Most of us are familiar with the popular board game “Chinese Checkers.” However, would you have guessed that this simple board game sparks controversy over its early incarnations, particularly its origins? Below we investigate the history of Chinese Checkers: 20 things to know about the beloved board game.
Although manufacturers coined the name Chinese Checkers in the 1920s, we can trace the origins of the board game to the 1880s. Chinese Checkers does not originate from China and has no Asian influence. The predecessor of Chinese Checkers was Halma, a game invented in the US and adapted in Germany.
Although Chinese Checkers is a popular game, there are many uncertainties around its origins. Below, we’ll help to demystify the genesis of this widely played game, and trust us, you might have a few surprises along the way (we certainly did)!
1. The Origin Of The Name “Chinese Checkers”
Although we call the game “Chinese” checkers, the traditional board game originated far from Asia. The name “Chinese Checkers” is of American design from the 1920s.
There is considerable confusion when determining the origin of this somewhat misnamed board game.
2. Halma Is The Agreed Upon Forefather Of Chinese Checkers
Before there was “Chinese Checkers,” there was Halma. The game was traditionally played on a square board with 256 squares and followed similar rules to Chinese Checkers.
Some significant differences are that in Halma, you use various shaped pieces (depending on the design), and pieces are not removed once you “jump” over them.
However, the goal of Halma and Chinese Checkers is synonymous. I.e., moving all of your pieces across the board from your corner to the other, one hole at a time, or jumping over pieces into gaps.
3. Halma Caters To Between 2 And 4 Players
Another significant difference between Chinese Checkers and Halma is that Chinese Checkers accommodates between 2 and 6 players. Halma only accommodates between 2 and 4 players.
4. Halma Might Be Based Off Of “Hoppity”
If there is one thing about the British, it’s their penchant for naming things!
The board game “Hoppity” is either the original incarnation of Chinese checkers or an Urban Myth. Many believe Hoppity originated in roughly 1854 in the UK, and it follows similar rules to Halma.
However, there are still large gaps in the evidence leaving uncertainty about the authenticity of Hoppity as Halma’s forebear.
5. Halma Originated In The USA
To add an extra layer of confusion to the mix:
While the authenticity of Hoppity is still open to debate, Halma’s origins are slightly more concrete. After much debate, in the early 2000s, Bruce Whitehill determined that George Howard Monks invented the game between 1883 and 1884 in the USA.
Some suggest that George’s brother, Robert, discovered Hoppity on his trip to the UK and brought back the idea which George tweaked (to avoid the copyright) to create Halma.
6. After The Success Of Halma, Monks Created Basilinda
After Halma’s success, the brothers did not stop there. Their next game was called Basilinda. Bearing similarities to Chinese Checkers, Basilinda has “captain” and “cannon” pieces.
A screen is put down during play, and players arrange the pieces. The screen is lifted, and pieces in line with cannons are “destroyed.” The goal is to destroy the opposing Capitan (does anybody else get the thought of “battleships” in their mind?).
E.I. Horsman took over the production of the board game in 1890.
7. Even Halma’s Manufactures Fought Each Other Over The Rights
Milton Bradley and E.I. Horsman “disagreed” over the rights of ownership of the board game, and in 1888/1889, Milton Bradley released a rebranded version of Halma called ECKHA.
Once acquired, Halma spread like wildfire, heading back across the Atlantic to an enthusiastic European market in time for its next re-invention.
8. The Last Halma Game Produced In The US Was In 1961
According to Brue Whitehill (a game historian), the last Halma board game produced in the US was in 1961 by the Parker Brothers.
Halma was still produced in Europe and other regions in the 2020s.
9. Some Halma Boxes Depict Military Scenes
Although it might seem random, some of the boxes containing Halma sets had military scenes as their front covers, particularly in Halma sets sold in the UK.
Many speculate that these pictures are due to the Greek origins of the name and the Battle of Alma (which occurred in 1854), to which the game is supposedly linked.
10. A German Company Derived “Stern-Halma” From Halma
After arriving in Europe, the German toy manufacturer Ravensburger decided Halma needed a face-lift and created Stern-Halma, giving the board game its recognizable star-shaped board.
Stern-Halma originated in the late 1880s. It is a Greek word meaning “jump,” while “stern” is German for a star.
11. Ravensburger Started Producing Toys In The 1880s
The original manufacturers of Stern-Halma (the original version of Chinese Checkers) began manufacturing toys/board games in 1884, making Stern-Halma one of its earliest games.
12. Stern-Halma Came To America In 1928
In 1928 the North American toy company Pressman & CO. imported Stern-Halma, and branded it as “Hop-Ching Checkers.”
13. Chinese Checkers Gained Popularity In The 1930s
A further entertaining part of the story is that, although Chinese Checkers’ forerunner, Halma, originated in the US and returned to the US after some face-lifts, it was during the 1930s that the board game saw a tremendous popularity boom in the US.
14. Hop Ching Checkers Was Rebranded As Chinese Checkers
Due to the increase in demand for Asia goods, manufacturers rebranded Hop Ching Checkers/Stern-Halma as Chinese Checkers in the US.
15. Chinese Checkers Was Patented in 1941
Although companies fought over who discovered “Chinese Checkers,” it was only in 1941 that the Milton Bradley company patented the name “Chinese Checkers.”
16. Early Sets Were Made Of Wood Or Cardboard
Depending on your price range, you could either have an expensive solid wood Chinese Checkers set or, if you were under a more stringent budget, you could opt for a cardboard game board with a wooden frame.
17. Star Checkers Is Another American Rebranding
After the successful boom of Chinese Checkers, L.G. Ballard decided to create his version of the game. Ballard developed “Star Checkers” in the mid-1930s and, by 1938, produced and shipped roughly 15,000 board games monthly.
18. Ballard Designed A Device That Counted The Marbles
To meet the demand for “star checkers” sets, Ballard designed a machine that automatically counted and packaged marbles during the manufacturing and assembly process.
19. Chinese Checkers Is Still Popular
Although it lost much of its popularity garnered in the 1930s, Chinese Checkers is still a popular pastime. Most of us have either played or at least heard of the game. Chinese Checkers sets are available for purchase from many retailers.
20. Hoppity Might Not Be The Earliest Known “Ancestor”
We left this point for last because (honestly!) we’re not sure where it might stop! However, several sources suggest that Hoppity (the supposed precursor of Halma) might have its roots in “Conspirateurs,” a game predating Halma by at least 100 years!
Although the game might have its origins in the 1600s, some historians believe that Conspirateurs originated in France after the French Revolution of 1789 and might have taken inspiration from the war.
Filled with controversy, Chinese Checkers becomes far more fascinating when you realize the intrigue and incredible marketing behind its journey! Chinese Checkers, the ill-named board game, has no relation to China, and although the origins of the game are blurry, the game is still quite relevant these days.