Electric football games from the 1960s were a study in frustration.
You’d take the time to line up your teams in formation, then flip a switch and watch players head in every direction but forward as the table buzzed loudly. To throw a pass, a player had to turn off the switch and call “pass,” pulling back the quarterback’s arm and letting go, trying to get the little felt football to hit the intended receiver. It never seemed to work.
Steve Anderson remembers those games when he was growing up in Iowa.
“I have two older brothers and we had maybe four or five games,” he said. “We’d dig them out at Thanksgiving.
“I liked the covers, some of the cool stuff on them.”
Anderson, 52, is now a serious collector of tabletop football games, and he has put together a self-published, comprehensive picture guide of games dating back to the 1890s.
“Steve Anderson’s Retro Football Games: A Nostalgic Look at 90 Years of Tabletop Games,” is a treasure trove of memories and information on some of the most popular tabletop games played by young people (and adults) before the age of electronic gaming. Anderson, a Minneapolis-area resident who founded a technology solutions company in Chaska, Minnesota, has spent six years putting together the pictorial encyclopedia.
If the game has dice, spinners, miniature players or boards, it’s in the book.
On his website, Anderson explains that the book’s purpose was “to present the most extensive catalog possible — including pictures — to provide a flavor of the games.” He even produced a video to display some of the more intriguing games.
The idea came to him while he was working on putting up shelves to display the more than 275 games he owns.
“I was looking for a book as a reference guide and couldn’t find one,” he said. “One day when I was putting up shelving for the games, it hit me. I thought, ‘hey, I could write a book on this.’ ”
Anderson did not shelve that idea. He got to work, assembling his collection for high resolution photography shots, and started looking for nuggets of trivia to spice up the text. What Anderson has created is an interesting look at the game of football through the past century.
“It’s primarily a picture guide. I don’t try to fool anyone,” he said. “But I looked at it as the kind of book that if you’re over to a friend’s house and see it, or you’re at the doctor or dentist, you’d pick it up to take a look at it.”
This 200-page book is broken down by era, with an introduction, a price guide explanation and recommended reading included. There’s also a game index.
Each game has been assigned a scarcity rating, from very common to rare. Once you get used to the color coding, you won’t have to keep flipping back to page 10 to refresh your memory.
Prices were determined by more than two decades of collecting and research. Anderson monitored eBay, attended sports conventions and got input from other collectors. A member of the Professional Football Researchers Association, Anderson wrote several pieces of text and added some trivia “to break up some stuff,” so readers were not just looking at photographs.
Answers to the trivia questions are scattered throughout the book.
The same year Parker Brothers hit it big with Monopoly (1935), it also put out a football board game called Tom Hamilton’s Pigskin. This game is part of the chapter about “endorsed” games — board games that companies hoped would be successful because of the player or coach associated with it. Men like Pop Warner, whose game was “The Big Game for Lads and Dads.”
Other notable endorsers included Paul Brown, Tom Harmon, Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Bobby Dodd, Chuck Bednarik, Johnny Unitas, Bear Bryant, Kyle Rote, Bart Starr and Fran Tarkenton. Florida Gator fans could enjoy the Ray Graves-endorsed Armchair Quarterback game. Jerry Kramer’s game? It was called Instant Replay, of course.
“Vintage Games, 1890-1929,” traces the earliest board games. “The Game of Foot Ball” by Parker Brothers had a rugby-like feel to it. The 1914 game “Quarterback” touted its game of strategy was “Simple for Children — yet Scientific for the Older Folks.”
“Some of the companies were kind of innocent in their approach,” Anderson said.
The “Yale-Harvard Football Game” in 1922 played off the game’s oldest college rivalry. The Big Ten Football Game in 1927 had “a kick in it.”
A really cool game was the 1927 product, Woolsey’s Foot Ball Game.” A mechanical figurine, looking like a placekicker, is used. A ball is placed at his feet, and the figure tries to “kick” the ball into one of the holes of the bi-fold board.
Games from 1930 to 1949 used simple elements like cards, dice and spinners.
One of Anderson’s more unusual items was Rotolette Foot-Ball, a 1933 game that determines yardage via a multi-step process. A metal spinner, along with dials, are used to reveal the play.
“The game had a wooden frame, it looked like a box that you’d use to store sterling silver,” Anderson said.
The 1946 Los Angeles Rams Football Game touted itself as a “Game of Skill! Not a Game of Chance!” a not so subtle tweak of its competitors. Rummy Football in 1946 utilized a standard deck of playing cards.
Anderson agrees that the period from 1950 to 1975 was the golden age of football tabletop games. This was the age of electric football, first introduced by Tudor in 1949 but a big seller for many years afterward, and more cerebral, dice-oriented games like APBA Football and Strat-O-Matic.
“There is a pretty loyal base of Strat-O-Matic and APBA fans,” Anderson said. “The first dozen sales of the book were through the (Internet) forums.”
There were some oddball games, too.
The Donald Duck Tricky Toe game in 1965 had the grumpy Disney duck kicking field goals. An Official Football Chess game in 1967 used chess pieces as football players.
In 1967, De Luxe Topper Corporation introduced a robot in its game, Charley ’n Me. Charley is “the world greatest computerized pre-programmed robot,” who can play games with kids “just like a human being.”
In 1969, Marx produced Pro Bowl Live Action Football. This game used a 7-foot by 3 ½-foot plastic playing field mat, with 4-inch plastic figures. Lay on the mat and position your players, so to speak.
The 1960s was the era Anderson became interested in sports. He rekindled his love for tabletop games during the mid-1990s.
“I was at a fundraiser and they had a garage sale, and I saw a Roger Staubach ‘Monday Night Football’ Game for five dollars.”
Anderson bought that game, and that was the spark. He now owns 278 different games. Anderson owns all but two of the games shown or described in “Retro Football Games,”. And as he continued to compile photographs and information for the book, his project got bigger.
“I just kept finding more and more games,” he said.
The 1970s saw the development of handheld devices and games that utilized audio features. One of Anderson’s favorite games from that period was the 1971 product by Mattel, called Talking Football.
A record player was used, and each player inserted a disc into the player. The result was a broadcasting call of the play. Mattel used broadcaster Dick Enberg.
Oh, my, indeed.
In “Retro Football Games,” Anderson urges readers to “put down that video controller or smartphone.” Advanced electronics and computers diverted kids away from board games, starting in the late 1970s.
“The computer chip ultimately killed it.” Anderson said. “Kids are now looking for games with immediate response or gratification, whereas a board game takes more time and involves more strategy. That part was fun when I was a kid, you know, ‘I’m Johnny Unitas and you’re Bart Starr’.”
That’s what makes a book like “Retro Football Games” so much fun to leaf through.
“This book is about rekindling what we knew,” Anderson said, “and discovering something new too.”
The book is available for $25 through Amazon.com or through Anderson’s website. You can see vintage football board games on eBay here.