Play Stuff Blog

Family Aggravation  

However much you care for them, there’s no denying that families can be aggravating. That said, in my experience growing up, aggravation wasn’t an emotional response to stresses in our household—it meant Aggravation, my family’s favorite board game.

Parcheesi, about 1910. Gift of the Koronowski Family in Memory of Elizabeth A. (Brillhart) Koronowski, The Strong, Rochester, New York. But before Aggravation—both in my family and the world of games—there was Parcheesi or, in its original name, Pachisi. About the time that the global calendar transitioned from B.C. to A.D, Pachisi established itself as a classic board game in India. Over the intervening couple thousand years, game players and game makers recognized the appeal of the game’s cross-shaped path that sent players traveling from start to home, navigating the obstacles posed by other players who can establish blockades to hold back other players or send a piece back to the beginning to start the course all over again. While handmade folk versions of Pachisi had been around for decades, in 1874, American game manufacturer Selchow and Righter applied the name Parcheesi to a game concept (basically Pachisi) that they’d acquired back in 1867. Parcheesi soon became a staple of the firm’s product line. The Parcheesi set I grew up with in the 1960s was obviously an inheritance, most likely from my mom’s family, and a close match to this Parcheesi set from about 1910 in The Strong museum’s collection.

Aggravation, 1970. Gift of Susan M. Barbato in honor of Ralph H. and Mary Y. Barbato, The Strong, Rochester, New York. Then, in 1972, my family discovered Aggravation, a streamlined version of Parcheesi, played on a board with a cross-shaped path and using marbles as playing pieces. Where we’d been serious competitors at Parcheesi, somehow Aggravation made us even more competitive and cutthroat (in a mostly enjoyable way). We’d typically played Parcheesi on an “every-person-for-themselves” basis, but we now played Aggravation in two teams of two, inspiring fervent and high volume coaching of partners and exhortations to the dice to PLEASE give the desired count to send an opponent’s marble back to start over. In our family terminology, that was “killing” the marble. Evening games of Aggravation were staples of our summer camping trips. Given the proximity of our travel trailer to people in adjoining campsites, I’m confident that more than a few nearby campers heard repeated shrieks of “Kill him! Kill him!” from our overheated game play as we urged our partner to give a competitor’s marble a setback. Thank goodness those were less nervous times with no cellphones, or we might have found ourselves encircled by a SWAT team as we innocently played Aggravation.

Trouble, 1970. Gift of Susan M. Barbato in honor of Ralph H. and Mary Y. Barbato, The Strong, Rochester, New York. Back in the 1970s, I didn’t fully appreciate that Aggravation wasn’t the only Parcheesi variation out there in the universe of board games. Sorry! and Trouble had similar boards and game play and probably experienced even more success in the marketplace than Aggravation did. Trouble offered the novel feature of its Pop-o-Matic, the dome that covered its dice at the center of the board. And Sorry! benefitted from the marketing might of Parker Brothers, the folks behind such tabletop game juggernauts as Monopoly.

Even as grownups, my sister and I still maintain our fondness for Aggravation today. She passed the tradition on to her children and it remains a staple of family get-togethers. I have to say that our significant others are a little less fond of the game than we are. For my husband and her boyfriend, it might just be aggravation not Aggravation when we haul out the Aggravation board…