A Look at Vintage Sci-Fi and Horror Board Games of the 30's to the 70's
While it seems like every household now has at least one - if not more – videogame consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, etc.) to lure away family members, there actually was a time when families and friends would gather together, grab their favorite board game off the shelf and spend some time quality time playing a game or two. From tried and true classics like Monopoly and Scrabble to more offbeat fare like Mystic Skull: The Game of Voodoo - kids, parents and friends could all join in the fun and test their skills at whatever game was being played. And although perennially popular games like Clue and Yahtzee are loads of fun to play, some of the more uniquely enjoyable games remain vintage examples employing science-fiction, fantasy or horror-based genre themes.
King Kong Game, Ideal Toy Corp., 1976.
The first “genre” games to be produced were sci-fi oriented and released during the mid-1930s to take advantage of the growing popularity of pulp magazine character Buck Rogers. Highly popular with readers, Rogers was the first pulp character to receive exposure in other forms of media – such as radio programs and newspaper comic strips and was also the first space character to be mass merchandized. Several games were released during the 1930s and 1940s such as a Buck Rogers Game of the 25th Century game, released by Lutz-Shinkman with colorful box art in 1934 and an All Fair Card Game, released by E.E. Fairchild in 1936. Another pulp magazine character, Flash Gordon - created by the King Features print company in 1934 to compete with Rogers also turned out to be a hit with readers, but collectibles were not produced on the same scale of Buck’s and there were no games produced of the character until nearly two decades later. The television program Captain Video - which debuted in 1949 and stayed on the air for six years had a game produced by Milton Bradley in 1952. Featuring a board that included a fold-out “space ship instrument panel,” it was one of the more elaborate games of the time.
Game board for Creature From the Black Lagoon Mystery Game, Hasbro, 1963.
Unlike science-fiction, horror and monster themed games did not arrive in the marketplace until the early ’60s. There had certainly been a few examples of games with a slightly spooky or macabre element, such as the 1958 Milton Bradley game, Why – A Mystery Game Presented by Alfred Hitchcock. But it wasn’t until the release of games like Ideal’s Haunted House in 1962 that horror games became popular and sold well. Markedly different than most ordinary flat board games, Haunted House required that players move up a multi-story vacuum form plastic game base through various rooms (complete with trap doors) in order to enter the house’s “attic” and locate a “hidden ruby”. Also setting it apart was a nifty little plastic owl spinner that could actually “hoot” to indicate the number of spaces to move, though later versions of the game omitted the hooting owl (presumably as a cost cutting measure), replacing it with a cardboard one with spinner. Featuring creepy/cute box artwork of an old, rundown house and bats flying in front of a large yellow moon, it’s a landmark example of horror board games.
The Munsters Card Game, Milton Bradley, 1964.
The following year saw the release of a highly regarded set of monster games: Hasbro’s Monster Mystery games. There were six different ones available – The Frankenstein Mystery Game, as well as ones for Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera and The Wolfman. They all employed the standard “the first one to reach the end of the path is the winner” mode of game play, but the boards and box packaging were exceptionally designed with breathtakingly beautiful artwork reminiscent of the work of artist James Bama - who painted the box covers for the line of Aurora plastic monster model kits. Of the six games, The Mummy, Phantom and Creature are the hardest in the series to find, and mint condition specimens can command prices of two or more thousand dollars apiece.
Lost in Space Game, Milton Bradley, 1965.
By the mid-1960s, TV shows featuring aliens from other worlds and monstrous characters were becoming more frequent to find on the air, and this had a strong influence on the board game industry. Companies that drew on TV programming to develop new game products such as Ideal and Milton Bradley did very well with sales during this fertile period. Shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, Star Trek and Dark Shadows all produced board games. In the case of cult Gothic daytime soap opera Dark Shadows, two different games were released – the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game from Milton Bradley which allowed players to build their own skeleton atop a cardboard scaffold by drawing plastic bones from a miniature Barnabas coffin, with the winner able to don the game’s vampire fangs! The other was a more traditional board game offering complete with cards from Whitman simply titled Dark Shadows Game. Additionally, monster sitcoms The Munsters and The Adams Family both saw card games released by Milton Bradley in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
Star Trek Game, Ideal Toy Corp., 1967.
Ideal’s Star Trek Game, released in 1967 featured beautiful illustrated box cover artwork of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Communications Officer Lt. Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise. The game contained "Spaceship Tokens" and the object of the game was to move your “spaceship” from Earth (positioned in the center of the game board) to three planets listed on a “Mission Destination Card,” then back again to Earth before your opponents can. The game is significant as it is only one to be released during the original run of the show.
Barnabus Collins Dark Shadows Game, Milton Bradley, 1969.
One of cinema’s greatest sci-fi film series Planet of the Apes spawned an interesting board game in 1974. Released by Milton Bradley, the game featured a cage in the center of the board in which players were to try and trap their opponents within. By rolling two dice, a player would move him/herself with one dice, and an opponent with the other.
When Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece of terror, JAWS was released to cinemas in the summer of 1975, it scarred a generations of filmgoers and made them afraid to go swimming. With The Game of JAWS, released by Ideal in 1975, players had a hook in which to remove various items (including a skull, boot, camera, lantern, bone, gun and walkie-talkie) from the shark’s mouth – before it snapped shut. Featuring the film’s iconic movie poster image, the box issued the warning: “It’s you against the great white shark … One wrong move … and the JAWS go snap!”
The Game of Jaws, Ideal Toy Corp., 1975.
The following year saw a remake of one of the most revered film classics of all time: King Kong. Helmed by producer Dino De Laurentiis and starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, this 1976 redux was an entertaining, grandiose (if at times, slightly campy) piece of filmmaking and Ideal’s game tried to replicate the spectacle of the film by featuring by having players trying to stop Kong before he reaches the top of the World Trade Center. Featuring a double-sized board designed to look like the Center - along with Kong and miniature Special Attack Team game pieces, the game’s box featured the film’s original and striking movie poster artwork of Kong straddling the Center’s twin towers. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic 9/11 events, the game was temporarily commanding high prices on eBay until site officials decided to shut down the auctions (and others where WTC memorabilia was being sold at exorbitant amounts) – deeming them in bad taste and exploitative of the emotional state of many people.
Following the unexpected stratospheric success of George Lucas’ epic space fantasy Star Wars in 1977, toy companies were scrambling to sign licensing agreements and put products into store shelves as quickly as possible. One of the earliest products to make it into hands of kids everywhere was Parker Brothers’ Escape From Death Star Game. Suitable for two to four players, the object of the game was to help free Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca from the Death Star’s Trash Compactor and help them escape to the Rebel Base. Featuring a beautifully designed box with a large image of battling X-WING and TIE Fighters and smaller images of all the main characters, the game is one of the nicest (and still quite reasonably priced) examples of original Star Wars merchandise.
Star Wars Escape From Death Star Game, Kenner, 1977
Fondly remembered and treasured by fans - both young and the young-at-heart, these classic games are the epitome of a bygone era: a simpler, more relaxed time when we could always take some time out for a game (of the non-pixilated type), have some fun and share a laugh or two with friends and family.
James Burrell is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous Canadian newspapers and magazines including the award-winning Rue Morgue. He is also an avid collector who has been acquiring vintage monster, science-fiction and superhero toys and movie collectibles for twenty-five years.