You probably take it for granted, but the contents of your board game closet are rich with history -- and littered with fascinating facts. Where did "Community Chest" come from? What are Jokers? Why are there only four Ss but six Rs in a Scrabble set? Read on to find out.
What was the first American board game?
Although European settlers brought numerous games over the Atlantic to the new world, the Puritans didn't look very kindly upon them. Dice, for example, were associated with gambling, and like a great many other entertaining pastimes, condemned as Satanic.
So the first board game published in America, "Traveller's Tour Through the United States," doesn't exactly sound like a thrilling play. Dating back to 1822, it takes place on a map of the States (as it was at the time, with nothing much west of Louisiana) and had gameplay consisting of identifying major cities and guessing their population while moving 'round the board.
Sound like a barrel of laughs? Compared to another of America's oldest games, it was. 1843's "The Mansion of Happiness" featured a spinner instead of those evil dice, and its players were given the task of collecting good Puritanical virtues like piety, prudence, and chastity while avoiding sins like immodesty, ingratitude, and worst of all, happiness. Oh, the horror.
What's the deal with "Community Chest?"
Famed for introducing the phrase "You have won second prize in a beauty contest" to the lexicon, all standard Monopoly sets contain a deck of twelve "Community Chest" cards. Where does this sometimes lucky, ocassionally unfortunate stack of random events get its unusual name?
As it happens, the Community Chest was named after a series of charitable movements that sprung up in the United States beginning around 1913. They existed to raise money from local businesses and individuals and redistribute it to various worthy causes. Community chests were something of a hit: by 1948 there were over 1,000, and today they survive as the United Way. You might have heard of them.
Why are Scrabble letters distributed the way they are?
Any Scrabble pro can tell you there are 12 Es, six Rs, and one Z in the game, but can they tell you why?
Formulated by its creator Alfred Mosher Butts, Scrabble's curious letter distribution owes a debt to the New Yrok Times. Butts wanted the spread to reflect the English language as it was used at the time, so he studied the relative frequency of each letter on the front page of the paper, and used the resulting data to guide the development of his new game.
He made a tweak, though. The letter "S" appears very frequently in English -- it's around the seventh most common -- but Butts decided to only include four in Scrabble in order to make the game harder and limit the use of plurals.
All that only applies to the English version, of course. Localized Scrabble versions -- of which there are many -- use letter frequencies appropriate to the language and add accented letters and characters that aren't used in the English game.
Where does the term "Bullseye" come from?
Relax, PETA: though some might want to believe the word came from an imagined dartboard which really did feature the eye of an unfortunate bovine, no bulls have ever been harmed in the making of this winning term.
In fact, the term "bullseye" has been used since about the 17th century to describe just about any small, round object, including windows, candy, and the English one-crown coin. As for how it came to refer to the center spot on a dartboard, opinions vary. Maybe it's just a reference to the shape of the center of a target -- or perhaps it came from observers staking "bullseye" coins on a perfect shot. Either way, the word's a lot older than the game of darts itself, which only dates back to about 1870.
The first thing most players do upon opening a new deck of cards is to find the two (or sometimes three) Jokers and discard them. Unless you're playing canasta or gin rummy, or one of a handful of other games, you won't need them -- and decks of cards got along just fine without them until the 1860s, which is when they began to appear. But where did they get their name? It's not as if they're especially funny...
Like many oddities of the modern playing card deck, its origins aren't totally clear -- but the name is thought to come from the game Euchre, which once used Jokers as the highest trump cards. Jacks are the usual pick these days.