Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Paul Reiche III Papers at The Strong

The histories of tabletop games and video games are deeply woven together. Analog and digital games often share similar mechanics (such as experience points) or similar settings (e.g. dungeon crawling). Many times in the past, game makers have ported titles from one medium to the other. And yet perhaps the most crucial connection between analog and video games lies in the personal biographies of many game designers, who often began work with board games before applying their skills to the digital medium. The career of Paul Reiche III exemplifies these close, often interlocking relationships between analog and digital game design, and the personal papers that he recently donated to The Strong demonstrate how his apprenticeship in designing tabletop games laid the foundation for his creative career in video game design.

Geomorphic Mini Dungeon Modules, 1979.

Paul Reiche grew up in Berkeley, California (though he spent many summers on a family ranch in Nebraska). California— and Berkeley especially— offered a heady mix of counterculture creativity and technological exploration. When I was in California collecting his materials, Paul told me about going to the New Games Festivals organized by Stewart Brand which featured large group play that represented a peaceful substitute for the violence of the Vietnam War. He also became a passionate Dungeons and Dragons partner and teamed with Erol Otus and Matt Genser to form a company selling playing aids for role-playing games such as a book of spells and a modular system for dungeon design that “enables game masters to quickly construct intricate and complex dungeons with ease!” 

 

CTHULU Chronicle fanzine for ex-TSR employees, 1983. Attending the University of California at Berkeley was a logical move for a hometown boy, but shortly after enrolling Reiche decamped to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to work for the hottest game company in the country: Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), the manufacturer of Dungeons & Dragons. Reiche only stayed at TSR for a year, and when I asked him in an interview what Wisconsin was like after a childhood in California his response was immediate, “Cold! Really cold!” But at TSR he gained crucial experience in working at a large game company, contributing during his time to the development of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide and a module for the sci-fi role-playing game Gamma World. Even after leaving the company, he stayed in touch with many colleagues there. One very interesting piece in his papers is a newsletter created by alumni of TSR called the Cthulu Chronicle, which stood for “The Confederation of TSR Hirelings Undaunted by Leaving The Has-been Unethicaloids.” 

Archon, Electronic Arts, 1983. Paul returned to Berkeley and soon began work with Jon Freeman, Anne Westfall, and Robert Leyland on Archon, a variant on chess with an added layer of arcade combat. He also developed Murder on the Zinderneuf, of which he wryly notes that it is possibly the best murder-mystery game ever set on a dirigible. His career continued with games, including a collaboration with Evan and Mickey Robinson on Mail Order Monsters and World Tour Golf. He then tried his hand at early digital advertising for companies such as IBM, Chase Bank and BMW, making interactive experiences that companies would mail to customers on disks. Paul recalled wearing a suit in Detroit and thinking, “What am I doing? I need to get back into games.”

At that point he set about to start a new venture and find a programming partner, a path that led to the formation of Toys for Bob with Fred Ford. Part of the impetus for their partnership was when a programmer pulled out from a game Paul was working on called Elmo in the Fourth Dimension. Fred stepped in to finish the job and they have been collaborating ever since. While ELMO in the Fourth Dimension was never released, a notebook full of items from that game is included in the papers he has donated. 

After signing a three-title deal with producer Shelley Day at Accolade, Reiche and Ford produced their hit game Star Control, which was followed by Star Control II. Once their contract with Accolade concluded and they were ready for a new style of game, Toys for Bob produced The Horde for Crystal Dynamics and other games such as 102 Dalmatians. In 2005, Activision acquired Toys for Bob, and the company created a number of movie-related games before developing the hit Skylanders franchise, something I wrote about here when Paul arranged for a donation to The Strong of a vast collection of materials related to the development of that pioneering game.

Concept Art from Elmo in the Fourth Dimension, ca. 1988.

The materials in this present collection of Paul’s papers not only add to and supplement the Skylanders story but also provide important insights into the minds of an important game developer whose career has played a key role in the development of gaming. The materials include a wide range of primary-source documentation, such as sketches, design notes, correspondence, project planning documents, and random jottings that offer insight into how the games industry worked and the personal relationships that made it go.

Those seeking to understand the history of the medium—whether that’s how game designers came up with their ideas, how individual games were created, or how the industry advanced through a series of relationships that were often as much personal and playful as they were professional and profit-oriented—will find these materials an invaluable record for understanding the rise of computer gaming. Scholars 100 years from now will be grateful to Paul—as we are—for saving these papers and donating them to The Strong.

The Paper Airplane Soars into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Historians debate the origins of paper airplanes. Early attempts at constructing flying machines fascinated children and adults alike. The success of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 fostered renewed hope of powered flight and no doubt contributed to the purported invention, in 1909, of the paper airplane.

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Quite a Character

“Victoria? I have to tell you something… And you’re definitely going to roll your eyes.”

I stare at my stepson and brace myself for whatever words are about to follow. We are sitting around the table at my in-laws home eating spaghetti and he’s looking a bit worn out from the NHL hockey game he attended earlier that day in Montreal. I set my fork down in anticipation.

“Hit it,” I prompt.

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Wiffle Ball Joins the National Toy Hall of Fame Line-up

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Scooby Doo as Colonel Mustard in the Graveyard: Licensed Clue Games

​Today people find themselves bombarded with ideas, images, and characters from every kind of media.

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Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

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Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

As Chief Curator for The Strong, I start each morning with a to-do list and an idea of what I’m hoping to accomplish, but I can’t always picture what will turn up in the course of a day.

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America!

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