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Let’s Rewind Back to the World of VCR Board Games

There was a point, long ago, where the VHS tape represented the height of board game innovation

Along with Optimus Prime, Teddy Ruxpin and the G.I. Joes a kid may have found under their Christmas tree in 1985, they were likely to open up an all-too familiar game. After all, the game of Clue had been around since 1943, so everyone knew it, everyone owned it, and you only bought a new edition once you’d lost too many of the murder weapons to actually play the game. But this new 1985 version of Clue didn’t include all of those plastic instruments to bludgeon, shoot or maim Mr. Boddy, nor did it include a game board: Instead, it came with some cards, a pad of paper and, curiously, a VHS tape.

Released in 1985, the Clue VCR Mystery Game not only represented a new way to play a familiar game, it also ushered in a new type of gaming altogether. Over the next decade, board game companies like Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Hasbro and Mattel would release a variety of VCR games that included VCR adaptations of existing games (like Clue) as well as games that were original to the VCR format. Or, as Parker Brothers said in a marketing video at the time, “In 1985, Parker Brothers successfully created the most innovative game play concept in recent years. Our VCR products … have revolutionized how we play games and have defined a whole new category in home entertainment.”

While it’s true that Parker Brothers did create a “new category” of gaming, to say that it “revolutionized how we play games” is a bit of an overstatement. VCR games would only last from 1985 to 1997 and, all told, there were only a few dozen games that were released in the format.

“I’d call them more than a blip in the history of board games, but not much more than a blip,” says Nicolas Ricketts, curator of board games at the Strong Museum of Play. “Still,” he continues, “it was clever of them. By the mid-1980s, basically every household had a VCR, so it was clever to think of a way to make games easier to play and give them more variety.”

So whose clever idea was it? 

It seems the credit belongs to a game and toy designer named Isabel Garrett, who had worked on 1980s games like Greed and Go Fetch It. In a documentary about the Clue VCR game, Garrett explains that, because of the rise in video games that was taking place in the 1980s, she had something of a revelation. “At one point I realized everyone was playing games with machines and I didn’t know a computer from a Cuisinart, but I realized the games were being designed by programmers who were not game designers,” Garrett recounts in the documentary. From there, Garrett called a toy-industry headhunter and asked if game companies were looking for game designers to be paired with programmers. To her surprise, she was told that “everybody is looking,” and after getting a number of offers, she decided to go with Parker Brothers.

When Garrett joined Parker Brothers in 1984, it was a unique time in the history of gaming. In 1983, the entire video game industry — led by Atari — had collapsed, thanks in part to the disastrous E.T. game. The Nintendo Entertainment System wouldn’t catch on until 1986, so at the time, there was something of a lull in the industry. But while video games were still suffering, VCRs were booming, and when Garrett joined Parker Brothers and found herself in a meeting with their executives to pitch new ideas, she told them, “You know, the most popular machine hooked up to the family television actually isn’t the Atari, it’s this VCR that everybody is getting. Why don’t we do interactive video tape games?” 

Parker Brothers loved the idea, but it was a challenge to figure out what could be done with such a limited piece of technology. As Parker Brothers executive Phil Orbanes recounts in the documentary, “The problem was, unlike a video game, the VCR game could basically just play or rewind or stop. Given those limitations, we had to decide what in the world could we possibly do that makes good use of those simple functions? And, almost immediately, Clue came to mind.” This notion may also have been helped along by the fact that a Clue film was currently in production, so releasing a VCR game in the same year would no doubt help sales. 

From there, Garrett familiarized herself with Clue — a game she’d previously never played — and figured out how to make it so that a variety of mysteries could be built around a single narrative. Ed Buffman, who directed the video part of the game, tells me, “Isabel was one smart cookie; she was really bright. I was quite amazed at her intellect because it was incredibly complicated to create that game.” Once the logistics were all figured out and the script was written, Parker Brothers hired Buffman, who had shot some of their commercials, to direct. From there, they hired actors to fill in the roles of characters like Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet and Professor Plum and had them portray scenes that could lead to a variety of outcomes when paired with the corresponding game cards.

Though a bit complex to play, the game turned out to be a hit, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in 1985. It did so well that Parker Brothers brought Buffman and the actors back for a sequel, Clue II: Murder in Disguise, which also did very well. Other gaming companies quickly caught on, making VCR adaptations of classics like Candy Land, Hi-Ho! Cherry-O, Trivial Pursuit and Chutes and Ladders.

Game designers developed completely original games to be played on VHS tapes as well. Among them were games like Video Grin ‘N’ Bear It and Nightmare (aka Atmosfear), the latter of which was so popular that it spawned three VCR sequels spanning from 1991 to 1993 and a handful of spin-off games as well. 

Yet a third type of VCR game probably accounts for most of the VCR games that were made. For this approach, game companies licensed a property — like, say, Star Trek — and used clips from the show or movie to build a game around. VCR board games like this were made about everything from Disney movies to Star Wars to The Three Stooges to The Honeymooners. They also developed games that made use of pre-existing commercials and clips from sporting events

So what happened to VCR games? 

Well, predictably, the VCR game died out as soon as the DVD arrived. Indeed, the last VCR game I could find was a game of The X-Files from 1997, the very same year the DVD hit North America. A couple of years after that, DVD board games began to hit the market, with things like Scene It? Even Clue and Nightmare would get DVD versions eventually, though Clue made use of cartoon characters for that version.

To Buffman, the transition of VHS to DVD games made perfect sense. “Clue really was ahead of its time. Had it come out on DVD, it would have been much better.” See, although Clue VCR was incredibly popular, it was very difficult to play. “Nobody could figure out how to play the game,” Buffman says, “It was very difficult.” Even he has never played it!

Why it proved to be so complicated goes right back to Parker Brothers’ initial concerns about the game: How do you make a game with a piece of technology that could only play, pause, stop and rewind? It was very difficult to figure that out. Later games would work out some of the kinks Clue ran into, but there was still the problem of VHS tapes wearing out over time, so if you really liked your VHS game of Rich Little’s VCR Charades, you’d eventually render it unplayable.

Still, Buffman says he was proud to be a part of a unique and groundbreaking moment of gaming history, and that he still gets people telling him how much they loved that game as a kid. Buffman, though, gives credit to the novelty of the concept — which belongs to Isabel Garrett — as well as the actors in the Clue VCR Mystery Game. “The characters were really a lot of fun,” he says. “We had a great cast, and it was a lot of fun to make. A lot of people told me that they just would watch the video and forget the game altogether. So, really, it didn’t matter that no one could play the game.”