Orbanes’ Book on Parker Brothers Details the Big Business of Board Games

The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers From Tiddely Winks to Trivial Pursuit. Philip E. Orbanes. 2004. 245 pages, including 16 pages of b&w and color photographs, notes and index. ISBN: 1591392691. Available from Amazon.com for $19.77.

“Parker Brothers is one of the most enduring brands in the United States and around the world…George Swinnerton Parker was just 16 years old in 1883 when he embarked on his lifetime career, convinced that games were not just about bolstering a person’s “moral fabric,” but about having fun.

After persuading his older brothers Charles and Edward to join him in forming Parker Brothers, Inc., George led the firm to bring Americans everything from Tiddely Winks and Rook to Mah-Johngg and Ping-Pong, to the modern jigsaw puzzle and the Nerf ball. Two thousand products later, Parker Brothers is one of the best known and most beloved of all game publishers. And somewhere in the process, its games have gone from simply reflecting the values of the country to helping shape them.”

Philip E. Orbanes is uniquely qualified to recount the history of Parker Brothers. A games player and designer all his life, he worked for the company from 1979 until 1990, first as director of new product research and then as head of research and development. He’s also the author of *The Monopoly Companion.

Orbanes sets the scene for the beginning of George Parker’s company – in 1883 Chester A. Arthur was president, the Brooklyn Bridge had opened in May, and telephones had recently linked the East Coast to Chicago. A national system of time zones was about to be adopted by the nation’s railroads.

George Parker modified an old card game, and called it Banking. He tried to get a firm to publish the game, but they refused, so, at the urging of friends, he decided to bring it out on his own. He paid for the printing of the game, and because it was the holiday season, managed to sell his entire stock of 500 games, first to retailers and wholesalers in Boston, then in Providence, Rhode Island, then more and more cities as the game took off.

This was Parker’s first taste of success, though he wasn’t to officially form a company with his brother Charles until 1888.

Orbanes tells us of the history of this early company, and all the games they brought out, some invented by George, some by others. The description of the games is fascinating, and some will ring a bell even though they had different names at the time (Chivalry (1887) “pitted two players in a head-to-head battle of pieces representing knights and men placed in rows on a gridlike board. The object was to break through the opponent’s battle line and occupy his castle, located several spaces in the rear.” Sounds like Stratego to me.)

Parker Brothers did well, then, like most companies, had its shares of troubles. What saved it was the discovery of Monopoly. Parker Brothers bought the rights to this game in 1935, and it saved the company.

Anyone who remembers a childhood filled with playing board games like Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Clue; and video games like Star Wars and Frogger, will love this book. It’s more than the story of how the games were invented and marketed, but a story of the personal triumphs and tragedies of the Parker family (two of George Parker’s sons died at the age of 21, one in WWI, the other in a plane crash in 1922).

It’s also a glimpse into the cutthroat world, the big business of designing, creating and selling games, as Parker Brothers had to compete with such other toy/game manufacturers as Ideal, Milton Bradley and Kenner…until finally Parker Brothers was absorbed by its chief rival, Hasbro, in 1991.

In addition to 16 pages of b&w and color photos in the center of the book, featuring portraits of the Parker brothers and their family, and lots of photos of classic and current game packaging, black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book.

This is a fun read, not only for history buffs but also for the young at heart who want to remember a time when they were young indeed.

Do these games jog your memory?:

The Amusing Game of Innocents Abroad (1869)
Banking (1883)
The Popular Game of Skill: Chivalry (1887)
Pillow-dex (1897)
Mah-jongg (1924)
The Lincoln Highway (1926)
Sorry! (1935)
Monopoly (1935)
….and many more

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