Opinion: in a desperate grab to attract the attention of children reared on digital devices, board game manufacturers have forgotten that interaction design matters more than brand extensions, says Alexandra Lange.
I went online recently to buy my favourite board game: Othello. Or should I say re-buy? My grandmother still has the set on which I learned to play, stacked on a high shelf with Candyland and Hungry Ant, bingo, a baby animal memory game, and the little-known word-game Probe.
My family's smaller travel set, a hinged green plastic box that flipped open, has been lost. Sold, perhaps, with our minivan, along with action figures stuck beneath the floor mats. Othello, with its baize gridded board, black-and-white pieces, Helvetica logo, and roll-top storage slots would seem to have timeless design. Mass-market yet elegant, each element had a purpose and all of these came together in a tidy package nice enough to leave out on the coffee table.
Of course, they'd messed it up. New Othello has a blue plastic board with curved, muscular edges, as if Old Othello had started drinking protein shakes. New Othello has shrunken chips and a board that flexes as you play. New Othello abandons the old, ominous-yet-exciting tagline "A minute to learn… a lifetime to master" for "Simple, fast-flipping fun!" New Othello sees itself in competition with sports. Old Othello didn't have to beg for your attention.
New Othello has a lot of Amazon reviews suggesting you try to find a vintage set. Which I did, on Etsy, for about the same cost. It wasn't the first time, either. Over my seven-plus years as a parent, I've bought airports, sewing patterns and plastic plates (the latter, designed by Massimo Vignelli for Heller, also sport a Helvetica logo) all on Etsy or Ebay.
It's not just nostalgia that I seek, though I did buy my daughter the Fisher Price A-frame dollhouse I never had, but games and toys where design serves as a platform for play – not suggesting narratives, not imposing gender norms, not rushing to capitalise on the latest fad.
Games that have withstood the fads of fashion and television should look like it: generic, sturdy, and most of all clear. The basics of interaction design are there in anything you have to explain to a three-year-old: anything unnecessary you simply skip over or leave out, a sort of mental swipe. I never realised how good my childhood was – design-wise, at least – until I got a look at the products aimed at today's youth.
Othello and I are approximately the same age, so it was bought new for my cousins and me. The version of my youth was designed by Goro Hasegawa in Japan in 1971, and distributed in the United States by Gabriel and then Pressman. Based on a late 19th-century game still sold as Reversi, Hasegawa's version became a cult hit in Japan and beyond.
A November 1976 issue of Time magazine noted: "Today Othello is a national pastime played by some 25 million Japanese — and a full-blown fad replete with towels, tie clasps, and key chains, all emblazoned with the distinctive Othello emblem." According to Time the design was suggested by Hasegawa's father, a Shakespearean scholar, who thought the battle between black and white in the game had parallels to the "dramatic reversals" of the Moor's play.
Othello and Reversi are also both simplified versions of the even-more-ancient game of Go, traditionally played with black and white stones on a gridded wood board. Scaled down in size, with a simplified rulebook, Othello became a game that levelled the playing field between children and adults, and could be completed in a short, focused burst. For the parent, it is a welcome relief from the doldrums of Candyland and Snakes and Ladders (known in the US as Chutes and Ladders) – games that also require no reading but consequently require very little strategy.
But Othello isn't the only classic game that's undergone an unnecessary and play-inhibiting transformation. Snakes and Ladders has a long history, recently chronicled by Doug Bierend at Re:form who writes that the game originally included moral lessons – land on a square with a bad choice and you were sent sliding back down a nasty snake – although those "choices" were made by arbitrary rolls of the dice.
The snakes were eliminated for the US edition produced in the 1940s by Milton Bradley, whose vast game holdings also included Barrel of Monkeys, Battleship, Connect Four, LIFE and Operation. Renamed as Chutes and Ladders, the lessons became softer and simpler. In today's US version, published by Hasbro, you slide down a chute for colouring on the wall, climb a ladder for taking out the trash.
Fair enough, but the chutes, ladders, and children have been made so large that there's no room on a rectangle for your playing piece. When I tried to play with my children, we got confused about how to occupy the space of the board. The redesign seemed to have been intended for the appearance of fun – all those bouncing, big-head children – rather than the performance of it.
Hasbro also introduced identity politics into the playing pieces. The 1950s version of the game I used to play had coloured pegs in red, yellow, blue and green. It's now populated by a set of four illustrated children, carefully balanced for race and gender. This introduces a completely unnecessary specificity – my daughter kept searching for the girl who looked like her (who didn't exist) when she could have just picked red.
The older version of the game suggested a fluid narrative, where you became the child, good or bad, whose space you happened to occupy. Now there's a conflict: are you the black-haired girl of your playing piece, or the baseball-hat boy on the board?
Worse still is what's happened to Candyland. Some versions have kept the coloured gingerbread men as playing pieces, but others have moved toward kawaii, giving kids a choice between "a melting ice cream cone, a screaming gumdrop, a gingerbread girl, or a marshmallow with bloodshot eyes," as the Peachie Speechie blog put it. The benevolent candy rulers have also become increasingly detailed and voluptuous lords and princesses, with tight superhero-style costumes, high heels and short skirts – Bratz in the sugar shop.
There's a Disney Princess Candyland edition that eliminates boy playing pieces entirely, despite the fact that your goal is now to "Be the first Disney Princess to dance at the ball!" As philosophers of the romantic comedy have long argued, the prince – played by one of the generic brown-haired Chrises now popular in Hollywood – is hardly the point. We know the name of the actresses in the new live-action Cinderella (Lily, Cate, Helena) but I'll never learn who plays Prince Charming.
Brand extensions have come to many a board game – a move that looks like a last gasp at relevance. Clue, which I also played in its 1980s sans-serif, English country mansion iteration, now includes a garage with a sportscar on its house plan board, and has a range of tie-in editions, from Firefly to Harry Potter to The Simpsons.
Monopoly (a game I've never been able to sit through) has been Frozen. Vintage Clue emphasised the colour names given to the players, from yellow Colonel Mustard to blue Mrs. Peacock, but that small bit of wordplay now seems lost along with (for many) the game's origins in Agatha Christie. The board now has the aesthetic of a video game, which is probably the point. All these 3D games feel their market pinched by the digital realm – and yet, despite the graphic wonders of truly digital games like Monument Valley, Othello apps are no more elegant than that blue board.
Families like ours turn back to board games to get the children looking at something besides a screen, strategising out loud and with physical blocks, discs, or gingerbread men rather than the Minecraft ones. If it is nostalgia, it is nostalgia for a type of interaction rather than a specific game or toy. The pleasure of tucking those Fisher Price Little People into their bunks, of stacking the Heller plates into a rainbow, of drawing the Neapolitan card and leapfrogging over your brother to Ice Cream Floats.
As toys get bloated and plastics thinned, as games get sloppily illustrated or brand extended to absurdity, those interactions become less satisfying. It's harder to find the fun, because there are so many big heads and ill-fitting pieces to ignore. It's nice that we can re-buy the past so easily, that Etsy serves as an alternate-reality Amazon marketplace, until you stop to think of all the tricked-out and pumped-up games in the real marketplace, ready to confuse, frustrate and break.
Alexandra Lange is a New York-based architecture and design critic. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design for academic year 2013-2014 and is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism.