The rise and fall of Waddingtons House of Games is an interesting story within the board games industry. It all began in 1893, when John Waddington and Wilson Barratt founded Waddingtons Limited, a small publishing company. The company originally focused on publications for the theater, however, over the years they expanded into many other avenues, and grew as a result. The company name was changed to John Waddington Ltd in 1905, and its founder and namesake resigned his position in 1913. (The company was then headed by Victor Hugo Watson, and the Watson family helmed it for the remainder of its existence.) For years the Waddingtons chugged along with moderate success, but its fortunes changed in the aftermath of World War I, when it capitalized on the subsequent demand for playing cards.
Playing cards were quite the rage in Britain, and John Waddington Ltd. was a major player. They entered into distribution agreements with other firms to cross-merchandise their product, including the Great Western Railway company, which they tapped to subsidize their scenic vistas of Britain card series dubbed, “Beautiful Britain” (which debuted in 1924). Even more successful was their agreement with W.D. & H.O. Wills, the British cigarette manufacturer (and one of the companies which founded Imperial Tobacco, but I digress…). Waddington provided small playing cards which were inserted into 1/10 of Wills Gold Flake and Wills Capstan cigarette packages. These cards enabled the bearer to receive another pack. The scheme was very successful, and a huge profit center for Waddington Ltd. So successful, in fact, that the company had to enlist the aid of their competitor, De La Rue, for additional inventory.
The real moneymaker came in 1935, when Parker Brothers sent over a copy of Monopoly and asked if Waddington Ltd was interested in distributing the game in the U.K. After a very brief playtest, representatives of Waddington Ltd. contacted those of Parker Brothers and quickly hammered out a licensing agreement which was extremely lucrative for the company’s coffers. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the company purchased the rights to the game, Cluedo in 1947 from its inventor, Anthony E. Pratt. They sold the American publication rights to Parker Brothers in 1949, again lining the corporate coffers.
It was clear to the company that board games made money, and they eventually changed the company’s name to Waddingtons House of Games. Some of the games they published were Ratrace, 4000 A.D., Diplomacy, Game of Nations, Escape From Atlantis, Land Grab, and Lexicon, to name just a few. But the House of Games didn’t just publish games – Waddingtons manufactured puzzles, stationary – even postage stamps. Clearly business was booming.
An interesting anecdote that involves Nazis, Waddingtons, and prisoners of war (POW): in 1941, MI-9, the division of the British Secret Service responsible for POW-related intelligence, enlisted the aid of Waddington Ltd and its advanced manufacturing facilities. MI-9 needed to send aid to British citizens in Nazi POW camps, and Waddington Ltd possessed the ability to print on silk, which enabled a plan to send escape maps hidden inside Monopoly games. The company went even further than what MI-9 expected, managing to include a small compass hidden either inside the game board or within a game piece, and actual currency hidden within the stacks of play money. It is not known how many POWs managed to escape the Nazis because of Waddington Ltd, but surely there must have been a few.
So what happened to this patriotic, well-respected game company? The grandson of Victor Hugo Watson, and namesake, Victor Watson, retired in 1993. The Watsons had saved the company in times of crisis, from general strikes to hostile takeovers, but it was the end of an age. In 1994, Hasbro pulled out their giant corporate wallet and purchased the games division of Waddingtons for $78 million, as they had done to Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers before them, and the House of Games was no more.
Waddingtons commercial for Key to the Kingdom (Cheese Alert!)