The history of electronic board games: Part 1

Benj Edwards
23 February, 2013
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Back to the future

The advent of the microprocessor in the 1970s stimulated drastic changes across many industries, from automobiles to consumer appliances.Even the humble board game couldn’t avoid its reach, receiving an electronic computerized upgrade courtesy of inexpensive microcontrollers like the Texas Instruments TMS1000, which first appeared in 1975.Over the next 36 years, but peaking in the early to mid-1980s, toy companies experimented with hundreds of different electronically assisted board games. By the late 1980s, however, video games began to whisk players away to virtual realms and away from physical reality.We’ll look at 14 classic electronic board games, starting in the 1970s, in two installments.Bear in mind that to qualify as “electronic,” the games had to contain active electronic components. In fact, every one of these games uses digital technology of some sort.

Code Name: Sector (1977)

Parker Brothers’ Code Name: Sectorwas the first mainstream American board game to feature a computerized electronic component.In this case, a TMS1000 microcontroller at the heart of the game kept track of submarine sector coordinates in its memory as the player tried to hunt them down by plotting out paths with a crayon and ruler.The game received significant media attention, but its complex gameplay didn’t win too many fans.Fans of subliminal messaging will appreciate the cover designer’s decision to remove the upper bar from the zero in ’508′ at lower left so that it seems to spell ‘SUB’.

Electronic Battleship (1977)

As more electronic games entered the market, companies realized the potential to computerise versions of their classic board games.Milton Bradley did just that with Electronic Battleshipin 1977, although the game didn’t play as you might expect.It was still a two-player-only game; the computer served as an intermediary to inform each player of a hit or a miss via various sound effects after the player entered shot coordinates.

Stop Thief (1979)

Stop Thiefwas quite possibly the first board game to integrate an electronic component into a traditional cardboard playing surface.During play, a battery-powered ‘Electronic Crime Scanner’ kept track of an invisible thief’s location. Players followed a series of auditory clues emitted by the scanner in order to track down his location.Upon finding the thief, a player would type the thief’s location into the scanner. If the location was correct, the invisible police would haul the invisible thief off to invisible jail.

Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game (1980)

At the height of a media craze about TSR’s Dungeons & Dragonspen-and-paper role-playing game, Mattel released this licensed electronic maze game that has since become a cult classic.In the game, players attempted to navigate a labyrinth by moving figurines over touch-sensitive squares.Guided by auditory feedback, players would use plastic wall pieces to map out the locations of labyrinth walls, while also avoiding a deadly dragon.

Dark Tower (1981)

Much like the D&D Computer Labyrinth Game, Milton Bradley’s Dark Towercapitalised on the rising popularity of fantasy-themed RPGs.At the time, players widely admired the game for its computerized complexity. A battery-operated computer inside the tower kept track of player movements (via keypad input) and governed nearly every action in the game, including those of computer-controlled opponents.The tower even played electronic sounds timed to coincide with in-game events.

Monopoly Playmaster (1982)

In 1982, Parker Brothers released the first electronic accessory for its famous Monopoly board game, the Monopoly Playmaster.The computerized device worked in conjunction with a traditional Monopolyset to roll electronic dice, keep track of player movements, and handle property auctions and mortgages.Its primitive interface – which consisted of a handful of LEDs and a small speaker – onfused players and limited its appeal. Still, it set a precedent for Monopoly add-ons, which continue to emerge to this day.

Mr. Gameshow (1987)

Galoob’s Mr. Gameshow combined an animated electronic doll with various computer-mediated word games that many people found similar to Wheel of Fortune.During a game, the large plastic doll (named Gus Glitz) read aloud clues in a digitised voice – and generally scared the heck out of any nearby pets or small children.By Benj Edwards, TechHive.

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