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Attention all board game lovers!

As we continue to anticipate great times ahead once the Optima Verdana® card room opens — when we will spend many an evening with friends huddled over a backgammon or Scrabble board — we can, in the meantime, feed our curiosity about the history of board games. It’s fascinating!

While much has been written about board games by scholars and laypeople alike, one of the best sources around is It’s All a Game:The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan. Written by Tristan Donovan and published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017, this smart, engaging book by a renowned games expert helps us understand how board games continue to captivate our attention and to bring us back to the proverbial table, in spite of the allure of myriad technology toys and the scourge of decreasing attention spans.

Optima Verdana’s sky deck featuring various game rooms among the pool, sauna and spa.

Throughout the book, Donovan explores the roots of board games’ consistent popularity. Analyzing the influence of social, political, and economic influences on board game designers and manufacturers, Donovan maps the evolution of our modern-day relationship with board games across time, geographies, and cultures. He also examines the impact this leisure activity has had on popular psychology. 

Donovan writes expansively on the history and evolution of ancient games and their current-day counterparts. He traces the Indian and Persian influences on chess and explains how the rules and game pieces evolved to reflect first Muslim and then European societies. He also examines how games like Monopoly developed as games that required both strategy and luck, paying special attention to how the original versions of these games reflected the times in which they were born, and how they changed over time.

Marvin Glass, a board game inventor from Chicago, in the a 1961 issue of Chicago Tribune Magazine

Donovan’s survey of gaming history is full of amusing anecdotes and eccentric characters, including a discussion of Marvin Glass, an eccentric and paranoid toy inventor from Chicago, whose infusion of plastics into board games like Operation and Mouse Trap brought the board game and toy industries together.

If you’re a trivia buff, you’ll also love It’s All a Game, since Donovan spares no detail about board games and their histories. And if nothing else, it will help you build a huge arsenal of interesting tidbits and stories to share when you find yourself gathering and gaming at Optima Verdana®!

Trending Now: The Art of Playing Bridge

No one can dispute the remarkable benefits of participating in multi-player card games — from stimulating the brain to problem-solving with others, relaxation and relieving stress. And then consider the added perks of being in an exceptionally-designed physical space, flooded with natural light and furnished with comfy mid-century Modern gems. Taken together, what could possibly offer a better way to spend a few hours than settling into the Optima Verdana® card room with three other bridge enthusiasts for a friendly match?

For those who aren’t already in the know, bridge is a four-person card game played by two teams who compete to earn the most points by winning tricks: sets of four cards, one from each player. Players are dealt 13 cards each round, in which they bid on how many tricks they think they can win and determine which suit trumps the others. While the origins of bridge are not definitively known, a similar game called khedive appeared in Constantinople before 1870, and a nearly-identical game had been played in Greece prior to that. The game of bridge eventually made its way to New York society in 1893, and it has been a staple in our leisure culture since then. 

Today, according to the American Contract Bridge League, a whopping 25 million Americans over 18 know how to play, even though this is far fewer players than in the 1950s, when at least one person played bridge in 44 percent of U.S. homes. In the past several years, there has been a dramatic onboarding of new players of all ages, very much a result of sequestering at home during COVID-19.

The single best way to learn bridge — and to continue to improve — is simply by playing. And don’t be afraid to read bridge books, listen to podcasts and exchange tips with fellow players. Check out these great bridge resources for endless ways to make bridge playing part of your everyday life. And when you’re ready to take advantage of Optima Verdana®’s extraordinary space to gather and game, grab a fresh deck of playing cards, a few friends and enjoy!

Optima Verdana’s sky deck featuring the party room, billiard table, ping pong table and various game rooms.

Trending Now: A Brief History of Mahjong

With construction at Optima Verdana well underway, we’re excited about one of the community’s fabulous amenities: the card room. Situated on the rooftop sky deck along with the sundeck, garden lounge, dining area and glass-enclosed pool and spa, the card room is the perfect place for residents to set aside cellphones and other distractions to gather around games that are fun, social and good for our brains. Topping the list of games that will see regular activity in the Optima Verdana card room is Mahjong.

Deep roots, rich history
Mahjong, roughly translated from Mandarin as “the game of sparrows,” a rummy-like game played with 144-tiles, traditionally made out of ivory or bone with a bamboo base. And while it was marketed as an ancient Chinese game, it was actually created in the mid- to late-1800s and brought to the American public in the early 1920s. 

One of the forces behind the introduction of mahjong was Joseph Babcock, an employee of Standard Oil. As he began traveling to China for business following the end of WWI, he was taken by the game and founded the Mah-Jongg Sales Company to import mahjong sets to the U.S. The game was first taken up by wealthy white women who could afford the pricey mahjong sets, and had the leisure time to play.

One of the game’s experts, Annelise Heinz, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon, has written extensively on the assimilation of mahjong into American culture. In her recent book, Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, she dives into the game’s history to understand how both Jewish American and Chinese American communities were built around the game during the 20th century.

Joseph Babcock playing Mahjong, Courtesy of Christopher Babcock Berg

After falling out of favor until the end of WWII and the migration of American families to the new suburbia, mahjong experienced a renaissance. In a May 2021 piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Heinz writes:

“Young mothers, in particular, forged American mahjong culture during the 1950s and 1960s. At a time of suburbanization and newfound upward mobility for many Jewish families, regular weekly mahjong games helped women to build female-focused networks. Unusually, these groups weren’t focused on volunteerism or children’s education but offered a chance for women simply to have fun together. Mahjong became a cultural touchstone for many who grew up in postwar Jewish American homes, along with the tile racks, coin purses and plates of maraschino-studded pineapple slices that often accompanied the game.”

Heinz refers to mahjong as a “remarkable game that has retained its core interest and beauty across time and distance,” adding that it offers “a rich and compelling topic of historical inquiry.” She explains that while most partner-oriented games create highly competitive scenarios where people are pitted against one another, mahjong has a completely different dynamic requiring players to cooperate and strategize together.  

Babcock’s book of rules. Angelo Bautista/TTBOOK One of the forces behind the introduction of mahjong

Another of the game’s thoughtful experts is journalist and cultural critic, Jeffrey Yang. In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio entitled “Picking Up the Pieces of Mahjong,” he chronicles his own love of the game through retelling the story of how he watched the moms in his Filipino family play. He reflects on the remarkable staying power of mahjong as a function of its ability to sustain multiple powerful identities. He says, “What’s unique about mahjong is that it’s not just one thing. It is a Chinese game, no doubt. It always will be. It’s also a Jewish game, an American game, a Filipino game, and so much more. Over a hundred years, in the hands of different players, it’s a game that has taken on so many different histories. And as long as we’re playing mahjong, that history is still being written.”

The magic of mahjong
The allure of mahjong is sensuous, social and intellectual. The feel and sound of the tiles clicking against one another is part of the physical experience of play. The time required to reset after each game (lasting about 15 minutes) offers players the opportunity to chat. And at the same time, the game has many of the same cognitive benefits as chess and bridge with its strategic complexity and demand for concentration. 

With building community at the core of our culture, we look forward to welcoming our Optima Verdana residents to the joys of gaming and gathering!

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Maintenance Supervisor

Glencoe, IL





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