The Guru Of Games
by Minda Zetlin
Originally published in GAMES Magazine, Feb/Mar 1987
Some musicians can look at a musical score and hear the melody in their heads. Sid Sackson claims he can do the same thing with games: By reading a game’s instructions and looking at its equipment, he can envision clearly how the game will play- and whether or not it will be fun.
This isn’t a God-given talent, but the result of long years of experience. Sackson, 66, has devoted most of his life to games. One of the world’s foremost game inventors, he has created well over 500 games, of which about 50 have been marketed, written seven books about games, played about 3,000, and, according to The People’s Almanac III, owns the world’s largest collection of games.
A native of Chicago, the slight, soft-spoken Sackson seems more like a bookkeeper than a game player. But games have been a fascination, he says, for as long as he can remember. "In the good times, when I was growing up, my mother used to buy me a new game every week." A game a week? "It was my big treat," he explains. Right from the start, Sackson worked on improving the games his mother bought him. "I sort of changed Uncle Wiggily so that there were four rabbits instead of just one. And I had the rabbits fight each other. It was a kind of miniature war game."
The first such twist on an old game Sackson was able to sell was Poke, a poker variation that was published in 1946 in Esquire. "It’s a trick-taking game in which you get points for taking the trick as well as for having the higher poker hand, so you’re trying to do two things at once," be says. "I played that with my friends in high school." His two-handed version of bridge, called Slam, was published in 1951 in a syndicated bridge column.
Sackson also invented a solitaire war game that used the equipment from Lotto, a forerunner of Bingo that was popular at that time. "My family was moving from apartment to apartment from 1932 to 1939, and it was difficult to make friends," he says. "Since I was lonely, I would amuse myself by playing the game for hours."
By 1958, Sackson had invented scores of games-but had sold none. In the meantime, having gotten his start designing battleships during World War II, he’d become a successful engineer. One day he met another game inventor demonstrating his wares in Gimbels, a New York department store.
"We started talking, and I mentioned that I’d invented more than 100 games," Sackson says. "Later on, he told me that he had thought, ‘Oh, no, another nut!’ But we talked for a while and he decided I seemed pretty sane, so he finally took a chance and offered to introduce me to his agent."
The agent agreed to try to sell some of Sackson’s games. A four-year wait followed, while various companies considered the products. Finally, in 1962, one firm agreed to buy a Sackson game called High Spirits.
However, "They sort of wrecked it," says Sackson. "I thought it was a pretty good adults’ game, and they turned it into a mediocre kids’ game." Meanwhile, Sackson was developing the solitaire game he’d played as a young boy. It was now a multi-player game called Acquire. Shortly after High Spirits was purchased, he sold Acquire to 3M. Not only was this the beginning of a beautiful friendship- 3M would buy six more of his games- it also turned out to be his most durable creation. First produced in 1962, Acquire still sells today.
Sackson’s involvement with games kept on growing through the 1960s. By 1970, he was struggling to keep up not only with his inventions, but also with his engineering job and the game reviews he was writing for Strategy & Tactics magazine. Then Hallmark produced a summer-long exhibit of games at its New York gallery. "My agent arranged for me to go there and present my games one week," says Sackson. When he couldn’t get a week off from his job, even without pay, he quit. "By then, I was making more money with games than as an engineer," he notes. He’s been a full-time game inventor and consultant ever since. Sackson is also a contributing editor and regular reviewer for GAMES. Over the years, about a dozen of his pen and pencil, card, and board games have appeared in the magazine.
Being a game inventor takes a certain kind of mentality, particularly when abstract strategy games are a specialty, as they are with Sackson: "You need an orderly mind, and a command of mathematics, especially probability theory," he says. And you also need patience. For example, it took Sackson years to work the kinks out of Acquire, which evolved from a war game to a game with a business theme. On the other hand, the idea for his game Domination (which, under the name Focus, was the 1980 Game of the Year in West Germany) came to him in about five minutes.
Having invented so many games (Sleuth, Can’t Stop, Venture, Holiday, Executive Decision, Blockade, and Major Battles and Campaigns of George S. Patton, to name just a few), does Sackson worry he’ll run out of ideas? "Some industry people say there are only so many games," he says. "But it’s not true. Just as we never run out of new jokes, we’ll never run out of games."
Sackson draws his inspiration from practically anywhere. For instance, a friend of his invented a game in which players must move their pieces until they’re all gathered in one group. Intrigued by this, Sackson created a version that works the other way round: Players must move their pieces until they’re all separated from each other.
Bazaar, one of his more popular games, came about when his son, Dana, was studying trigonometry. "In trig, you often have long series of equations, like ‘cosine squared equals one minus sine squared,’ and you try to get from one equation to another. This struck me as a potentially interesting idea for a game. So I made a game with chips of various colors that are used to form equations like ‘red equals blue, green, and yellow.’ " Players get points by trading in their chips according to a varying set of such equations, trying to end up with a certain set.
Despite the nearly infinite potential for original games, Sackson complains that many games published today simply rehash old ones. "When trivia was big there were loads of trivia games. And there have been dozens of Monopoly knockoffs."
Worse yet, according to Sackson, are games that just don’t play well. In one game he encountered, the first player could win on the first move. Then there are games whose instructions are impossible to follow. "It’s surprising how companies will sometimes produce games that don’t work. It seems like they’re in a hurry to get a game out, and they figure it will only be around for a couple of years-- so why not?"
Occasionally, these games that don’t work can be a boon to Sackson, who has frequently been called upon by game manufacturers to fix them. For example, he was asked to update Mousetrap to make it a more competitive game, and, more recently, to improve the play of Doorways to Adventure and Doorways to Horror (reviewed this month in Games & Books, page 47), two VCR games.
To make sure that his games all play well, Sackson has them playtested extensively by his wife Bernice (who would happily play games forever), his friends, and a local Mensa group. By that stage, his games are usually 90 percent finished. Sometimes Sackson’s son is recruited for this task. "I have to twist his arm, and he’s a rough critic. If he likes a game, I know it’s really good," says Sackson.
What are the qualities Sackson himself likes in a game? "It should be easy to learn yet have infinite strategic possibilities, give you the chance to make choices, create interaction among players, and take a maximum of one and a half hours to play. Of course, there are a few exceptions-- Diplomacy takes a long time to finish, but it’s still a great game."
Not satisfied with inventing, reviewing, fixing, and playing games, Sackson also collects them. Three rooms of his house in New York City, as well as the entire basement, are filled with board games stacked from floor to ceiling. Like the Chinese box-within-a-box, these game boxes sometimes contain two, three, four, or even 10 different games, crowded together to economize space. And file cabinets hold reproductions and detailed descriptions of thousands more games. All in all, Sackson has, or has reference material on, more than 15,000 different games, the largest such assemblage anywhere.
Although he stores his games in no apparent order or system, Sackson can swiftly locate any of them, seemingly by some inner map. But for the most part, when it comes to games, Sackson leaves very little to chance. For more than 20 years, he has kept meticulous, indexed journals detailing every piece of information, however slight, he learns about a game.
Nothing that has to do with games escapes his thorough collector’s eye. In the basement, across from a pile of children’s board games ("I’m saving these for my daughter Dale’s children to play with," Sackson says) is a plastic cabinet made of tiny compartments that appear to be filled with brightly colored penny candies. Actually, they hold game pieces, thousands of miscellaneous tokens, chips, or other objects that Sackson may one day find useful in creating game prototypes. Sackson’s handmade prototypes, waiting to be perfected, are stored upstairs in cardboard boxes, and, in the case of one three-dimensional game, in a wig box donated by his wife.
Sackson doesn’t collect games for their monetary value, but because he’s interested in how they play. Almost none are in mint condition, some are duplicates ("I can’t resist buying old games of Risk for their wooden pieces," he says, pointing to nine of them stacked on a shelf), and more than a few are silly, like Let’s All Skinny Dip, an off-color board game meant to be played poolside. But Sackson does own several antique games, including Lightning, a 19th-century board game somewhat similar to the connection game of Twixt.
Sackson’s own games have been published in many foreign editions; the most unusual were Japanese versions of Totally, Pushover, and Intersection, the rules of which come on records. In fact, Sackson owns a sizeable collection of foreign games, including a large number from Germany. Per capita, says Sackson, Germany publishes the most games: "Germans consider it the parents’ duty to play games with their kids-- but they avoid all war games."
Many games in Sackson’s collection reflect the political and social currents of their times. For instance, from the early 1970s are Who Can Beat Nixon?, The Watergate Caper, and Beat the Draft. A game called JFK-Just For Kicks, poked fun at John F. Kennedy, but "when he was shot, they quickly had to pull it off the shelves," says Sackson.
An inspection of Sackson’s games also turns up Nuclear Armageddon, a game that sells for $130, partly, no doubt, because its playing pieces, like the plaster mushroom clouds, are handmade. And there’s The Godfather Game, which came in a styrofoam violin case, and is based, Sackson says, on the classic Oriental strategy game of Go, of all things. A New York congressman tried to have it removed from stores because of its Mafia connotations, but, Sackson notes, "he only succeeded in bringing the game more publicity."
In addition to games, Sackson owns hundreds of books about games, in nine languages. Among the jewels of his collection (besides his own book, the classic A Gamut of Games, a compendium of original card, board, and party games, which was reviewed in February 1983 GAMES) is a 1752 pirated edition of Edmond Hoyle’s A Short Treatise on the Game of Piquet. Another dusty book, published in 1803, details a Prussian game that Sackson likens to a "very complicated version of chess. The board is about 100 by 80 spaces, and each space is actually a cube that can present one of six sides. So there’s an infinite variety of possible boards. The game was designed to teach army officers military strategy."
His oldest book dates back to 1580-it’s dedicated to Catherine de Medici-and contains 100 games, most of which are trivia quizzes. (They were popular 400 years ago, too.)
Outside of inventing new games, Sackson’s biggest concern is finding a good home for his collection. Some years ago, he was invited to bring it to the Boston Children’s Museum and to remain there as curator. Unfortunately, the logistics weren’t right and he had to turn down the offer.
"I need about half a year to get it all catalogued," he says. "And I never seem to get that half year." Any institution that adopted his collection would need him to come along with it to get it into shape, he says.
How did Sackson come to own the world’s largest game collection in the first place? "When we got married in 1941, my wife and I spent a lot of time doing jigsaw puzzles," he says. "But we got sick of that pretty quickly, and switched to games. We were friends with another couple who also enjoyed games, and throughout the war and afterward they would come over almost every week and play."
The transformation from casual game-buyer to collector happened partly because, as a reviewer for Strategy & Tactics, Sackson received many review copies of games. "Then I discovered rummage sales and I really got going," he says. "It’s definitely turned into an addiction."
So much so that when a friend called Sackson in New York and mentioned that he’d seen a game called Circo-Logic in Philadelphia, Sackson and his wife immediately hopped in their car and drove there to hunt it down. What makes this more remarkable is that the friend couldn’t remember exactly where he’d seen the game, but Sackson found it nonetheless.
Surrounded by games, it’s impossible to resist asking Sackson what his favorite is. For him, it’s a common question. "I can’t single one out," he says. "I usually answer by saying that if I had to pick just one game to play for the rest of my life, it would be duplicate bridge. But I would really hate to be in that position."
This article is copyrighted by Minda Zetlin, and it appears thanks to her generosity. Minda's website can be found at http://www.mindazetlin.com, and you're encouraged to pay it a visit.