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Collecting in the Heartland: Board games

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 17, 2008 - Americans have been fascinated with - some might even say addicted to - board games for nearly 200 years. But the modern era of gaming probably began less than 80 years ago, with the mass marketing of an exciting new real estate game originally conceived by an Illinois stenographer named Elizabeth Magie.

Originally dubbed The Landlord's Game, Magie's hand-made creation was designed to illustrate the greed and immorality of rent gouging and corporate monopolies, but it proved a distracting, entertaining salve to people struggling through the Great Depression.

The game, of course, was Monopoly, and while Monopoly may be the best known of U.S. board games, it quickly opened the door to a pop culture phenomenon that continues to this day.

Their familiar names bring back memories of pleasant Sunday afternoons spent sprawled on the living room floor or hunkered over the kitchen table: Candy Land, Risk, Life, Sorry, Aggravation, Chutes and Ladders . . .

In recent years, as Baby Boomers rediscovered the games of their childhoods, some began spending their weekends tracking down their favorites, games like Lie Detector, Password and Mystery Date, to later share with friends and their offspring. In some cases, the pastime eventually blossomed into a full-fledged romance, with collectors amassing hundreds, even thousands, of games as they searched flea markets and the Internet for rare prizes.

Dave Illert, of South St. Louis County, knows better than most the attraction of the simple board game. The project manager of a security and heating and air conditioning controls company shares his pleasant suburban home with his wife, two dogs and an estimated 3,800 games - most of them board games - hung from the walls and carefully stacked inside closets, on tabletops and atop rows of shelving in virtually every spare corner of the family basement.

He admits that his collecting passion has nearly outstripped his ability to store his still-growing collection, which consists largely of American-manufactured games from 1950 to 2000.

Illert grew up in North St. Louis, behind the Northland Shopping Center, and fondly remembers hours spent with his grandmother playing Park and Shop, Calling All Cars and Uncle Wiggily. When he was 5, he said, he accumulated a small horde of board games as birthday gifts. He specifically remembers KerPlunk, Mouse Trap and Shenanigans. An old family movie, shot when he was about 7 years old, shows him playing Time Bomb with his mother.

The collecting bug, however, did not bite him seriously until he was in college when he purchased a still factory-sealed copy of the famous crime-solving game Clue at a flea market for $1. It was then he realized he could not only accumulate large numbers of his beloved games, but do it on the cheap.

Illert says he often steers clear of pristine and unused board games - games that command premium prices - opting for previously played games, many with missing parts. He has become adept at tracking down two or more of the same type game, each with missing pieces, and using them to make one complete game. He has drawers filled with extraneous movers, dice and other game pieces.

Among collectors, some of the most difficult board games to acquire are those that cross several collecting genres, Illert says. One such prize is a game based on the old TV program "Outer Limits." Board game fans, TV show collectors and science fiction enthusiasts all compete for nice examples of this game.

The 1960s was an especially prolific period for board games. Virtually every TV show from that period - "I Dream of Jeannie" to "Get Smart" to "The Jetsons" to "Gunsmoke" - spawned its own board game.

Illert has a special affinity for games in unusual boxes. The packaging for one game is in the shape of a wine bottle; the packaging for another looks like a pizza box. A 1970s game based on the movie "The Godfather" comes in a violin case.

He also says he loves the variety of movers, or pawns, in board games - rocket ships, animals, automobiles, virtually anything that could be fashioned from metal or molded in plastic.

Desi Scarpone, author of two collectibles books on board games who operates his own games website at www.4gamesgoneby.com , said most collectors are "trying to recapture the happy times they associate with those games." Scarpone also says that, in today's uncertain times, "the children of yesterday relish sitting down and playing a game with their families" as of way of reliving "innocent times, laughter and downright fun."

Most games can be bought for anywhere from a few dollars up to $100. But there are exceptions. Scarpone says some of the rarer post-1950 board games are the 1957 Elvis Presley Game, which can fetch $1,500 to $2,000 in nice condition and Hasbro's "monster series" like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mummy, which also can go for up to $2,000 each.

One of the rarest of all games is a 3M game called Jati from 1965, according to Scarpone and Illert. Illert said only about 1,000 copies were ever made and they are so scarce that he has never seen a copy outside a guidebook. Today's price for Jati: around $2,000 for a nice example.

Illert admits that as his collection grows, it has become increasingly difficult to find games he doesn't have. "I used to find 20 to 25 games a week," he said. "Now I might bring in 20 or 25 over several months."

Illert estimates he has played about one-third of the games in his collection. "I never lose," he said, smiling.

Additional photos of board game collections can be seen at Scarpone's site here and here .


El Paso Antique Mall, 15 Linco Drive, El Paso, IL 61738, Phone: 309-527-3705.

Housed in a nondescript metal building just a bit west of the intersection of Interstate 39 and US 24, this well-kept antique mall is a popular stop for antique and collectibles buffs traveling between St. Louis and Chicago. El Paso is about 30 minutes north of Bloomington and about 25 minutes west of I-55 from the Chenoa exit.

The mall includes rows of well-lighted tall display cases interspersed with neatly maintained booths displaying small furniture and other larger items. The staff is very congenial, gladly opening locked cases to allow potential purchasers to examine items more closely or check out the price on tags that may have gotten turned away from the front.

The selection at this mall changes frequently enough to make a quarterly visit worthwhile, particularly if you'll be traveling through (or past) the area.

Some recent items and asking prices at the El Paso Antique Mall:

  • 1952 McCoy Wild Rose planter: $65
  • Gibralter light house/ship's wheel clock (working condition): $95
  • Child's wood school desk: $60
  • Vintage Christmas earrings and pins: $2 to $5
  • Tom Mix Rubber Band Gun (cardboard): $15
  • 1941 Blondie Card Game: $60

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