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Scrabble tiles on a game board reading 'Merry Christmas'

The history of your favourite Christmas board games

Image Credit: Mynameisyohannes / | Above: Scrabble was originally called 'Criss Cross Words'

What would Christmas be without a board game? Well, in the case of Monopoly, a bit more harmonious, probably. But, as you’re rolling the dice and not passing ‘Go’, have you ever wondered how some of your favourite board games came into existence?

Here we take a look at the fascinating stories behind some of the most popular board games in history.


Monopoly started out as ‘The Landlord’s Game’ in 1903. Its inventor, Lizzie Magie, created the game to highlight the dangers of placing capital in the hands of the few over the many. However, by the time American Charles Darrow played the game in the 1930s, it had morphed into pretty much the exact opposite of Magie’s vision. After tinkering with the game a little more, Darrow began manufacturing and distributing it. It proved such a success that Parker Brothers bought the rights and redesigned the board to feature the street names of Atlantic City.

When it came time to sell the game in the UK, Parker Brothers turned to Waddingtons, a Leeds-based manufacturer of card and board games. Waddingtons’ managing director, Victor Watson, took a trip down to London with his secretary, Margaret Phillips, to scout out locations for the UK version. The places they picked, such as Angel, Islington, Leicester Square and Whitechapel Road, became famous all over the world due to the UK version being distributed across the Commonwealth. This helped Monopoly become one of the best-selling board games of all time and the source of millions of Christmas family arguments.


In the 1930s, unemployed architect Alfred M. Butts decided to turn his hand to inventing a board game. A fan of anagrams and crosswords, Butts set out to create a word game based on both skill and chance. He studied the front page of the New York Times to see what letters were used most frequently. He then assigned higher values to lesser-used letters, and vice versa. In his game, higher-value letters would appear less frequently than low-value letters. However, the letter ‘s’, which was limited to just four tiles as Butts did not want people pluralising words to gain an unfair advantage.

His new game, which he called ‘Criss Cross Words’ was, remarkably, rejected by all the major game manufacturers. However, he eventually found a buyer in James Brunot, an entrepreneur and games enthusiast. Brunot tweaked the game a little, renamed it ‘Scrabble’ and began manufacturing it in a converted schoolhouse. Demand far outstripped supply, so Brunot approached Selchow and Righter, who had rejected the game originally. Thinking it might sell well to intellectuals in bookshops, the company agreed to license the game. Two years later, four million sets had been sold. Scrabble went on to become one of the most successful board games in history.


As German bombs rained down on Birmingham in the 1940s, musician and tank factory worker Anthony Pratt decided to invent a board game to relieve his boredom. Before the war, he had played private gigs for clients who hosted murder mystery evenings and Pratt was inspired to come up with his own murder mystery game. He enlisted his wife, Elva, to help him with the game and design the board, which she based on the rooms of Tudor Close country house near Brighton.

Pratt took ‘Murder at Tudor Close’ to Waddingtons, who snapped up the rights, changed the game’s name to ‘Cluedo’ (a play on ‘Clue’ and Ludo’) and began manufacturing it once materials became available after the war. The game was later sold to Parker Brothers in the United States, and while it was a slow seller at first, it eventually became a huge hit around the world. Its inventor, however, never shared in the huge profits Cluedo generated. Pratt sold the overseas rights to Waddingtons for £5,000 in 1953 and used the money to buy a sweet shop. He died in 1994 at the age of 90.


Albert Lamorisse was a French film director whose short film, The Red Balloon, earned him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1956. He followed this up, as you do, by inventing the strategy wargame Risk the following year. Originally called 'La Conquête du Monde' ('The Conquest of the World'), the name was changed to ‘Risk’ when Lamorisse sold the rights to Parker Brothers in 1959.

Since its release, Risk has become one of the best-selling strategy board games of all time and has inspired similar games such as Axis and Allies. To date, over 25 million copies of the game have been sold. Sadly, Lamorisse never got to enjoy his invention’s huge success. He died in a helicopter crash in 1970 whilst filming a documentary in Iran.

The Game of Life

The ‘Checkered Game of Life’ was the very first game created by Milton Bradley - the man behind one of the most successful board game companies in history. Originally, Bradley’s game looked nothing like the one we know and love today. It was a chequerboard design where players went across and up the board to get from ‘Infancy’ to ‘Happy Old Age’. The game remained this way until 1960, when it had a complete overhaul by the inventor and entrepreneur Reuben Klamer and designer Bill Markham.

Renamed ‘The Game of Life’, the new version saw the introduction of most of the elements players are familiar with today, including a 3D board with a track for players to follow, cars for playing pieces, pegs representing a family of four, and the famous spinning wheel in the centre of the board. The redesigned Game of Life was a huge success, and over 50 million copies have been sold in the United States alone.

Trivial Pursuit

The ultimate 1980s yuppie after-dinner party game, Trivial Pursuit was created in 1979 by Canadians Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. The pair sat down one night to play Scrabble, but on realising they were missing several word tiles, they decided to invent a new game from scratch instead. It only took them a few hours to come up with what would become Trivial Pursuit, and a couple of years later they had set up a company to manufacture it, financed by selling shares. The board’s designer, 18-year-old Michael Wurstlin, agreed to do the work in exchange for five shares.

Initially, the game was not a financial success. This dramatically changed when it was licensed to US games company Selchow and Righter, whose huge marketing push turned Trivial Pursuit into an overnight sensation. In 1984 alone, 20 million copies of the game were sold, generating a retail revenue of $800 million. Since then, the game has been acquired by Hasbro and the game’s original investors - Wurstlin amongst them - have become extremely wealthy people.

Board Game Facts

  • The best-selling board game of all time is chess. It’s no surprise that more chess sets have been sold than any other board game. It’s been played for the last 1,500 years.

  • During the Second World War, British Intelligence asked Waddingtons to produce a special version of Monopoly with hidden maps, identity papers and compasses concealed in the boards. These were sent to British prisoners of war to aid them during escape attempts.

  • Hasbro, the owners of Monopoly, hold a World Championships every few years. The top prize is $20,580, which is the total amount of money in a Monopoly set. The last winner was Italian Nicolò Falcone, who won in Macau in 2015. A tournament was planned for 2021 but was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Theoretically speaking, the highest-scoring word in Scrabble is ‘OXYPHENBUTAZONE’, which, if placed on the right squares, would net a player a whopping 1,458 points. So far, nobody has achieved this.