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BYTES & PIECES
The history of videogames on the tabletop…
By Daniel Ness
You’re playing Gears of War. It’s a game of visceral future combat: Locust troops erupt from the ground; your buddy’s on the other side of the map, bleeding, crawling, begging for help; you fail your active reload, your Lancer jams and the only thing preventing you from becoming grub food is the chainsaw bayonet slung beneath its muzzle. You rev it up, dive from cover and roadie-run into the enemy.
You’re playing Gears of War. You’re playing a board game. Board games have changed – they’ve had to. It’s the gimmicks, you see: the lights and beeps of their hated foe, the videogame. There’s a moment in Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive where an arcade cabinet hypnotises some dude into smashing his head through the monitor. That was us in the 1980s, only we didn’t put our head through the glass just the once: we did it over and over again. It was the thrill that kept us going. Smart bombs. Extra lives. We lived out Star Wars fantasies on a nicotine-stained screen and when we died, pocket change was our salvation.
After all that action, cardboard and dice seemed like relics from a bygone age. At Christmas you open a parcel from Aunt Viv only to find Monopoly inside and not Crystal Castles for your Atari. “It’s great,” you lie. “It’s just what I always wanted.” But Aunt Viv’s a canny one; she spots your disappointment and you later overhear her talking to mum and dad: “I wanted to get him one of those videogames,” she says, “but they’re so expensive.”
But, as Aunt Viv’s predicament was echoed in homes across the planet, board game manufacturers, tired of living in the shadow of the amusement arcade, hatched a plan. They went to videogame publishers like Atari, Namco and Gottleib and bought licensing rights by the armful.
In 1981 – only a few months after the eponymous videogame hit the arcades – Milton Bradly released Frogger: The Board Game. Frogger was followed by a flurry of arcade conversions from other companies eager to catch the cresting videogame wave. ‘Pac-Man fever’ was still sweeping the western hemisphere; fans bought Pac-Man toys, lunch boxes, even pencil sharpeners. With a new market eager for cheap, emblazoned merchandise, Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers moved in for the kill, waving board game adaptations before consumers’ eyes like joss sticks at a hippy sit-in.
The amount of arcade-licensed board games that hit the toy market in the early 1980s is staggering. Like the games they aped, they flooded the market. Too many, too fast. Smaller manufacturers were left floundering for obscure licenses just to grab a piece of the pie. In 1983, Ideal released Blue Print, a board game based on a barely-remembered 1982 Bally/Midway title; in the same year, Parker Brothers released Popeye, which has the distinction of being (deep breath) the first board game based on a videogame based on a cartoon show based on a comic strip. Just to ensure potential buyers wouldn’t think otherwise, it even said: “Based on the exciting arcade game!” on the box lid next to the sailor man himself…
This is just a small extract from the full feature in issue one. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.