3M’s Innovative Bookshelf Games: The Precursors to Today’s Hobby Board Games

3M produced a line of innovative “Bookshelf” board games produced in the 1960s and 1970s, including Alex Randolph’s Twixt, as seen in action.

When most folks think of the 3M corporate brand, their thoughts most likely turn toward the unmistakable smell of Scotch tape or the canary yellow of Post-It notes. But for veteran game players and collectors, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company is associated with a line of innovative “Bookshelf” board games produced in the 1960s and 1970s.

Each game was presented in a faux-leather book-like slipcover, as if intended to be placed in the owner’s library between the works of Proust and Dickens. As part of the Bookshelf line, 3M published several classic games like backgammon and chess, but more significantly, the series also included seminal, profoundly important strategy games by hugely influential freelance designers like Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph—games that would go on to more or less create the concept of hobby board gaming as something to be distinguished from more mainstream, mass-market fare.

With important titles like Sackson’s business game, Acquire,and Randolph’s classic abstract connection game, Twixt, representing the best and most timeless of the 3M Bookshelf line, the remainder were chiefly political, economic and abstract (with a couple of now very-dated sports titles) among the nearly 30 titles that were released in the format. Some of these games have faded into obscurity, but others, such as the trivia game Facts in Five and the simple medieval war game, Feudal, are often fondly remembered by those who played them in decades past.

The 3M Bookshelf games today look quaint, with sometimes hilariously dated artwork and photographs suggesting that a game of Breakthru or Oh-Wah-ree should be enjoyed in a Mid-century Modern living room and accompanied by wine, cheese and firelight. Clearly, the aim was to sell these games to an adult audience that might be inclined to view games as kiddy fare, but the Bookshelf games often had serious tones and themes—witness titles such as Point of Law, Executive Decision or Mr. President. In retrospect, many of these games don’t look like much fun. When I was a kid, I’d see these games and wonder if they were games at all.

3M Bookshelf games tend to turn up rather frequently at yard sales, thrift stores, and antique dealers, which is where I’ve acquired all of the ones I’ve ever owned myself. But back in their heyday, they were widely available and sold at major booksellers and other retailers. And some were quite popular, relatively speaking. It’s not uncommon to find extremely well-preserved examples of many of these games, but for every pristine copy of Contigo or Image that I’ve found, I’ve also seen a moldy, termite-eaten copy of Ploy or Bazaar. I suspect that owners who actually did keep these games on their bookshelves might be responsible for the nicer copies that are out there.

Sid Sackson’s boring-looking Acquire. But trust me, this game is fun.

Jati, worth up to $1,000. It even looks like a game for rich people.

In terms of market value, most of the 3M games are relatively affordable and some are quite inexpensive. These games have values that vary wildly, with many sellers charging more than they’re likely worth due to their vintage more than their quality or level of demand. Even the more common titles like Executive Decision and Facts in Five might carry a $50 price tag in some shops. But in some cases, a lucky buyer might find one of these games sold for a couple of bucks by an unaware seller. I’ve purchased 3M Bookshelf games—including a copy of the sought-after Twixt—for as little as 50 cents. And I promptly resold it for $65 in an online auction. For most of the 3M line, $15-$25 is a fair range for games in decent, complete condition and anything beyond that might be purely speculative pricing. Outliers would be Acquire and Twixt, as I’ve seen the original 3M editions of these games approach $100 and beyond. These are cases where the games are still highly in demand and played by gamers today, many of whom might want first-edition copies of these classic games in their collections.

Before the Internet, there were catalogs. This is an example of a 1965 3M Games Brochure.

By far the most valuable of the Bookshelf games, however, is Jati, an extremely rare 1965 abstract strategy title that never entered full production. According to the apocryphal story surrounding it, the game was considered to be too easy to play with pen and paper, which could have hurt sales once folks realized that they didn’t really need to buy it despite its nice plastic board and pieces. It has been reported that only 100 copies were made as production samples and for review, and it is unclear how many of those still remain or if there may have been more produced than believed. Copies of the game have sold anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000 at a 2006 eBay auction.

Today, Jati is a “holy grail” for collectors of these games. And apparently, it’s not really very good. But its scarcity overrides the usual depreciation that drives down the cost of poorly reviewed or regarded titles.

3M produced other games—including a great line of sports titles, as well as some kid-oriented and educational games—during their time in the board games market. By 1975, the company had sold all of its intellectual property rights and the entirety of its game publishing business to Avalon Hill, another storied producer of hobby games that would keep many of the best games in the Bookshelf series in print for years to come. The legacy of the 3M Bookshelf games remains felt today, with hobby game publishers still using the bookcase-sized boxes and promoting game designs by freelance, named designers. And most importantly, these titles almost single-handedly created the market for more serious, thoughtful strategy games beyond the usual classics.

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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