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Board gaming’s biggest blunders

Plugged In

Although beloved, family-friendly board games like Scrabble, Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit bring in millions each year, the road to success isn't always smooth. In some cases, it's downright bumpy.

Ill-advised relaunches, misguided rules changes, and even accusations of plagiarism are just a few of the missteps that almost derailed some of gaming's biggest hits. Here are a few of our favorites.

Trivial Pursuit and Lt. Columbo

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Coming up with trivia questions doesn't seem too difficult...until you actually sit down and try to do it.

Just ask author Fred L. Worth, the man behind a string of popular trivia books released in the 70s and 80s. Having spent countless hours researching fact after fact after fact, he wasn't too keen for anyone else to profit from his work.

So Worth cunningly added a question with a deliberately incorrect answer to his early 70s publication "The Trivia Encyclopedia."

"What is TV detective Lt. Columbo's first name?" went the question, and according to Worth's books, "Philip" was the answer. But that was just a plant, as the character's elusive real first name was "Frank." If Worth saw his answer pop up in anyone else's trivia game, he'd know they'd been "borrowing" from his work. Worth's book became a bestseller, and the trap was set.

Fast-forward to 1982, and the release of Trivial Pursuit. Practically an overnight success, the new game sold millions, but Worth suspected its questions were not as original as they ought to be. Sure enough, he found his made-up Columbo fact amid Pursuit's answers -- and he filed a $300 million suit claiming that over a quarter of its questions were plagiarized from his work.

Sure, said Pursuit's creators, we got some facts from Worth's books -- but we also used a stack of other sources. And as any lawyer worth their salt will tell you, you can't copyright facts, only the way in which they're expressed. Judges agreed, and although Worth appealed his case as high as the Supreme Court, he was ultimately unsuccessful.

Scrabble vs. Scrabulous

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Remember Scrabulous? If you were hanging out on Facebook circa 2007, you probably do. It was one of the first games to really make it big on the fledgling social network, and as its name might suggest, it borrowed one or two elements from wordplay classic, Scrabble.

And by "one or two," we really mean "most" -- the concept, the board, the rules, and at one point, even the distribution of the letter tiles. We wouldn't exactly call it a rip-off -- at least, not when our legal team is watching -- but it was at least very 'heavily inspired' by Scrabble.

Trouble is, Scrabble already belongs to someone.

A bewildering flurry of lawsuits followed, and Scrabulous was quickly forced off Facebook. Ultimately it would re-launch with a new name -- "Lexulous" -- a redesigned board, altered rules, and a number of other changes, but it never quite returned to its former glory. These days it's all but forgotten, eclipsed by the official Scrabble Facebook games and mobile hits like Words with Friends. Lesson learned: if you're going to rip off someone else's game, be careful not to get too close.

Rejecting Monopoly

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Monopoly is a household name, and according to its makers, it's the biggest-selling board game ever made. But Monopoly's story has a beginning that's anything but smooth.

Although it traces its roots back to a 1904 release called 'The Landlord's Game', it wasn't until the Great Depression that someone would attempt to make some serious money out of Monopoly. It was Charles Darrow, a Pennsylvania salesman, who first approached board game giant Parker Brothers in 1934, claiming -- somewhat dubiously -- to be Monopoly's inventor, and offering them the rights. A no-brainer for Parker, surely.

Not quite. They rejected the game completely, citing a number of serious "design errors" -- including over-complicated rules, unclear goals, and taking too long to play. So Darrow presented the game to Parker rival Milton Bradley, only to be turned down there, too.

Undaunted, the entrepreneurial Darrow struck out on his own, arranging to have 5,000 copies of his game printed and put on sale in a Philadelphia department store. They sold out, and as a result Darrow's game became considerably easier to pitch. He approached Parker again, who finally decided to snap up the rights. The deal would turn Monopoly into board gaming's biggest hit...and Darrow into its first millionaire.

Scrabble's improper nouns

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From "Aa" to "Yo," the list of valid Scrabble words is, to its players, as sacred (and often as arcane) as any religious text.

So when word got out last year that Scrabble's owners were planning a rules change that would allow proper nouns -- names of people, places, or companies -- aficionados around the world were faced with the prospect of suddenly being beaten with pop-culture words like "Jay-Z" or "Snooki."

They weren't pleased.

"Players like myself have spent decades memorising words in the dictionary," Scrabble expert Keith Churcher told The Daily Mail newspaper. "To be trumped by someone with knowledge of the current top ten pop chart is not a welcome prospect...They're dumbing down a classic." The news made headlines around the world.

Only the situation wasn't quite as simple as it appeared. For one thing, it was only the European Scrabble rights-owner Mattel that was planning the change; Scrabble in the U.S. is controlled by rival Hasbro, who had no such proper noun intentions. And Mattel wasn't really planning to change the core game's rules -- just releasing a spin-off version, named "Scrabble Trickster," that would allow players to spell words backwards, or play words without connecting them to any others on the board.

None of this stopped the media having a field day, and upsetting who knows how many Scrabble nuts in the process. If you're going to mess with a property as sacred as Scrabble, it's best to make sure you have all your public-relations ducks in a row before you start.

New Clue booed

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How do you go about remaking a classic game like Clue? On the one hand, you've got a marketing department demanding you come up with a way to make an old-fashioned game appeal to a new generation. On the other, you've got a legion of fans who love the game the way it is and will be up in arms over any changes. Balancing the two is an unenviable task.

So it proved for Parker Brothers, who recently embarked upon a remake of classic whodunnit Clue. Taking inspiration from celeb culture and reality TV, out went Mr. Boddy's ornate mansion, and in came a pad with all the nouveau-riche trappings of modern fame. The characters became football players, child actors, and video game designers. Even the weapons were given a modern-day overhaul -- and few devotees of the classic version were impressed.

"I'm a fan of the original Clue," said one Amazon reviewer, "and was both surprised and disappointed to find that the game has changed significantly. The names and biographies of each character have been altered to fit Hollywood stereotypes, the once respectable mansion of Mr. Boddy has been replaced by a McMansion, and weapons have been replaced, some seemingly more innocuous than in the previous version. My first reaction to the 'bottle of poison' was 'what is this, a cosmetics jar?' Are we supposed to believe that Mr. Boddy was made to blush to death?'"

Fortunately, the unmolested version is still available, although you might not be able to find it at your local retailer. And some prefer the newer version thanks to some gameplay tweaks that introduce a little more unpredictability to the game. There's no accounting for taste.

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