Having been nose-to-the-grindstone with games research, I've uncovered something sort of interesting.
It looks like American boardgames were, if briefly, wildly interesting for a short period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If I'm wrong here, someone correct me, but here is the sort of thing I'm looking at:
Electronic games These guys were the pioneers in bringing electronics into boardgaming, and then suddenly disappeared (perhaps right around the same time that you could buy a Commodore64 pretty easily, or maybe with the early rise of the affordable video game console:
Stop Thief was released in 1979 and was probably the first really significant game with an electronic component. This game (which we'll be testing Thursday) featured the "police scanner" which would play little electronic noises to indicate where a thief might be. If you hear breaking glass, he's near a window. If you hear a creaky door later, he's by a door near a window. When you are ready to guess the location of the thief, you "dial it in" to the computer and it tells you if you are correct. Gameplay itself seems a little lame, but the gizmo really adds effect. Oh, and the perspective for the board is really cool- the opposite corner of the board is rendered perfectly, because the perspective assumes that the viewer is viewing from the middle of the board. See the link for a picture that shows this.
Dark Tower was released in 1981 by Milton Bradley. Among the first "electronic gizmo" games, the big feature was this hulking black tower-thing in the middle that made sounds as gameplay progressed. This crazy item regularly sells for $150-$200 on eBay. Picture of the game here. In this game, the gizmo is much more active, as you interact with it every time you try to buy something. There is even a "haggle" button if you don't like the price you are given.
The Dungeons and Dragons Electronic Labyrinth Game was also released in 1980, and made the whole board into the Gizmo. Players had nice pewter miniatures (a thief, a treasure chest, and a dragon) and were supposed to explore the maze, get the treasure, and get out before being attacked three times by the dragon. The board was constructed during gameplay by moving your miniature from one square to another, and getting a sound clue to indicate what happened. One sound meant you hit a wall, another meant you stepped forward... including such things as the "dragon woke up" sound and the "bonked into a locked door" sound. When you bonk into a wall or door, there were little fences that you put in place to remind you later where the walls were. When you thought that you knew where the dragon was, you could place the dragon miniature in place to track his movements. Unfortunately, this game isn't terribly well documented online, and boardgamegeek is crashing a lot, so I can't fact check this very well.
Non-electronic, but pretty sophisticated
Dungeon from 1975 was a very early dungeon crawler loosely based on the roleplaying game. You selected a character (early role selection) based on their abilities, and roved the various different parts of the dungeon trying to accumulate treasure. Note that movement was where you decided to go, not the "roll x and move x spaces clockwise) what was so common at the time, and I think role selection was a pretty new thing. While you pick from the thimble, iron, and car in monopoly, it isn't like the car moves faster or the iron can flatten anything.
Survive was released in 1982 by Parker Brothers. Not only does it feature such relatively new ideas as a changing board with hexes, but there are cooperative elements to play and the player is not personally represented on the board- early elements of German Games. This is a game I've blogged about a lot lately, suffice to say that the design is way more sophisticated than anything I'd expect to find today in a big-box toy store.
Conspiracy was a Milton Bradley title in 1982, is a bizzare little game that was pretty popular in my friend's basement in high school. The players are external to the board, but there are busts of 8 different spies on the board with clever names (Peking Tom, Rock Bottom, etc). On your turn, you can move any of the spies. The goal is to get one of them to pick up "the documents" from the center of the board and then bring them back to "your" location (I think). Movement is controlled by how much you've spent buying off these secret agents, and tracked in your bank book (a set number came with the game). If, at any point, another player doesn't want you to make a move, they can "challenge" and you take turns showing each other how much you've invested in that spy. The player who has put the most money on their spy keeps control. You don't want to put too much money on a spy, however, as at any time another spy can enter their space and "blow their cover" for a set fee.
Maybe I should see if I can run down a copy of Conspiracy somewhere cheap...
Anyhow, any ideas on why game design shifted from these sort of innovative games to freakin' movie adaptations and clue/ monopoly skins?
EDIT: Added hyperlinks