Codex 99

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Oh-Wah-Ree, click for larger image

80

Oh-Wah-Ree

The 3M Bookshelf Games

Although the woman shown here is ostensibly playing a board game her body language really suggests something else altogether. In her cocktail dress, Egyptian costume jewelry and ca.VIII Dynasty eyeliner she may very well be the most alluring woman ever depicted on the cover of a board game. This is not completely surprising: The gouache or oil painting has been attributed to the commercial pin-up artist Mayo Olmstead, who, if nothing else knew how to do alluring.

By end of the 1950s the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company’s once thriving ribbon and wrapping paper subdivision began losing revenue. The 3M consumer Products Division1 looked for new ideas, and in a decision that still makes little sense 50 years later, a team of employees came up with the idea of boardgames. After a market analysis the company decided to market adult strategic games. These were not just ordinary boardgames, but expensive,2 high-quality games packaged in a slipcased bookshelf format.

In 1962 the newly-created 3M Games Division released their first three titles, Oh-Wah-Ree, Phlounder and Twixt. After some initial packaging trials in test markets,3 they settled on the now-familiar 8½ × 12 × 2¼" bookshelf format. By 1964 the games were in national distribution.

Twixt, click for larger image

Acquire, click for larger image

The amazing box art, which owes more to the commercial style of Bernie Fuchs’ Westport School than to the cartoon style of the Milton Bradley School (see here), was simply unlike anything else – before or since. The artists completely captured the feel of the early 1960s.

The back of the boxes featured the games set up in elaborately-staged, contemporary House Beautiful-level interiors:

Twixt, click for larger image

Early 1960s Danish Modern

Here are a few later titles:

Breakthru, click for larger image

Mr President, click for larger image

Quinto, click for larger image

Feudal, click for larger image

And finally, there is this classic from 1970:

Ploy, click for larger image

Ploy, click for larger image

Arne Jacobson for Fritz Hansen: The Swan chair. Yes!

By the end of the 1960s the market for expensive, adult-oriented strategy games was declining. 3M responded by producing a series of less costly “gamettes” and later, in 1972, by drastically scaling back their extravagant packaging. Finally in 1976 they sold their Game Division to Avalon Hill.

Monad, click for larger image

The op-art ’70s: Monad (a design we have seen before) and Octrix gamettes

By the time 3M divested their Game Division they had produced 28 Bookcase games, eight flat-box sports games and nine gamettes.4 Although individual titles were hit-or-miss, the entire series was extraordinarily influential and was the ancestor of today’s Eurogames, such as Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne.

1. Yes – that 3M. The one that makes Scotch® tape, Post-it® Notes, Nexcare™ bandages, Thinsulate™ insulation and Vikuiti™ display films, among some several thousand consumer and industrial products.

2. The 1964 catalog lists the bookshelf games at 7.95 USD; almost 54.00 USD today, adjusted for inflation.

1964 catalog, click for larger image

3. To the hard-core collector these early variants, such as the tall-box, fat-box or short box, as well as the gray-scale or cartoon backs, are highly desirable, often selling in the 200–500 USD range. Needless to say, your humble narrator dosen’t have any of these versions. True story: When I was a kid, the day after I got my braces (referred to by the orthodontist as appliances), I bought a wood-tile version of Acquire at a local garage sale for 25 cents. Years later, while in college, my Mom summarily disposed of it. This chain of events still makes me sad.

4. For a complete online review see Guenther Rosenbaum’s 3M Collectors Homepage.

22 Dec 2010, updated 5 Mar 2012 ‧ Design