another.

Seconds later the player nodded softly, smiled and moved his top hat game piece to the corner square sporting the red arrow with the welcoming words: “Collect $200 salary as you pass GO.”
And so for the likely the multi-billionth time since its mass-market introduction in 1935, someone enjoyed another moment in the classic board game Monopoly.

Board Games Stand The Test of Time

Scrabble

A perennial favorite of generations of people playing board games, Scrabble. (Photo courtesy Doug Koztoski)

When it comes to board games of note, new or older versions of Monopoly, made for the U.S. and abroad, help keep the game in the upper tier of a pastime that enjoys decent interest, but once, for some, represented a much bigger slice of their social pie chart.

The popularity of vintage board games, defined as those made before 1990 for this article, sometimes relates to their 21st-century counterparts, many of which have a solid following, too.

“The success of a modern title can certainly garner more interest in earlier games of the same genre,” said Anton Bogdanov, a Senior Collectibles Specialist with Everything But the House (EBTH), an estate sales auction company. “Nearly every week we have board games for sale,” Bogdanov said. “And I see a growing interest in games from the 1960s to the 1980s.”

Pure nostalgia motivates some vintage game collectors. “Others may be driven by game design and historical context,” Bogdanov noted. “The market relies on a community of collectors. A growing presence of gaming forums and clubs on the internet can surely be credited.” BoardGameGeek.com, for instance, reportedly has over 1 million users, although much of them focus on newer titles.

Driver of Nostalgia

“There are quite a few people that collect vintage board games,” Eric Mortensen said. Mortensen, the co-creator of geekyhobbies.com, owns “a little over a thousand (games) myself,” a few hundred of the older variety. “Most people buying vintage board games are people trying to relive (childhood) memories.”

Board games go way back, as in thousands of years, when you include the likes of backgammon, checkers and chess, to name a trio with lasting power.

“We’ve had custom chess sets do really well,” EBTH’s Bogdanov said. “And a 19th century board with Parcheesi on one side and checkers on the other sold for $1,400” in 2015.

Early Incarnation

American-made board games gained initial traction in the 1840s with Mansion of Happiness, the first main title. Milton Bradley began making games in the 1860s, many geared toward Civil War soldiers, with Checkered Game of Life as his maiden venture. The 1880s brought the Parker Brothers to the table and with Milton Bradley ultimately represented the two companies “with the greatest impact on the American game industry,” according to Bruce Whitehill.

Whitehill has also enjoyed a lasting impact on the board game landscape. He owns an extensive collection of games –about 1,500 from before 1980; has written and spoken on the topic for decades; he even worked for Milton Bradley in the 1980s as a game inventor. Like a full box of Trivial Pursuit question and answer cards, Whitehill’s website, thebiggamehunter.com, represents a fun thicket of information.

Think Box, Inside and Out

The overall look and design of a game, demand and rarity can all play key roles in a vintage board game’s value. Of course, so does condition. When considering the price for buying or selling a game, condition can often mean the difference between Easy Money and Sorry! “Warping, tears, scrapes, scratches and holes in the box” topped Whitehill’s condition checklist of items to avoid, or at least minimize. Next, the game guru emphasized seeing how the game’s contents are holding up.

Mortensen agreed that box condition can be significant, but it is not his priority. “The most important thing for me is that the game has all the original pieces. If a game is missing pieces, it will drastically reduce its value.”

Bogdanov said average collectors need to keep any tape and/or price stickers on a box, since that removing them, especially poorly, “will permanently alter the graphics” and devalue the game. “I would encourage anyone with a rare board game to consult a trained paper conservationist before attempting to remove any of that (tape/stickers…) themselves.” Then again, some collectors like the look of the original price sticker on the box.

The original retail price for a first edition mass-marketed copy of Monopoly (1935) went for relative peanuts. A page from a 1937 Sears Christmas catalog shows “the game of the century” selling for $1.69 and the deluxe version for $2.89, so you know the 1935 Monopoly was at or about the same price soon after it rolled off the production line.

Keen on Condition

Bogdanov said surviving 1935 examples in decent shape sell for $200 to $300.

“But if it’s in really nice condition and all the pieces are there, maybe two or three times that.” Sometimes more. Those numbers might even make Milburn Pennybags proud. Milburn who? The mustachioed Monopoly mascot.

Whitehill said a game’s theme can also play a big part in its demand strength.

Television, music, movies, modes of transportation, those “motifs” are just some of the most popular.

A few communications-related games that are a big hit with collectors include: Superman Speed (1940), Captain Video (1952), The Beatles’ “Flip Your Wig” (1964), James Bond, Secret Agent 007 (1964), The Twilight Zone (1964), The Green Hornet Quick Switch (1966), and Lost in Space 3D (1966).

Keep An Eye on the Ball

Bogdanov said older tin lithograph games have strong potential moving forward, too. “And, anything sports related from the mid 20th century is also good to keep an eye on.”

Two games that fit that last description are baseball based. The first is the 1957 Swift Meats Major League Baseball Game. In this case the players came in “pieces,” (arms, legs, the torso, the head) that could be “punched out” of their original packaging and then put together to form a full athlete.

One site said the 18 cards alone from the 1957 game sold at $400, while the board brought $900.

Board Games Build on Reality

Another homerun: Be a Manager, (1967, BAMCO), with a box featuring Hank Bauer, then-manager of the 1966 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles. A scarce game, where mid-level versions easily sell around $500, while top-end samples can go for about triple that.

For 1980s games, the newest in our vintage arena, both Mortensen and Bogdanov recommended Fireball Island (1986). “Basically you are looking for games that developed a cult following and have only been printed once or twice and haven’t been in stock for years,” Mortensen said. Both Fireball Island and Dark Tower (1981) match that profile. “They regularly sell for hundreds of dollars each.”

Feel Lucky?

Collecting vintage board games started to take a more broad-based hold in the mid-1980s, so finding “a deal” might have been easier in one sense, but locating particular titles presented more of a logistical chore. Even so, many collectors enjoy the hunt.

With the accessibility of the internet since the 1990s, however, finding these games of yesteryear is often just a few computer clicks away. Whitehill said eBay and Amazon are two of the best places to track down vintage board games. “But the real finds are at the flea markets.” Some things rarely change.

True, vintage board games currently enjoy a certain level of popularity, but like any collectible, some wonder if the interest will greatly run out in the coming years. Whitehill is optimistic that the spinner, so to speak, will once again point to a winner on a more regular basis, even though some prices have sagged as of late. “These things go in cycles.”

Revisiting Favorite Pastimes

Bogdanov, meantime, thinks the upward trend will be brighter than certain glow-in-the-dark pieces from Green Ghost, a 1960s board game made-to-be-played with the lights out. “I think we will see slow and steady growth over the next decade or so.”

One thing is for sure: Whether one collects a thousand or more board games of yore, like Mortensen, Scarpone, and Whitehill, and creates their own Mansion of Happiness, or puts together a mere handful of these parlor pastimes, more of a Duplex of Delight, if you will, these vintage games guarantee enjoyment on several levels for many people, and you can bank on that much more than just a wishful roll of the dice.


 

Desi, you got some ’splainin’ to do!
Phonograph records, monster models, vintage board games, Desi Scarpone collects those and many other items. Scarpone estimates his game inventory at 10,000. A handful of his main attractions to games? “The artwork calls to me,” he said. “And, I like the feel of the old games.” Plus, he connects with them on a different plane than perhaps others. “Part of it is, I feel somewhat like a custodian of them, someone must remember these things and take care of them.”

Scarpone certainly takes care of readers of the two books he wrote: “Board Games” and “More Board Games,” both from Schiffer Publishing. Even though it has been a decade or more since both titles first hit the bookshelves, and many of their prices are, understandably, dated, the books remain tremendous references.

Some might go for the historical text, but even more people will likely enjoy the game box images, of which there are over a thousand in each book.

When asked about rare/in-demand games from certain decades, some of Scarpone’s choices include: 1940s (Adventures of Superman, Eloping), 1950s (Captain Video, Countdown Space, Elvis Presley), 1960s (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mummy Mystery, The Green Hornet), 1970s (Voice of the Mummy, Ice Cube, Dungeons and Dragons).

“Many of the common games from the 1950s to the ’70s sell for $25, not much tops $50, unless it is rare,” Scarpone noted. One 1957 game centered around Elvis Presley resides at the top of many post-1950 wantlists and it commands $2,000-$3000 in strong condition.

To help feed his hobbies, and his stomach, Scarpone currently owns a collectibles store in Mesa, Arizona called Uncle Aldo’s Attic

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Brothers In Invention: McLoughlin Bros.

Many newer collectors know of as the Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers game companies, but there is one board game producer that beats them all in many aspects: McLoughlin Brothers.

The brothers McLoughlin first teamed up in the 1850s and went on to prolifically put out cards, game boards and the boxes that housed them with stunning lithography, detailed design and vivid color. The siblings sold out to Milton Bradley in 1920, but left behind a treasured track record.

“McLoughlin will always be the #1 company sought by collectors,” Whitehill said. “Beautiful graphics and great materials. While prices of most of the other companies’ older games have dropped (and now is a great time to buy!), McLoughlin games have gone up in value.”

 

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