03 March 2022
Taking the tabletop time machine back to 1944, where David Parlett looks at the creation of the classic game Cluedo, and happens to answer the question we've always been asking – why do we call it Cluedo, and others call it Clue?
Anthony Pratt (1903-1994) belied his name when it came to inventing one of the few classic games of the 20th century. Indeed, unlike such classics as Monopoly and Scrabble, whose forerunners go back to the 19th century, Cluedo was based on the hitherto unexplored ludic theme of deduction. Its central mechanism – that of deducing three missing cards by asking other players to show you whether or not they hold one of them – makes it, strictly speaking, a card game rather than a board game. The only technical purpose of the board is to make the game last longer by requiring you to move to the room in which you claim the murder to have been committed. You could play perfectly well without this restriction, but then the game simply wouldn’t be half as much fun.
Patented in 1944 and first published in 1949, Cluedo was not, strictly speaking, the first of its kind. Edward H Freedman’s Mr Ree (1939) presented seven suspects, four weapons, six rooms, and a hall in a house surrounded by eight other possible locations of the crime.
Almost everything you need to know about Cluedo, including the circumstances of its invention and all the variations that have since been played upon it, can be gleaned from Wikipedia. More can be found at the website of Bruce Whitehill, whose vast collection of different editions makes him the world’s foremost authority on the game. That, and the fact that hardly anyone in the world can have ever failed to play it, renders it unnecessary to rehearse its history here. Except, perhaps, to point out why Americans know it simply as ‘Clue’. As Whitehill, himself American, explains, “Cluedo = Clue + Ludo. Ludo is a classic British game – a simplified game of India. Ludo is not played in the U.S. Instead, Americans play Parcheesi. But ‘Cluecheesi’ doesn’t quite work. So we just stuck with ‘Clue’.”
Cluedo’s invention during WWII came at the tail end of the ‘golden age of classic crime stories’, which many of us Brits are now rediscovering through the series of British Library Crime Classics published by (guess who?) the British Library. In the introduction to J Jefferson Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests (1936), which I’ve just finished re-reading, Martin Edwards writes: “The ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects to be found at a country house party provides readers of a whodunit with a chance to pit their wits against the author. The portrayal of conflict and tensions in a small community has a powerful and enduring appeal, and over the past three quarters of a century crime novelists have shown much ingenuity in creating ‘closed circle’ mysteries.”
The closed circle remains a staple of detective fiction in the slightly less genteel setting of television. BBC’s Death in Paradise series seems to be based on nothing else, apart from its exotic location and outrageous storylines (though it also does a nice line in the ‘locked room’ puzzle).
Pratt’s brilliance lay in faithfully extending the “closed circle” trope from genteel drawing room literature to the genteel drawing-room world of games. It’s very rare for the mechanics of a board game to be so closely related to its theme, and if Cluedo’s author is known for nothing else he is at least to be praised, or congratulated, for being the right man in the right place at the right time.
- David Parlett is a games inventor and historian, author of The Oxford History of Card Games and its sequel on board games, and a visiting professor of games design at the University of Suffolk.