Parker Brothers’ 1954 edition of Astron, a space race game. Check out the awesome fonts.
As a game player and a collector, I’ve actually managed to get my hands on pretty much every game I’ve ever wanted to play or own, although my permanent collection, so to speak, is rather small. But there is one game that I’ve never managed to get my hands on, either at a price or a condition that I’ve been happy with. It’s a rare, 1954 game called Astron, and it was published by Parker Brothers in the United States and by Waddington in the United Kingdom. A second edition of it was printed some time later, with the same components, but retitled Skylanes and featuring some new artwork.
The game is absolutely gorgeous in a teal-hued, Mid-Century-Modern graphic style. It’s got that post-Sputnik space-age charm that could make it a desirable collectible, not only for games enthusiasts, but also for those that collect artifacts of that period. It’s painfully hard to find, and the few copies that are still in existence seem to be in the tight grip of collectors aware of its scarcity—and value.
A quick scan of online auctions reveals only two copies for sale as of this writing, both in the U.K. A rather bedraggled, poor quality and possibly incomplete example is listed around $100. A copy listed in “fair” condition is selling for $275. I optimistically bid $75 on a copy several years ago, but the closing price was triple my offer. The possibility of a reprint is practically zero. Its value has nowhere to go but up.
The theme is a trans-global rocket race, with players playing cards to move metal rocket ships from square to square as they travel around the world. Cards move the rockets in different directions or have other specific effects. Hazards can slow you down, and victory point cards can be picked up by stopping at the world’s airports. There are no dice, which makes it pretty unique as a race-themed game from this period. The British version is quite different, with the theme changed to a race from Earth to Saturn. Apparently, the game plays differently as well—likely enough to be considered a separate title.
Astron was billed as “the game that moves as you play,” employing a moving scroll-map as a playing surface.
But here’s the gimmick. The board is long scroll made of paper wound between two rollers housed in a cardboard box. As the game progresses, cards allow the players to scroll the map—possibly waylaying rival racers with hazards. The game is billed as “the game that moves as you play,” and it does exactly what it says on the tin.
Unlike a lot of games from the 1950s—long before the hobby games explosion of the 1970s and 1980s—Astron still feels current and unapologetically enjoyable. Even though some of the woefully uncredited, unsung designers that were working at Parker Brothers were actually doing some very neat things in mass-market, mainstream games at the time, many don’t really have the depth or playability that modern game players are looking for. But Astron feels like it could have been designed yesterday, even with the quaintly dated artwork and gee-whiz space-age concept. It’s definitely a family game, but it has some fun “take-that” style play and there’re more competitive teeth than many games from this period. It could easily be updated with new artwork and production standards to be sold as a hobby market title.
There weren’t many copies of this game made back in 1954. I’ve never heard an exact figure, or even an assumption, but by all reports it was an expensive game due to the large-format printing the map scroll required and the assembly. Parker Brothers wisely reused metal sculpts from their previous World Wide Travel Game. Apparently, it sold well enough to warrant the second edition, but I can’t help but wonder why the far more uninteresting Skylanes title was used for the reprint.
As for a modern reprint, there’s almost zero chance that we’ll ever see it made available again. The rights are probably locked away in a vault at Hasbro, the company that has owned the pioneering game manufacturer since 1991. The novelty of a scrolling map isn’t particularly exciting to most people in an era when video games do most of the scrolling for us.
Components for Astron include some amazing metal rocket ships—probably lead—and playing cards to move the rocket ships from square to square as they travel around the world.
At this point, copies of Astron that are in circulation are more than 60 years old, and that is an extremely long time in board game years. Cardboard and paper playthings deteriorate, get wet, become torn, ripped, moldy or otherwise destroyed. Additionally, the simple mechanical nature of the game means that many copies have torn maps or the box containing the scrolling components is often damaged beyond repair.
So the game’s overall rarity, coupled with the unlikelihood of finding a very good or mint condition copy, has sent prices, well, rocketing through the roof. This is also a game where incomplete sets hold value—the only collector I know who owns this game has two of them, and one is a spare to replace parts in the nicer copy.
But I’d be happy with just one.
Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.
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