The history of electronic board games

Remember Electronic Battleship and other board games that incorporated electronics into the gameplay starting in the 1970s? It wasn't always a good thing...


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.

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: Sector was 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 computerize versions of their classic board games.

Milton Bradley did just that with Electronic Battleship in 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 Thief was 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 & Dragons pen-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 Tower capitalized 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 Monopoly set 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—confused 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 digitized voice—and generally scared the heck out of any nearby pets or small children.

Electronic Mall Madness (1990)

As every girl knows, nothing is more exciting than going to the mall and racking up a lifetime of indebtedness (insert sarcasm here). So Milton Bradley—which had demonstrated its genius for creating gender-stereotype-reinforcing games with 1965's incomparable (but regrettably nonelectronic) Mystery Date—decided to turn that insight into a very pink board game.

In Electronic Mall Madness, players pushed a button on a center console to hear where the latest sales were occurring at the mall, and then race to reach them first.

To buy items, players inserted a faux credit card into the battery-operated electronic centerpiece. Whoever bought six strategic items and returned to the mall parking lot first won the game (but lost their soul).

Electronic Dream Phone (1991)

One year after Mall Madness, Milton Bradley was at it again with another electronic pink girl game.

Electronic Dream Phone came with a set of cards bearing photos of dreamy boys (no duds this time!) and their phone numbers. Players would call up the dreamy number on a dreamy card and gather dreamy clues about their secret admirer's clothes, shoes, sports, or hangouts.

By trial and error, players would determine who the secret admirer was—and marry him forever! Electronically, of course.

The Ωmega Virus (1992)

Girls may like phones and malls, but boys like gruesome anthropomorphic alien viruses that threaten them with disembowelment.

In The Ωmega Virus, players used an electronic computer at the center of the game board to hunt down the game's titular villain. Along the way, they picked up weapons and keycards to aid them in their quest.

Meantime, the Virus taunted players mercilessly via a disembodied digitized voice emanating from a plastic speaker box.

Not only was The Ωmega Virus produced by Milton Bradley, but according to Wikipedia it was designed by the same guy responsible for Mall Madness and Dream Phone. Just think: If the Virus had been a Dream Phone option, MB might have had a crossover hit!

Lego Treasure Quest (1998)

Electronic board games suffered during the mid- to late 1990s at the hands of video games, which easily won children's affection thanks to ever-increasing realism and complexity.

As a result, it's hard to find an electronic board game that typified the era.

Lego Treasure Quest by Roseart didn't typify anything, but it did provide a family treasure-hunting experience that incorporated a treasure chest capable of optically reading stripes printed on keycards.

The result was an interactive game that few people played.

Clue FX (2003)

Clue FX electronified/electronisized/ electrocuted Parker Brothers' legendary 1949 board game Clue by adding electronic sound effects and speech that tied into the classic whodunit gameplay (with a candlestick in the library). The game still doesn't allow an outcome of "The butler did it," but now at least you can declare that "The butler narrated it."

Unlike the original game, Clue FX takes place outside a mansion. The weaponry is somewhat more exotic, too: In place of the old standby knife, rope, lead pipe, wrench, etc., the murderer has access to garden shears, a hammer, a horseshoe, a tennis racket, a water bucket, and (most temptingly) a lawn gnome. Also unlike the original: Clue FX can run out of batteries.

Whoowasit? (2007)

Even in recent times, board game companies have continued to create electronically complemented experiences for players of all ages. The recent popularity of German-style board games has buoyed this trend.

In Ravensburger's Whoowasit?, players attempt to find a magical ring that an evil wizard has hidden in a large mansion. Along the way, various woodland creatures provide clues to the players through a talking electronic treasure chest.

Monopoly Zapped Edition (2012)

Just last year—35 years after the emergence of the first electronic board games—Hasbro pushed the medium forward (or sideways) by integrating a traditional game board with the Apple iPad.

Among the games that use the iPad in this fashion are Monopoly Zapped Edition (far left) and Life Zapped Edition (upper right).

Interestingly, in the Monopoly game, players use an app running on the iPad to perform functions very similar to the previously mentioned Monopoly Playmaster accessory, bringing electronic board games full circle.

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