… to the history of British journalism as a board game

Board games are a great way of playing out worlds in microcosm.

We’re not just talking the likes of Warhammer here.  From Monopoly’s capitalism-friendly property development scramble to the murder mystery investigations of Cluedo and the whole sweep of human existence in The Game of Life, it’s been a post-prandial, wet-bank-holiday-stuck-in-a-caravan way of exploring the human condition.  You can even rehearse for the US Presidency through them…

But perhaps the most unlikely is the long-running but largely forgotten journalism-em-up, Scoop.

There’s been several different editions of Scoop since it was first published in 1953.  The rules have been tweaked and tidied, the content brought slightly more up to date, and even the iconic telephone, down which the editor barks your instructions, updated from a cardboard dial to a slick piece of plastic gadgetry.

Scoop board game editions
Two Scoops? Or Three? No, I don’t have a problem…

But one of the key changes in Scoop over the years is more than just an evolution of the game.  In many ways it represents, and charts, the changing face of British journalism and newspaper publishing, from the still-formal stuffiness of the 1950s to the dying days of post-Wapping Fleet Street in the 1980s.

The original version of Scoop, published by Waddingtons in 1953, was aimed at four players, and gave the competitors four newspapers to choose from as they raced to fill the front page: the Mail, the Times, the News Chronicle and the Daily Sketch.  Later editions over the next couple of years expanded it to five and eventually six players, offering would-be Paul Dacre types the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph in addition to the original quartet.

The initial sweep of titles is a fascinating glimpse into newspaper publishing at the time.  Within seven years, one of those titles would be shut and by 1971 a second would have joined it, forcibly merged with the Daily Mail as Viscount Harmsworth’s mid-market behemoth swallowed up many upstarts and rivals.

The Daily Sketch, originally founded by Sir Edward Hulton in 1909, had been a Conservative tabloid — effectively, the modern Daily Mail of its age.  It bounced about between owners after Hulton’s retirement from publishing in the 1920s before being merged with the Daily Graphic, and then revived by Associated in 1953.  It was meant to be a right-wing counterpoint to the Mirror’s left-of-centre tabloid approach, but never quite found the audience it wanted and was folded back into the Mail in 1971.

Meanwhile the News Chronicle has even loftier origins, after being born of a merger between the Daily News and the Daily Chronicle in 1930.  Both were born from the left, with the Chronicle being one of the first to provide impartial coverage of the trade union movement.

The News was more radical, founded and initially edited by Charles Dickens in 1846 and drawing on literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells as writers.

The merger was supposed to provide a stronger left of centre press, with affiliations to the liberals, but despite having a seven-figure circulation (which most newspapers would give their right arm for today) it too ended up being merged with the Mail – an unlikely political bedfellow.

Perhaps the most unlikely aspect of all this, however, is the presence of the Times.  Before May 1966, the Times carried only adverts and notices on its front page and not actual news, except on rare occasions of national interest.  So for the would-be news editor taking on the Times assignment in Scoop, not only were the stories unlikely to ever appear in the real Thunderer, but for players of the original version, even the layout would look unusual.

By the 1970s, the game was now being produced under licence by HP Gibson’s, complete with lurid pink colour.  Now revised back down to four players, the budding front page editors had a choice of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and — bringing a bold splash of colour to the game, it’s first red top — the Daily Mirror.

Gibson’s released a couple of versions — the amazing Bill Tidy-esque illustration above, and a more sedate dark blue version, although even the company themselves don’t know much about how it came about these days.  Notably, though, by this point the game’s had reacquired the bane of every newspaper sub’s life — an exclamation point, missing since the first edition, but a sign of the increasing tabloid influence over the game.

By the 1980s it was back under Waddingtons banner, this time with a decidedly different look.  Although the rules hadn’t fundamentally changed, the boards had.  Now players had a choice of four papers all from Rupert Murdoch’s News International stable — the red top Sun and News of the World, the returning Times, and recent NI acquisition, Today.

Today had been founded in 1986 as a mid-market rival to the Mail and Express by regional publishing guru Eddy Shah.  It had led the way in using full colour, even if the early results were somewhat lurid due to a lack of proofing facilities, forcing the rest of Fleet Street to catch up.

Within four months Shah had sold up to Tiny Rowland.  Less than a year later, Murdoch bought it, but the paper failed to find that middle ground in a market already crowded, and despite the best efforts of legendary Fleet Street editor Richard Stott, it was dead by November 1995 – the first national title to shut up shop since the Daily Sketch.

The final edition of the game was released in 1988, when circulations were still high and the internet was still little more than a dream.  But Scoop was never really one of Waddingtons priorities, even despite its reissues.  An insert included by the company in the 60s included pretty much every high profile Waddingtons game BUT Scoop, including weird horseracing boardgame Totopoly.

There were international editions, for Italy, France and Germany, where the game was renamed Hallo, Redaktion! with localised newspaper deals.  But the 1988 edition would be the last hurrah and, with Hasbro acquiring Waddingtons in 1994, the presses stopped rolling for the last time.

Scoop plays somewhat like a cross between Waddingtons big hits, Cluedo and Monopoly.  Each player takes a newspaper blank, and has to fill it with a mix of Triple Star stories (a splash, effectively), star stories, two crime stories, two general stories and two adverts.

Players start with a blank front page, £2500 in the bank, and three cards, and have to buy or deal their way to acquiring stories and adverts to fill the slots on their board.  Each story requires a specialist reporter, a photographer and then a telephone card — allowing players to utilise the big gimmick: the hotline to the editor.

The original version featured a cardboard dial which, when turned, would produce a random result, with the final 80s edition replacing this with a bright red plastic phone, that produced the same results.

Dial 9 for a double c—ing.

The phone would reveal the editor’s decision — whether the story was ok, a triple star special, or was to be spiked as no good or worse, libellous.

You could make money off your rivals by syndicating stories, or selling your existing tales if your paper falls on hard times.  And curiously, the first to fill their front page wasn’t the winner — the game put success or failure by the value of your page, not its completion, so a half-finished paper with a couple of high value stories could win you the game even if your rival had filled all their slots.

A game in action. Arseholes on the backbench rewriting your copy sold separately.

In the 1980s Waddingtons would revise this to something more befitting the tabloid market and the News International deal, with players now required to collect a sports story, a scandal, crossword and a stop press alongside the original spaces.

It’s hard to imagine that Scoop could be republished today.  Certainly, since Hasbro took over Waddingtons in the mid-1990s, it’s a game that’s been consigned to charity shops and eBay.  It’s got a degree of cult and kitsch appeal, but Scoop was never a household name like Monopoly or Cluedo, even among hacks and flacks.

The adverts, much like the newspapers, represent a slice of life from British cultural heritage.

Scoop ad cards from the 1950s.
Gollywogs, sexist washing ads and Scotch. Fun for all the family!

The earlier editions featured real life brands, advertising in the game as they would in newspapers – and showing how much marketing trends and messages have changed even for familiar brands.

Ads from the 1970s. Slightly more wholesome.

But by the 1980s, the adverts are all house ads for Waddingtons’ other games, another sign of the more cartoony approach to the game taken in the News International era design.

Likewise the stories themselves.  Very little of the copy changed between the original edition and the 1980s, although the design work for the later games was decidedly more in line with DTP layout than the original versions. Removed as the game went on were some of the more outdated tales – new Royal wedding dress to be atomic powered, Far East lands first man on the moon…

Although not all of them were quite so outdated.  In fact, more than fake health story one looks like it could comfortably sit on the front of the Express to this day.

But what, in these days of digital first publishing and declining print circulations, would a 2017 Scoop look like?  We could have boards representing Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and (to keep up the trend of unfortunately defunct publications) Gawker, perhaps. MPU slots replacing the adverts needed to finish a front page.  Lists and social media reactions instead of crime and scandal stories?

Perhaps a time-limit placed on rounds, to represent the shorter news cycle and need to get stories out first.  Or perhaps, in these days of regionalised subbing hubs and templated publication, you’d need another person in a different room to handle and lay out all the pages separately from the player…

A completed Scoop front page. Soon to be hidden by a Scoop wraparound cover for easyJet.

But the core fundamentals — building the page, racing to publish, trying to get approval from the editor and, crucially, it needing to be a money-maker.  Those remain as much a part of the news process in 2017 as they were in 1953.  And even after all this time, with the way journalism has changed, Scoop proves a surprisingly accurate approach to newspaper production.

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