It's All A Game


It’s All A Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan Tristan Donovan New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017 ISBN: 9781250082725

Following in the footsteps of Replay: The History of Video Games (2010), Tristan Donovan’s new book, It’s All A Game turns to the analogue world to offer an enjoyable meander through the history of board games ranging from Ancient Egypt to the contemporary moment. With chapters covering games including chess, backgammon, The Game of Life, Monopoly, Risk, Cluedo (presented by Donovan as Clue for his presumably larger American readership), Scrabble, Mouse Trap, Twister, Go, Trivial Pursuit, and Settlers of Catan (to name but the headline games), it’s a rapid journey through the world of games and gaming, and Donovan proves to be an amiable and knowledgeable guide.

While the early chapters on chess and backgammon are interesting enough, the book really hits its stride with the discussion of Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life, a game whose changes over time and editions demonstrate the possibility of using games as a means of reflecting on (in this case US) history in much the same way as James McManus does with poker in Cowboys Full (2009). As Donovan puts it, “The Game of Life is a game in flux, constantly moving with the times, and its alterations reveal much about how US society has changed since it first reached store shelves” (62). Tracing the history of the game from its puritanical origins (the Checkered Game of Life), Donovan deftly connects the shifting detail of the game’s editions to weave a story of the nation. And so we learn of that in the 1960s success came with the discovery of uranium deposits (later rebranded “mineral deposits”), and that those destined to reach the winner’s spot in Millionaire Acres would likely do so sporting raccoon-fur coats. It is, later editions of the game tell us, still important to be seen in a coat, but it is no longer appropriate for it to have been taken from the back of an animal. Thus the game comes to chart changing national perspectives, the rampant capitalism of its early editions supplemented by “Life Tiles” that reward living well in the 1991 edition, and the “career-for-life” mechanic of the first edition giving way to an increasingly fluid model of employment more in keeping with the changes in the global economy.

Subsequent chapters continue to work to establish the significance in board games in both shaping and reflecting culture, with Donovan connecting the games he’s selected with topics ranging from WWII (Kriegsspiel and Risk), to sexual liberation (Twister) and artificial intelligence (chess and Go).

While the pace of discussion is energetic and the tone light, It’s All a Game is a thought-provoking read that may well inspire readers to further researches and so it’s a good to see that the chapters are supplemented by a set of helpful notes. The chapter on Monopoly, to give one example, will lead interested readers to, among many other titles, Mary Pilon’s excellent book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favourite Board Game (2015).

My one criticism (or better, suggestion for a future volume) is that the selection of games is fairly predictable, stopping short of the kinds of games that might characterize the world of contemporary (hobby) board gaming. So, while there’s a brief mention of Pandemic and Settlers of Catan, and a passing nod to Dead of Winter, the book stops short of discussing the wealth of titles that are now (slowly perhaps) making their way into the mainstream from the hobby margins. This notwithstanding, I'd thoroughly recommend It's All A Game to anyone with an interest in board games, it's well-informed, engaging, and offers a fascinating account of the interplay of games, history and society.


McManus, James, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009)

Pilon, Mary, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favourite Board Game (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Paul Wake