The Revolution Began With Paper

When the press looks at games, what they see is a multibillion dollar industry filled with glitzy graphics, interactive stories and armies of geeks in huge sweatshop teams laboring for long hours to create the Next Big Thing. And to be sure, that’s a fair description of the modern digital games industry today. But it’s a remarkably incomplete view of what games are, how they’ve become a major cultural force – and how and where innovation and growth in the field can be sustained.

In the last 25 years, we’ve seen an explosion. Games have grown from the passion of a few into the casual entertainment of the many. The popular perception – one shared by many game researchers who ought to know better – is that the explosion has been fueled, in the final analysis, by Moore’s Law: The arrival of processors cheap enough to include in arcade cabinets, game consoles and desktop PCs has created this multibillion dollar marketplace and a novel popular art: the game.

It’s not that this view is completely wrong, but The importance of computing for games is, instead, that digital media permit mediation of an interactive experience in a way that hides the underlying complexity of that experience from players, thereby making it possible to offer rich and complicated games to people who would not have the patience to learn and master them if that interaction were provided to them in non-digital form. In other words, if you want to play a boardgame, you have to read the manual and perform whatever computations are required yourself. Videogame players notoriously do not read manuals, and they don’t have to, in most cases, because the rules are embedded in the software.

If it didn’t begin with Pong, where did it begin? Let me suggest some key moments.

In 1759, a British publisher of hand-tinted, cloth-backed maps named Carrington Bowles published a game designed by John Jefferys called A Journey Through Europe. It is the first known game that we can ascribe to an individual designer. In other words, prior to that time, all games were analogous to the anonymous epics that spurred the rise of literature; they were what Dave Parlett (in The Oxford History of Board Games) calls “folk games.” A Journey Through Europe was, in essence, a line extension by its publisher – a way of reconfiguring a map (in this case, of Europe) to provide a game rather than a reference, thereby appealing to a different audience. As a game qua game, it is nothing to get excited about; it’s a straightforward track game, with players advancing by the use of a teetotum (a sort of top with multiple sides, each side numbered, the player advancing as many spaces on the track as the number on the side on which the top comes to rest – a common component of early boardgames, since dice were viewed as gambling instruments and hence not to be permitted in respectable households). The players begin and end in London, and many spaces advance players or transport them to other portions of the board, e.g.:

“He who rests at 28 at Hanover shall by order of Ye King of Great Britain who is Elector, be conducted to No 54 at Gibraltar to visit his countrymen who keep garrison there.”


“He who rests at 48 at Rome for kissing ye Pope’s Toe shall be banished for his folly to No 4 in the cold island of Iceland and miss three turns.”

A whole series of games, most but not all travel games associated with maps, were published in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries; we may imagine that they were pricey items, given the need to hand-tint and hand-mount the maps. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, with the arrival of (relatively) cheap color printing, that original board and card games obtained what we might consider a mass market, with the rise of such publishers as McLaughlin Brothers, Milton Bradley’s eponymous firm, and George Parker’s vehicle, Parker Brothers (his brothers Charles and Edward handled the business side).

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The mass market boardgame industry continued to grow throughout the early 20th century, and, in the post-war era, grew enormously with the spread of department and chain outlets and with the growth in leisure time. In the latter half of the 20th century, a handful of game designers, such as Alex Randolph and the immortal Sid Sackson, found it possible to make a full-time living from games, and began to evolve a language and approach to game design that is recognizable to modern designers. Sadly, however, a combination of American unease with “childish” entertainment and the eventual establishment of a virtual monopoly in the market by Hasbro (which now owns Parker, Bradley, Selchow & Richter, Avalon Hill, TSR, and Wizards of the Coast, among others) has relegated the American boardgame market to the publication of old standards and licensed drivel for pre-teens. Those of us who are admirers of the art of board and card game design today gravitate mainly to German imports, because Germany retains a thriving and highly competitive boardgame industry, where designers such as Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber and Alan Moon (an American forced to seek publication abroad because of the deficiencies of the U.S. market) continue to do highly creative and innovative work.

The mass market boardgame industry, however, was instrumental in paving the way for the modern digital industry. It established a distribution channel that the earliest console games sold into (toy and chain stores); it established the idea of games beyond the traditional ones in the public mind; it demonstrated the importance of design; and the kinds of games it fostered continue to influence modern digital games, particularly in the “casual downloadable” market.


That, however, is only one strand in the skein of influences that brought about the games revolution. To explore another, we must begin with The King’s Game, created in 1780 by a man known to history only as Helwig, Master of Pages to the Duke of Brunswick. The King’s Game was, in a sense, a Chess variant; but its board contained 1,666 squares, containing different types of terrain, and the units represented infantry, cavalry and artillery. In other words, unlike Chess, it was a simulation, an attempt to represent military conflict of the era, not an abstracted pastime. The connection between The King’s Game and the rise of kriegspieler in the 19th century – military training games intended as both simulations and training for warfare – is uncertain, but we can imagine The King’s Game served as inspiration. The first kriegspiel we know of was invented in 1824 by Lieutenant von Reisswitz of the Prussian army, who devised a game using realistic military maps at a scale of 1:8000; he demonstrated it for the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army, who exclaimed, “It’s not a game at all; it’s a training for war!” and he ordered a copy for each regiment of the army. The game and its variants continued to be played in the Prussian and German armed forces for decades thereafter.

In 1876, Colonel von Verdy du Vernois of the German army devised a new sort of kriegspiel: The complex rules of von Reisswitz’s game were dispensed with, and instead, an experienced officer was brought in as a game master. Players were permitted to do whatever they wished, as long as the game master ruled it feasible. In a sense, these less rigid kriegspieler were forerunners of the modern tabletop roleplaying game.

Kriegspieler were used in military training across Europe by the end of the 19th century; and their derivatives, complex combat simulations, both manual and computer-moderated, are widely used in the armed forces of all developed nations today. But they remained a non-commercial game style, until 1911 …

… When H.G. Wells published Floor Games, updated in 1913 as Little Wars. It was the first published rules for waging battles with military miniatures, and while we can assume people had been playing with miniatures for centuries before (and may have evolved their own house rules) Wells’ games are the first to codify them in a commercial product. Perhaps curiously, Little Wars did not immediately spawn a market; indeed, until the 1950s, it’s rare to find any other miniatures rules in print, Fletcher Pratt‘s 1938 Rules for Naval Wargaming being a notable exception. In 1957, Jack Scruby began publishing War Game Digest, a small press magazine devoted to miniatures gaming that often published rules, and within a decade, dozens of rules sets for different periods were on the market. They remained historical in nature, however, until 1971, when Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren released Chainmail, the first rules for fantasy miniatures. In 1983, Games Workshop released the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which today is played by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and has relegated historical miniatures to a small audience of enthusiasts (which, of course, is where it always existed).

Miniatures gaming led directly to the creation of what’s called the hobby games or “adventure games” industry, non-digital games sold primarily to an audience of hardcore game geeks. The first game style to become established after miniatures was the board wargame, a genre created by Charles Roberts who, in 1953, published Tactics, a game with a square map grid and cardboard pieces representing military units, simulating a battle between two abstract armies. It was self-published, but sold well enough for Roberts to turn to publishing under the Avalon Hill label full-time in 1958, releasing Tactics II as its first title. By the late ’60s, there was an enthusiastic audience of board wargamers who purchased every new Avalon Hill release, and in 1969, AH got its first real competition, when Jim Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen founded what became Simulations Publications, Inc., which published games far more frequently and helped to expand the audience further.

By mass market standards, board wargames were incredibly complex, with the simplest having several thousand words of rules, and the most complicated enormous tomes. But the wargame market had a major impact on the development of the modern industry; it created, in essence, the first game geek culture. Wargamers were the first to call themselves “gamers” and to view themselves as something of a nerdy elite; the first books on game design emerged out of the field; and, indeed, the term “game designer” first appeared in the wargames industry (coined by Redmond Simonsen, SPI’s art director), along with the first games to credit their developers on a consistent basis. And it spawned the first “star designers” – Dunnigan, John Hill, Richard Berg and John Prados, to name a few. Many of the earliest stars of computer gaming, including Chris Crawford and Dan Bunten, became interested in games because of the wargames they played. And board wargames retain an influence today; e.g.., Rick Goodman, creator of Empire Earth, is an old school board wargamer.

Board wargames continue as a viable, if small, commercial medium, but in the hobby market, they have been eclipsed by two subsequent game styles: roleplaying games (RPGs) and trading card games (TCGs).

The first RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, emerged out of the Chainmail rules, which had the concept of “heroes,” individual characters as powerful as whole stands of regular units. Dave Arneson modified and refined the rules, approaching Gary Gygax, Chainmail‘s publisher, with the results. As refined by Gygax, the first edition of the game was published in 1973 (a few pre-release copies were available in 1972). Despite dismal production quality and equally badly written rules, it was an instant smash hit, and by the early ’80s had become a genuine cultural phenomenon, played by geeks and nerds in high schools and colleges across the nation and the world. No other game ever dislodged D&D‘s dominance of tabletop RPGs, but by the late ’80s, dozens of competing games were on the market, taking the basic paradigm of the RPG to different settings and genres.

Conventional histories of digital games generally take, on the one hand, arcade amusements and pinball, and on the other, academic experiments with computer games like Space War and Colossal Cave as their starting point – and while those were important influences, any history that doesn’t recognize the importance of tabletop roleplaying is missing the boat. A whole generation of digital game designers became fascinated with games at least as much through their exposure to D&D as because of the Atari 2600 or the arcade. Richard Garriott’s Ultima was directly inspired by D&D, as were almost all the earliest Western digital RPGs – Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale and the rest. Will Crowther, the original creator of Colossal Cave/Adventure, the ur-text adventure, has also said he was inspired by D&D (although the earliest version of Colossal Cave predates D&D‘s release), and there’s a reason that Bartle and Trubshaw‘s MUD-1 was a “multi-user dungeon.” Indeed, you can make the case that a huge number of modern digital game styles – RPGs, adventure games, action-adventure games, and MMOGs – derive directly from tabletop roleplaying.

The last big piece of the hobby game market is the trading card game, created by Richard Garfield in 1993 with the publication of Magic: The Gathering. Garfield observed that hobby games were increasingly being sold in comic book shops – and that many of these stores stocked trading cards in additional to games and comics. He understood that this was merchandise they were comfortable handling, and that a game based on trading cards could be successful. Magic was the result; and like D&D before it, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon, growing to eclipse the tabletop RPG market in terms of dollar volume, with kids comparing cards and playing the game at playgrounds everywhere. So far, aside from a few “virtual” TCGs (and Magic Online), TCGs have had little direct impact on digital games – but then, the generation that played and loved Magic has not yet gotten into positions of power in the game industry, and its impact may be to come.


In the mid-’80s, when I was Director of Research & Design for West End Games, a wargame and tabletop RPG publisher, we got into contact with Irad Hardy, who had held the same position a decade before for SPI. Irad had left the industry for a career in the car rental industry, and was astonished that a market still existed for hobby games. He assumed it had been crushed by the juggernaut of videogames.

But the truth is, the rise of digital games has been accompanied by a rise, not a decline, in non-digital games; in the early ’70s, the hobby market grossed no more than $20 million annually, and today it grosses several hundred million (there are no reliable industry figures). In essence, videogames have helped hobby games to thrive, by making “gaming” an acceptable and broad practice across society, and inculcating a whole generation with a love of and desire to play games. Tabletop roleplaying games and Magic players play videogames, too – and many videogamers are wholly comfortable sitting down with a German boardgame, a TCG or a tabletop RPG. Games, of all sorts, are no longer the purview of a few proud geeks, but the common vernacular of anyone under 40.

Paper games are largely ignored by both the industry and general press, and it’s understandable why: Non-digital games, as a business, are an order of magnitude smaller. But the reality is that the two sides co-evolve – the growth of digital games brings new players to paper ones, and the ability of the paper field to innovate and experiment at far lower cost than digital games gives it a disproportionate influence on the imaginations of designers. That influence is more than indirect, too; many designers began in paper gaming and moved to digital, if only because if you want a career as a designer and also to live a reasonably comfortable middle class living, it’s hard to do that in hobby games. See the chart for some examples.

Designer Tabletop Digital
Jeff Briggs Editor for West End Games President of Firaxis
David “Zeb” Cook D&D 3rd Edition City of Villains
Paul Jaquays D&D adventures Quake III Arena, Age of Empires Series
Sandy Petersen Call of Cthulhu DOOM II, Age of Empires Series
Bruce Shelley 1830, Titan Civilization, Age of Empires
Warren Spector Toon Deus Ex
Mike Stackpole Tunnels & Trolls Bard’s Tale III
Jordy Weissman BattleTech, HeroClix MechWarrior series

While the movement from paper to digital is long established, we’re starting, perhaps, to see a motion in the other direction, too, as videogame budgets rise and it becomes harder and harder to get anything original funded: Jordy Weisman, who started in tabletop with the Star Trek RPG and BattleTech, then founded a computer game developer and sold it to Microsoft, went back to tabletop a few years ago, founding WizKids, and releasing the HeroClix line of collectible miniatures games … a big success in the hobby market, if not at the level of D&D or Magic.


Games, of all sorts, have always been fueled by passion. George Parker designed his first games because he loved the boardgames he played as a child, but rebelled against the soppy religious and self-improvement themes they then promulgated – he wanted games that grappled more with the realities of life and the concerns of the day-to-day. H.G. Wells took time away from his career as a writer to produce a commercially pointless little exercise in game design because he liked to play with toy soldiers. Jim Dunnigan stole telecommunications equipment from the warehouse where he worked to sell on the black market to fund SPI – never really believing that a viable business was in the offing, but just that he wanted to create better wargames, and by God, he could do it. (I wouldn’t normally say something like this, except I’ve been at conventions where Dunnigan has said this, flat out – and when questioned by the audience, has simply said, “Well, hell … the statute of limitations has expired.” Sometimes, an entrepreneur’s gotta do what an entrepreneur’s gotta do.)

Gygax and Arneson didn’t create D&D with the idea of making millions, but simply came up with a very cool idea that they had to share. Nolan Bushnell, playing with breadboards in the office carved out of his young daughter’s bedroom, could not have known that his little tennis game would spawn a multibillion dollar enterprise that, as long ago as the early ’80s, was being ballyhooed as “bigger than Hollywood.” Richard Garriott, coding on his boss’s time while handling the few customers who wandered into a little hobbyist computer store, just wanted to put a little bit of his roleplaying experience into software. Ken and Roberta Williams wanted to put some graphics into the adventure games they loved, and never imagined that someday they’d sell Sierra to a publicly traded company for eight figures (and have doubtless suffered considerable heartache since, at how badly it’s been managed). Peter Adkison was running a little third-rate publisher of roleplaying adventures when one of the freelancers he worked with showed up with this strange little game based on collectible cards that was so bizarre it couldn’t possibly sell, but so cool that you had to publish it.

The central problem with the conventional game industry today is the problem that every other creative industry – maybe excluding book publishing – has utterly failed to solve. As budgets rise, you have to manage risk, and that means not taking risks. But risk-taking is what spawned the modern industry and gave it life.

The future of games? The future of games does not lie with the EAs and Ubisofts of the world any more than the future of music lies with the BMGs or Sonys, or the future of film lies with Disney or Universal.

The future of games lies with people who love them. And here’s where to find them:

In the hobby games market, of course, where the distribution channel is still open to the off-beat and odd-ball, and where development costs are low enough that experimentation is still possible.

In the live-action roleplaying movement, particularly in Scandinavia, where it has become a major cultural phenomenon, in which people are experimenting with integration of gameplay into realworld spaces.

In the “big games” and “alternative reality games” movements, in which people are experimenting with games that “break the fourth wall” (or, pace Huizinga, “the magic circle”) by creating games that integrate with everyday life.

In the “indie RPG” movement that views roleplaying as closer to theatrical improv than to traditional ideas about “the game.”

And in the independent digital games movement – people creating games on small or non-existent budgets and praying for a viable path to market, experimenting with novel game styles that will mostly fail, but just might set the world on fire.

Games are a big business now. But games are an art form. And as with any art form, if you want to understand its future, don’t follow the money. Follow the passion.

Greg Costikyan has designed more than 30 commercially published games in various genres and platforms. He has written about the game industry for publications including the New York Times, Salon, and Game Developer magazine. He’s also the CEO of Manifesto Games.

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