THE GAMER’S BOOKSHELF:
by Philip E. Orbanes
(Permuted Press, softcover, 294 pages, $16.99)
Tortured cardboard? That’s the term used by Philip E. Orbanes that refers to the process by which nondescript pieces of cardboard get transformed (cut, punched, folded etc. etc.) into what becomes a classic game. But this is not about the mechanical processes of production. Instead, the book delves into the origins and impacts of these classics. While some books might take a very scholarly path, with Tortured Cardboard, Orbanes opts for a more whimsical approach as he, aided and abetted by the “Games Gnome”, goes back and forth in time to put the focus on the thought and effort – as well as the chaos and luck – that resulted in some of the evergreen games that have occupied significant portions of our lives and the lessons we can take away from them.
Readers will immediately recognize most if not all of the games explored here including Clue, Risk, Parcheesi, Careers, Backgammon, Trivial Pursuit. But the mass market giants are not the only ones touched upon. The genesis of Avalon Hill, the first great wargame publisher, the start of the collectible card game boom birthed by Magic, the Gathering and the German/Euro style of gaming are discussed with their origins dissected. The Bobby Fischer impact on the popularity of chess makes for an interesting chapter too. Even Monopoly gets a tip of the hat (although a more in depth look at that one can be found in Orbanes’ own Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How it Got That Way featured in the Spring 2007 Gamers Alliance Report).
In his conversational style, Orbanes draws on his own experience as a former Senior Vice-President of Research & Development at Parker Brothers as well as being a co-founder of contemporary game publisher Winning Moves Games to bring this history of games to life but he also leans heavily on interviews with many who have had a direct impact on the games discussed. (He manages to interact with those he does not know or are no longer with us thanks to the magical machinations of the Games Gnome.) But don’t think this book is “dusty history” from decades past. Contemporary clashes are found here as well. The “tug of war” over The Game of Life between Reuben Klamer and Hasbro/Milton Bradley on the one hand and the estate of Bill Markham (who had a hand in the original game) on the other is a fascinating example of the design process and the legalities that can be pitfalls. The book goes right up to the final results in 2017! A surprising omission is the lack of any reference to 3M Games, a specific line that pioneered the concept of adult-oriented games, targeted to and for “grown ups” (such as the classic game of Acquire), a trend the Euro games that followed a few decades later capitalized upon.
Insights into what goes into a game as well as human behavior, including references to Carl Jung among others, are intriguing. Interviews with experts on the various games are a highlight of the book but a few of them refused to be identified by their real names and go by aliases. Why? This may add to their “mystery” but, since this is not a Watergate investigation, I tend to doubt any serious repercussions need be feared for their opinions so there is no need for a “Deep Throat”. Speaking of aliases, semi-spoiler alert: despite the otherworldly qualities depicted here, the Games Gnome is an actual person, an acknowledged and accomplished historian of games, game design and game theory. He is “revealed” when the book concludes.
Tortured Cardboard makes a convincing case that there is more to these classic games than meets the eye, that not only are these classics classic for a reason but offer life lessons that can be applied to the advantage of everyone who has ever played them. One more advantage for you is to sit back and read this enjoyable book. You will most definitely learn something and have a good time doing it!- – – – – – Herb Levy
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