Game Design Inspirations: Some childhood 70’s non-electronic games and books

Game Design Inspirations: Some childhood 70’s non-electronic games and books

Growing up in the 70’s Steve and I didn’t always  have access to electronic and video games. It was 1981 before we had our first 2600, and before that we had but a smattering of hand-held electronic games that failed to effectively quell the urge to blow up digital arcade space ships. While we had many friends who had Apple computers, Atari 2600’s, Bally Astro-cades, and even a Fairchild Channel F, we had to make do with non-video game interactive fun most of our early years. We did spend a lot of time going to local arcades and various haunts (liquor stores, grocery stores, etc) to play arcade games, but we found ourselves engaged with much more traditional entertainment before we had our own video game and computer systems. While we did spend a large amount of time outside making up baseball, soccer, basketball, and other sports games on our 150 foot driveway, when it came to virtual entertainment we mostly had traditional mediums to feed our hunger.

In this article we will take a look at a smattering of games I remember playing during this time. I am choosing ones that are not simply popular traditional board games (such as chess, Monopoly, checkers, Connect 4, etc) but rather ones that I remember being a little unique and maybe a little more interactive. While the traditional board games are an obvious inspiration for many recent games (especially clones), it is these lesser known games, books, etc that I think can give us some interesting ideas for games.

Bushwhacker (and other interactive board games)

I remember playing quite a few interactive board or pen and paper games during this time. The obvious pen and paper Avalon Hill war and TSR Dungeon Master games were actually made into computer games themselves in the late 70’s (and continue on today). The unique board games seem to have been forgotten. These were games that combined some of the merits of a traditional board games (dice, cards, moving about a board) with some elements of war and dungeon quests – equipment to buy, various strategies for winning, and even and unique in-game economy. Monopoly and even the early Game of Life are two examples that have survived, but there was one (forgotten?) game that our father had called Bushwhacker that seemed to combine all of these elements into one.

Bushwhacker was a board game based on the old 1800’s gold and silver mining days in the West. It came packaged in a long fat tube with the board rolled up inside. The game board was made of heavy plastic coated paper map on one side and felt on the reverse side. It was a very quality package that I am certain our dad had purchased this mail-order from the actual game designer (as very few were probably ever made). I can’t find any links to it on the infobaun, but as I remember, it was sort of like a gold-mining version of Monopoly. You traveled around the game map finding gold claims, digging for treasure, buying equipment, and avoiding the “bad lands” and “banditos” there in.

The goal was to “bushwhack” the other players and steal their gold and claims. Games about the old West and especially goal mining seem to be ripe for exploitation as video games. The recent triumph of Red Dead Redemption will probably lead to a slew of copycats in AAA titles. I have seen a few casual and Flash games cover this topic, but none as a multi-player strategy game. I am sure there is or will be a Zenga game based on gold and gambling, but what I would like to see is a real adventure / strategy game in the Dune II variety using this theme.

I am sure there were many more games like this produced by budding game developers who didn’t have any electronic mediums in which to present their ideas. A trip to the local thrift store might yield some great finds and good ideas that can be molded into an interactive game.

The interactive board game is an idea that I think can be re-applied today. I have heard of some games using this concept – move pieces about a board and then play mini games to resolve conflicts on various game board squares. We have a Sponge Bob Monopoly game that attempts (with some success) this concept, but I think it is a ripe avenue for many more games and ideas.

Games Magazine Eyeball Benders

I always found most of the activities in Games magazine to be unique, if a little too mind bending for an action/arcade game fan like me. For me, one of the most interesting items in each magazine was a page with pictures of objects taken with a zoom lens. Your job was to figure out what each object was. The magazine is still going strong and has not diverted from its traditional roots. Here is a page on their site with some example games, including an Eyeball Bender. This could make a very simple Flash or HTML5 game or even a “Daily Game” on the prize sites.

There is even a site that celebrates these at


Yes and Know Pens Books

Sometimes known as “invisible ink pen games” these books contained puzzles, mazes, trivia, and other games that were all played by uncovering invisible ink with a pen. These are still available from Lee Publications (Some of the titles on this page I even remember owning 30 years ago!!! )

These were some of the first real interactive games we had. They were much better than traditional puzzle books or even Games magazine (to us at least) because of the added thrill of uncovering the answer to games and trivia with the pen and not having to go to the back of the book.  This created a very unique user interface that drew us into to fun in a brand new way.

I’m not sure that the actual games in these books offer any additional play ideas today, but they show how one can take the traditional medium (a book) and offer up a much higher level of interactivity by simple changing the rules of how it is read and the interface for doing so. These were very ingenious for their time. I certainly remember mazes, early games similar to the Microsoft minesweeper, connect the dots and more. The simple medium of the touch surface might make these types of games and activities much more viable now then ever before on electronic mediums.


(I remember buying this one at at J.J Newbery at the original South Bay Mall in 1978!)

Mad Libs

Mad Libs were sold in the same stores and shelf locations as Yes and Know Pens (usually on a Lazy Susan rack of some sort). Mad Libs are also still available today, but back then they were much more popular (than now) because we had fewer avenues for interactive, creative multi-player fun (let alone ones  that allowed to make up sick and nasty stories stories with our friends). They also were a quick and very simple interface for fun multi-player player games.

Each “Mad Lib” was a story with various strategic words left out. One player (we’ll call her the Mad Lib Master) would read the story and ask the other players for words to fill in the blanks. Along with the blanks were the actual “parts of speech” that should fill in each spot. For example, it might say “Dave used his _____ to fight the fire”. Under the _____ would be the word “noun” and the Mad Lib Master would query the other players for a noun to fill that space. Steve and I (plus our sisters and various neighborhood friends) used to fill these with pretty much as many bad words as we knew at the time. If you were a particularly clever (or sick) Mad Lib Master you would ask for all of the word types in advance and then fill in the ones that sounded the worst (or best, or most sickening) in the various spots.

Word games will always be popular, and if you can some how combine them with multi-player double entendre sex and poop jokes you will probably have a Facebook hit on your hands.


Game Books and Adventure Game Books

These books started arriving on shelves on the late 70’s and early 80’s and changed what many thought static entertainment could be. The most popular were the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. It is difficult to describe the incredible impact these books had on us when we had no other interactive story-telling medium at our disposal. The books were essentially what computer adventure games would become stripped of everything but the core story. At the end of every page or every few pages the reader would be given a chance to choose what the main character would do next from a small series of choices. The best of these books had a moderate number of endings (not too few and certainly not too many) and very nicely drawn out stories that could be re-read a number of times.

The point we can take from these is that the story and possible endings had to be good or the reader simply would not start up the story again to explore all of the different ending possibilities. The text adventure or even traditional adventure game is one that is not developed often anymore. One reason may be that writing the stories is a very difficult and time consuming process. If done right though there could be a re-birth of this genre using something like Chris Crawford’s interactive story telling ideas.


(either Steve or I got this from a 4th grade book fair. We never look at books the same way again).

Encyclopedia Brown

Encyclopedia Brown books were as unique as the Choose Your Own Adventure books, if just slightly less interactive. The point of these books was for the reader to figure out the answer to the mystery contained in each chapter. As the Reader followed Encyclopedia Brown, the boy hero of each story, through each story he/she was tasked with figuring out who was lying, who was telling the truth, what facts to ignore and which were certain clues. Mostly the answers were based on some sort of scientific fact or observable logical fallacy. I remember pouring over each chapter in hopes of finding that one clue they hoped I would miss before I read the mystery answer. Aside from reading comprehension these stories taught budding little minds many facts and trivia that we could use to impress our parents and friends. The point of these in a game-sense was very similar to the “hidden object” games of today, but took much more analytical skills to accomplish. Today, a good set of mysteries based on certain topics might be a nice educational tool as well as a fun way to spend some online game time.


(The school library was full of these babies!)

What do you think?

What games and traditional mediums did you (or do you currently) play that might help spur some game design ideas? Let us know in the comments if you have any suggestions you would like to share.


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