CLEVELAND, Ohio - Despite all the smart phones, video games, and electronic toys that dominate retailers' hottest holiday gifts lists, lifelong board game enthusiast Philip E. Orbanes says classic board games like Monopoly, Clue, and Scrabble are more popular than ever.
Orbanes, the former director of creative development and senior vice president of research and development at Parker Brothers, has spent nearly 50 years creating, playing, collecting, and cherishing games of skill and strategy.
A 1970 graduate of the Case Institute of Technology (before it merged with Western Reserve University to become Case Western), Orbanes not only wrote four books on Monopoly, he serves as chief judge and dispute-resolver at national and global Monopoly tournaments.
His latest book, "Monopoly, Money, and You: How to Profit from the Game's Secrets of Success," explores how the iconic board game offers guidelines for navigating real-life financial challenges, such as managing your cash, diversifying investments, and negotiation.
More recently, he co-founded Winning Moves Games, which strives to preserve and re-introduce classic games from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, as well as create new games.
"I've been blessed to spend more than four decades in an industry that first gripped me when I was a student here," Orbanes said during a recent visit to his alma mater. "My career in games began when I was a freshman at the Case Institute of Technology. I helped start a little game company called GameScience Corp."
Orbanes' parents adored board games, and he grew up playing against and challenging his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Monopoly was the first game he played where it felt like he could actually beat his older relatives. Later, when his board game company was bustling, his family members were the ones making, assembling, and shipping his board games all over the country.
As an 8-year-old, he drew game boards on the backs of some discarded 2-foot-by-4-foot Coca-Cola posters to play board games with his friends.
By the time he arrived to study engineering at Case, which was then run by former NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan, students there were spending their study breaks bent over simulation games. These were board games where players could transport themselves to a time in history, draw cards, and make decisions that could change the outcome of what happened.
The first game Orbanes created in college was a simulation game based on the Vietnam War, which had just started but was not yet controversial. "The idea was to try to beat the Communists, or if you were the Communists, to try to force out the Americans," he said. "The game turned out to be very close to reality."
Players would move around a map of Vietnam, making moves based on their infantry, weapons, and what they thought their opponents were going to do. "Your goal was to pacify all 28 provinces, and you did that if you controlled the capital of those provinces, and had enough military force to prevent a rebellion. You had limited resources, so you had to strive for the best possible outcome with minimal losses."
Because this was before home computers, players' moves were based on pre-written scenarios and decisions they might face on the battlefield. "It was the forerunner of video games, and all types of virtual reality products that we play today," he said.
Toy and game capital of America
In January 1968, as a junior with three games under his belt, he decided to go to a hobby and trade show in Chicago. That's where "a New York-based holding company spotted me, and said, 'We'd like to buy you.' I sold GameScience before I graduated."
After receiving his bachelor's degree in organizational management, he moved to New York with his new bride, relishing the chance to be in the toy and game capital of America. Within a few years, board games were starting to incorporate microprocessors to generate those scenarios and provide the element of suspense that the written cards had been before.
Another popular simulation game called Gettysburg let players play either Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee or Union Gen. George Gordon Meade, and make decisions that could have changed the outcome of the Civil War.
Simulation games evolved into role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s, and Magic: The Gathering in 1990, he said.
Orbanes was overseeing the game division for the Ideal Toy Co. when plastic game pieces replaced the metal and wood playing pieces people had been using since then, and revolutionized board games. "In 1963, the Mouse Trap game sold 3 million copies the year it came out," he said.
Monopoly, evolved from a game called "Landlord" that was invented in 1904, wasn't launched until 1933. That meant its creators had nearly 30 years to fine-tune it before putting it on the market. "Nowadays there's a mad rush to get products to market, and you don't have that luxury," he said.
"Thousands of games are produced each year, but only a handful will make it," he said.
Although Monopoly is a complicated game that takes a while to learn, the games coming out now have to be easy enough to explain in 30 seconds, he said. "You have a very limited amount of time to get the idea across, and it still has to be enjoyable enough to play for a lifetime."
As chief judge of global Monopoly tournaments with players from 80 countries, "I'm the ultimate referee. I have to make sure that players play according to the rules," he said. The "house rules" that people create to tailor the game to their families are not permitted in tournaments. Professional matches wrap up in less than two hours.
Orbanes' other books are: "The Monopoly Companion," which includes secrets he's learned from watching the world's best players compete; "Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game and How it Got that Way," and a book about the history of Parker Brothers called, "The Game Makers."
Although Clue, Risk, Life, and Trivial Pursuit each have their devotees, Monopoly remains among the the best-selling board games. "There are over 300,000 copies worldwide, and over 1 billion people have played it," he said. "It sells millions of copies every year in over 80 countries."
One game he thinks has the potential to become a classic is "Settlers of Catan," in part because it's so popular among young people. "It's right up there with Monopoly, Clue, and Scrabble."