A Gamut of Games: The Sid Sackson Portal

The Strong (header)
Sid Sackson, 1969. Author photo from book jacket of A Gamut of Games.
The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Have you ever wondered how some of your favorite board games were developed? Did the idea spring, fully formed, out of the head of a publishing executive? Or was the game carefully shaped by an independent designer and perfected over years of play-testing, rule changes, and feedback? At The Strong, we’re able to glimpse behind the scenes through the lens of one of the most prolific American game inventors of the 20th century: Sid Sackson.  Perhaps best known for Acquire, Sid created close to 500 games during his lifetime (about 50 of which ended up being published).

The Sid Sackson collection housed at The Strong contains more than five decades of his professional correspondence, notes, reference, game descriptions, manuscript drafts, and of course, his legendary diaries. Visitors to the library and archives have always been amazed by the neat, tiny printing within Sid’s diaries, in which he methodically recorded the games he played, the people he talked to, the publications he read, and the projects on which he worked. Researchers are often more astonished when I explain to them that Sid went back through his diaries at the end of each year and fastidiously indexed them. (Sid even made cross-referencing the pages in his game description files easy—often recording, in the upper right hand corner of these papers, the dates on which he received, responded to, or associated the files with an entry in his diary for that year.) He truly was, in the words of our retired library director, “an archivist’s dream.”

In 2019, The Strong was awarded a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (a statutory body affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration) to ensure that researchers around the world could access these remarkable diaries online. Digitizing the 35 diaries—that’s almost 15,000 images alone—was only the first step; staff in the Brian Sutton-Smith Library & Archives of Play would also produce metadata for the diaries, write glossary entries for more than 120 keywords, and link to Sackson game prototypes held within The Strong’s artifact collections. We also worked with Agile Humanities, a web developer specializing in cultural heritage projects, to build our site using Omeka, an open-source platform for online digital collections. After nearly two years of hard work (and becoming intimately familiar with Sid Sackson’s writing habits), we’re pleased to share that the Sid Sackson Portal is now available for game enthusiasts and researchers alike to dive into the 35 years of diaries maintained by this illustrious game designer.

Homepage of The Sid Sackson Portal.

On the Sid Sackson Portal, you can view full PDFs of each year’s diary or Browse the Collection to keyword search or to view individual page image files. You can also learn more about Sid and his career, view hundreds of photos of game prototypes (as well as published games), and check out glossary terms about the people, games, corporations, and publications to which Sid often referred.

Just because the diaries have been digitized doesn’t mean the project is done. While anyone can currently view all of the pages online, it would be even more useful to have full transcriptions of every entry. That’s where you come in! Through crowdsourcing, we plan to completely transcribe the 35 diaries, making their contents even more accessible. Anyone can assist in transcribing Sid’s diaries and contribute to the body of scholarship on the history of games as it relates to cultural shifts and trends. Five diaries will be “open” for transcription at a time, and as entire diaries are transcribed, reviewed, and approved, we’ll unlock the next chronological one for transcription. (So far, the 1964 diary has been completely transcribed, with links to relevant glossary terms provided within the transcription text.) If you’d like to help,  read about The Transcription Project, create a MediaWiki account, and start typing! (Don’t worry if you’ve never done this sort of task before; we have some handy guidelines and a walkthrough linked on the site.)

Transcription in progress on The Sid Sackson Portal.

The Sid Sackson collection is one of our most utilized archival collections. In addition to on-site research use, museum staff members occasionally provide special tours to college classes, game enthusiast groups, or even executives from toy or game companies. These tours offer me the opportunity to display unique pieces from the archives and share their stories. I regularly showcase Sid’s diaries, along with some of his game description or correspondence files. I’ve found that younger generations are rarely familiar with Sid Sackson or his published games, so I enjoy introducing this amazing game designer, collector, and author to new audiences. I expect that interest in Sid will only continue to grow as more people “discover” him and his impact on the games industry—and I encourage everyone to check out his diaries on the Sid Sackson Portal. (After all, if you ever interacted with Sid, there’s a good chance your name might appear in one of his daily diary entries!)

Many thanks to Liz Hart, Nicole Pease, and Agile Humanities for all of their incredible work on this project!

Article by Julia Novakovic, Archivist at The Strong National Museum of Play.

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