Alaska Life

From the gold rush to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the history of Alaska board games reflects the history of state

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Board games have been a part of Alaska culture for well over a century. These games have ranged from simple card games to complex simulacrums of reality. Some were designed by Alaskans. Many more were designed by residents of the smaller states and therefore more often describe Lower 48 perceptions of Alaska of what outsiders deemed important. Still, the history of Alaska-themed board games broadly reflects the history of Alaska itself, from Alaska Native interactions with whalers through the modern fish industry.

Perhaps the oldest form of board games in Alaska is cribbage, a card game typically accompanied by a board with holes. Players track their scores with pegs. Some of the first and most popular Alaska souvenirs were cribbage boards carved by Alaska Natives, often from walrus ivory.

The first wave of what a modern toy aisle shopper might recognize as a board game arrived in 1897. A bumper crop of Klondike Gold Rush games appeared on store shelves across the country with a speed that matched the rush for the goldfields. While roughly 100,000 individuals set out for the Klondike from 1896 to 1999, many times that number eagerly consumed any news or product connected to the gold fever sensation. In other words, the Klondike Gold Rush was a fad, and like any modern fad, there were fortunes to be made with tie-ins.

Speed is of the essence for those that wish to capitalize on trends. And in the haste to reach the market, the manufacturers of these gold rush games sometimes deemphasized geographical accuracy. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Horsman’s Game of Klondike. Printed in New York, the game board is a map of Alaska and western Canada. Its most notable errors include the Canadian border a couple of hundred miles farther west than it should be, a landlocked Juneau, and Dawson in British Columbia.

To win the Game of Klondike, players begin at St. Michael and navigate the Yukon River to Dawson, surviving a series of potentially deadly catastrophes along the way. While some prospectors did take this path to the Klondike, most chose the land routes via Skagway and Dyea, entry points for the White Pass and Chilkoot Trails, respectively.


Other gold rush board games released that year reflected that reality. For example, From Boston to Klondike, published by A. M. Robinson out of New Jersey, offered a longer view of the journey. As the title suggests, players roll dice to make incremental moves from Boston across the northern United States to Seattle, then turn north toward Alaska and the goldfields. From there, players jump up to Sitka, Juneau, Dyea and through the Chilkoot Pass into Canada.

The mechanics for Klondyke Game Company’s Going to Klondyke game favored a party atmosphere. Like most Alaska-themed board games, the board was a map, this one featuring concentric rings centered on Dawson and spreading out over Alaska. Various-sized claims and gold nuggets fill the rings. The map was hung on a wall, and blindfolded players spun and stuck a pin in the map. In the best-case scenario, players landed directly in Dawson or on a large gold nugget. In the worst-case scenario, players landed in Siberia and lost all their winnings, “since the (Russian) government is supposed to appropriate all mineral wealth to its use.”

The busy design hides several lessons on the harsh realities of the gold rush. A fresh grave stands in for the thousands who lost their lives during the stampede. And near the Alaska-Canada border, a man hangs from a tree. The sudden influx of prospectors stretched law enforcement far past the breaking point and led to frequent mob justice, including lynchings.

As the Klondike and subsequent gold rushes faded, so did the production of board games attempting to tap into the mystique of Alaska. The decades-long lull in Alaska-themed gaming mirrored the economic doldrums and stagnant development of Alaska, especially between World War I and II.

By the late 1930s, Alaska advocates openly begged for a new wave of settlers that might promote renewed investment in the territorial infrastructure and thus spur the economy. A 1940 Seward Gateway editorial declared, “With the coming of more people it will be found that insistent demands for more roads and other improvements will grow less. They will not be necessary as they will come naturally with the advent of population.” Anthony Dimond, Alaska’s non-voting representative to Congress from 1933 to 1945, was more direct in a 1939 letter. He wrote, “Alaska needs people,” and that development required the territory’s population to “be in accord with its vast area and unquestionably large natural resources.”

The 1943 Klondike Gold game from Corey Game Co. was an exception to this fallow period of Alaska-themed board games. A sentimental callback to the 1890s rather than a representation of 1940s Alaska, it spotlights the journey from Skagway to Dawson. Soapy Smith’s saloon, the notorious criminal’s headquarters, is featured on the Skagway waterfront. Nuggets: The Rush to the Klondike was released in 1937 within the same nostalgia cycle. However, this game ignores Alaska to focus on the Yukon.

World War II and increased federal spending in Alaska created the desired population and financial boom. And statehood brought Alaska back to some measure of board game relevance. After 1959, Alaska had to be included in any product meant to cover all the states in the union.

A prominent example of Alaska inclusion was the frequently updated Games of the States from Milton Bradley. Alaska’s representation in the game is minimal, a small game card. A circa 1960 example notes “no official nickname.” If you are wondering about the “Last Frontier,” that slogan did not garner any official recognition until 1978, when it was selected in a statewide contest to appear on license plates. Christie Lou Nusbaum, a 17-year-old Juneau resident, received a $500 scholarship for her winning submission.

As with nearly every other aspect of life in Alaska, the discovery and exploitation of oil changed the nature of Alaska board games. In particular, the debate over the environmental impact of what would become the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which intensified in the early 1970s, influenced a new wave of Alaska-themed board games.

In 1973, Armond Kirschbaum released Alaska Pipeline: The Energy Crisis game amid that year’s oil crisis. An oil embargo enacted by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sparked severe gas shortages and price spikes across America. The game’s objective is to refute pipeline criticisms and circle a map of Alaska while using the least amount of gas ration coupons. The game was re-released in 1993 in the wake of the First Gulf War.

The game is blatantly pro-pipeline propaganda. Players are dealt cards from four suits: anti-pipeline “objections,” pro-pipeline “facts,” pro-oil trivia, and public impact cards. The game mechanics are a slightly more complicated version of hearts. A professor delivers the facts, but the objections feature a caricature of a nosy older woman, her tiny hat topped by a flower. On one of her cards, she holds a sign stating, “Objection for objection’s sake.” One of the pro-oil trivia cards declares, “the dinosaur died for nothing” if gas stations closed.

The game’s bias is best illustrated via concerns for the Prince William Sound. An objection card, with its comical pipeline foe, says, “Tankers will pollute Valdez Harbor.” The professor says in response, “Modern equipment and strict regulations against oily discharge.” Unfortunately, history did not side with the professor.

The Alaska Oil Game, by Theme Games of Saratoga, California, is less blatant in its advocacy. The game was released in 1978, the year after the pipeline was completed. Players maneuver oil barrel-shaped markers from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez via the pipeline directly or a more circuitous route per randomly drawn cards. Still, cards that favored nature, such as ordering an environmental survey, cause adverse outcomes for players.

At least three board games were published in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Richard Lynn, a Valdez bartender, created Oil on the Rocks: The Great Alaska Oil Spill. Players cleaned the oily shores, navigating the Prince William Sound with an actual rock from the region. The game cost $16.69, the hourly rate for Exxon’s cleanup workers.

The most difficult oil spill game, one of the most challenging games in this article, is the 1990 Oil Spill from Newhagy, Inc. Players navigate metal oil tanker tokens up the Sound to Valdez, then back out to oil refineries at the other end of the map. Players must avoid not only reefs and ice floes but oil pirates as well.

By the 1980s, Alaska board games had begun to diversify beyond natural resource themes, to more accurately reflect the disparate interests of Alaskans themselves. An early exemplar of this period is the simply titled Alaska, released by Ravensburger in 1979 and re-released in 1980. Players battle polar bears, frostbite and the changing seasons while attempting to recover needed supplies.

Though dated, the Alaska Game of Trivia, released by Teddy’s Toys and Co. in 1985, is the deepest dive into Alaska trivia. Some of the questions are simple enough for even moderately tenured residents. For example, “what is fireweed?” and “what is a ‘white out’?” are easy enough. Other questions are true stumpers. What type of person, off the top of their head, knows “how many miles are there from Nome to Washington, D.C. by dog sled?”

The Perfect Storm: Alaska, from NKSN Games circa 2014, is the rare board game acknowledgment of Alaska’s fishing industry. Players set out from Dutch Harbor with an inexperienced captain and crew, slowly gaining skill and money that can lead to better crews and larger boats. Wind and waves are factors. During storms, boats risk capsizing.

Of course, the nostalgia for the gold rush is still well represented in modern Alaska board games, including the 1991 Alaskan Gold Rush, 1992 Klondike: Trivia Game on the Yukon, 2014 Lost Valley: The Yukon Gold Rush 1896, and the 2017 Klondike Rush.

The most unavoidable Alaska board games are the many official Alaska Monopoly variants, including Monopoly: Alaska Edition, Monopoly: Alaska’s Iditarod, and Monopoly Junior: Trek Alaska. Other Alaska-themed board games have built upon the Monopoly design, including Alaska-Opoly, Fairbanks-Opoly, and the Game of Palmer Alaska. Several of the Monopoly-style Alaska games have been updated or reprinted.

This article is not an exhaustive list of Alaska-themed board games. Numerous other obscure, niche, and hidden gems lie hidden in antique shops and on eBay. Some of the most notable of these other games include the 1897 Klondike Puzzle, 1898 Seal Hunting in Alaska, 1983-1984 North to Alaska, 1984 Alaska!, circa 1989 Great Alaskan Clean-Up, 1992 Ultimate Route, and the 2006 Alaska Dyke Life. Perhaps a dusty, nearly forgotten gem is in your closet right now.

Key sources:

BoardGameGeek.com

Dimond, Anthony. Anthony Dimond to James M. Mead, October 9, 1939. Series 3, Subseries 2, Box 39, Folder 353, Ernest H. Gruening Papers, Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

From Board Games to Cookbooks, How the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Infiltrated Pop Culture.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Response and Restoration, July 22, 2015.

“Gaming for Gold.” Alaska Historical Society, September 29, 2013, alaskahistoricalsociety.org/gaming-for-gold.

“Gaming for Gold, Part II.” Alaska Historical Society, October 8, 2013, alaskahistoricalsociety.org/gaming-for-gold-part-ii.

“‘Last Frontier’ is Winner.” Anchorage Times, March 21, 1978, 2.

“People and Progress.” Seward Gateway, March 12, 1940, 2.

“Pipeline Games.” Alaska Historical Society, December 9, 2013, alaskahistoricalsociety.org/pipeline-games.



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