Playing the Future
A little-known board game of forecasting and the futures that might have been.
It’s just before Christmas, December 1967. Hollywood star and soft-drink mogul Joan Crawford reaches across the dining table of her Manhattan apartment, and slides a final $1 billion-dollar bill onto the game board. “Gentlemen,” she intones to her fellow PepsiCo board members arrayed around the table, “We will have commercial transportation by rocket ship by 1986.”
On the other side of the continent, in Malibu, another Joan — Didion — sardonically reads a newspaper headline aloud to her assembled house guests. “Next Election Will Be Determined by New National Computer.” Across the table, future California governor Jerry Brown moves his game piece accordingly and sighs.
Back east in the nation’s capital, on the patio of his DC pied-à-terre, Pentagon chief Bob McNamara sternly taps his finger on a 20-sided die, and stares down Washington Post owner Katherine Graham and fellow Potomac socialites. “80 percent probability, Katie…the numbers never lie.”
Elsewhere across America, dinner parties and game nights devolve not into rounds of Monopoly or The Game of Life, but something a bit more sophisticated — a game of prediction, testing the prognostication powers of the great and good, from garden clubs to middle American rec rooms. By the early 1970s, thanks to a brightly colored table-top game stocked with paper money, dice and a dizzying array of future possibilities, people across the country, of all walks of life, could add forecasting to their everyday skill set, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. America had become a nation of parlor prognosticators.
Sadly, these vignettes are fictional, and this America of casual forecasters never came about. Yet, the game in question was real, though long forgotten except among a small cadre of collectors and historians of foresight. Understanding what it was, and what it meant, provides insights into why, as a culture, we may be future-curious, but remain terrible — if hopeful—forecasters.
Future: A Game of Strategy, Influence and Chance was an important artifact of mid-20th century technocracy, even if it was almost entirely unknown. It was a colorful board game that attempted to teach probability, then disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, into the closets and attics of the great and good. But its very existence as a means of bridging scientific planning and tabletop infotainment is remarkable, and its history is worth telling.
I’ll claim a vested interest at this point: I’m a professional futurist, and have been working in the field for almost twenty years. The history and the artifacts of futures work hold a deep interest for me, particularly as a way of understanding how we’ve understood the future as a society, and how we build ways to imagine, probe and share ideas about it with others. My interest lies not on the accuracy of forecasts, but rather on the influence that the forecasting process holds and how it shapes society. In that light, Future was, and is, a unique boundary object — an attempt to break out of the box of scientific wonkery and cross the divide between the think tank and main street.
I had long been aware of and keen to see the game for myself, but hadn’t expected to acquire one of the surviving originals until an idle scroll of eBay one evening offered up a rare copy. A few clicks later, one of an indeterminate but small number of surviving copies in circulation was headed from a game collector in England to my front step in The Hague.
In short order, a carefully taped parcel arrived. Inside, an ivory paper box featuring a modish illustration on the lid read, in cool sans serif type, simply “future.” I would later learn that the cover illustration, silhouetted head with a color-burst brain, was drawn from an ad campaign running around that time by the game’s commissioner, Kaiser Aluminium & Chemical Corporation of Oakland, California. There was a 1966 copyright hand-stamped on the side of the game box. The stark cover illustration was a repeated motif of Kaiser’s campaign which aimed to proselytize the future to its industrial customers, and the public, in the late 1960s.
Stacked inside the box was a compact, almost contemporary set of molded plastic consoles with colored sliders, fitted together to make up an assembled game board, along with a plastic icosahedron, known to gamers of the past few decades as a 20-sided die. Next, four colors of racked game chips, and two shrink-wrapped packs of currency, in denominations of $1 billion and $5 billion — yes, that’s billion with a “b.” Beneath the game board, was a delicate stack of carefully hole-punched, two-sided “trend” sheets, and a set of speculative newspaper headlines, similarly hole-punched, designed to fit on pegs at the center of the game board. Both were designed to act as a paper calculator that would direct game play.
Reading down the playing board, one encounters a list of future possibilities to wager on, many of which seem stuck in time between 1966 and 2023: A guaranteed annual income. Drugs for personality control. Business by picture phone. Common use of artificial organs. Commercial space exploration. A four-day work week. Brain-computer interfaces. Free colleges and universities. Elimination of racial barriers.
Clearly, Future was no Candyland or even Stratego, but something new and different: a sophisticated but attractive board game designed to teach about the future as seen from 1966. More importantly, it was designed to give leaders, industrial magnates and, possibly, average folks who came across it in schools or other contexts an appreciation of probability, and an understanding of the interconnection between the forces we think of as shaping possible futures.
The game’s main ingredient is change and, most importantly, what influences it, whether through singular breakthrough innovations and achievements, new government policies, or market shifts. Within the game, mixing these ingredients alters the probabilities of change, and playing with these combinations was meant to expose players to the idea that the future is a nest of often-interconnected variables, and the likelihood of one breakthrough or shift is often bound by its linkage to another.
Gaming as a way of thinking about the complexities of society and strategy wasn’t completely new in 1966. Polymath Buckminster Fuller had previously proposed and designed the World Game, an attempt at simulating the complexity of resource management. War-gaming, known for using forms and formats similar to both board and video games of today, was playing out in planning rooms around the globe during World War II. However, Future was the first notable attempt to engage civilians in the mechanics and social interaction of future forecasting. At its core, Future is what John L. Taylor, writing about the game in Architectural Digest in 1969, called a “teaching technology,” albeit one that was meant to bring some accessibility to what might otherwise be seen as an ivory tower pursuit.
The catalyst for the game’s creation was the 20th anniversary of Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation, but they weren’t the principal developers of Future. In an effort to come up with a special gift to celebrate the company’s rapid post-WWII expansion — it had supplied the US government metals for aircraft and ships, and later everything from cars, to pots and pans, to TV-dinner trays — Kaiser approached the fabled RAND Corporation, which was helping it with long-range planning for the next two decades. Kaiser’s request was for RAND to create something that could teach that capability to a wider audience. Having seen success with its own ventures into what were then growth markets for cars, housing, and anything else containing products like aluminum, Kaiser wanted captains of industry to understand how making big bets on change could usefully bend the world to their interests.
It wasn’t Kaiser’s first time trying to spark the public imagination about the future, however. The company had ventured into everything from geodesic domes for public architecture to space-age vehicle designs to discussing telemobility and cybernetics, investing deeply in messaging the future in the public mind over the decades. It was an early tenant of Disney’s Tomorrowland at the Disneyland park in California, selling visitors on the current and future promise of aluminum. Kaiser’s director of publications in the 1960s, Don Fabun, compiled the trippy forays into early corporate futurism found in Kaiser’s company magazine into several volumes, including “Dimensions of Change” and “Dynamics of Change,” both of which looked at coming shifts in society, technology, food, mobility and beyond.
The ideas underlying Future had an earlier inception. In 1964, Santa Monica-based RAND (an acronym standing for “research and development”) was itself already the world’s leading authority in the field of long-term strategy. Spun out of the Douglas Aircraft Company after World War II, RAND was an attempt by the US government to keep the brightest minds that had worked on the war effort together, and attract new ones. The group was primarily concerned with scientific and military questions, studying everything from the feasibility of satellites to the probabilities of nuclear conflict. But by the early 1960s, RAND had expanded to consider emerging areas of social and economic futures, reflecting broader recognition that the United States was facing just as many risks at home as overseas, or, as shown by Sputnik, in outer space.
In 1964, as the Cold War was ramping up and American social conditions were heating up, RAND commissioned two of those bright minds to make the first comprehensive survey of important long-term trends for the next fifty years. For the task of experimenting with new methods of group prediction RAND tapped logician and ur-futurist Dr Olaf Helmer, a perfect pop culture embodiment of the pipe-smoking German-born professor, and a young engineer, Theodore “Ted” Gordon, then a consultant on loan from Douglas Aircraft, where he was managing development of early space vehicles.
The results not only honed the development of the Delphi method, which became a bread-and-butter tool for serious futurists over the next fifty years, but they also produced a set of long-term trends which America potentially faced in its future as well as expert assessment of their probabilities over that timeframe. Their forecasts were then validated and filtered by top specialists in their fields.
The paper Helmer and Gordon produced, dryly titled Report on a Long-range Forecasting Study, laid the groundwork for systematic approaches to prediction that were applied by military, commercial and academic experts for decades to come. It also further cemented the concept of relying on the collective knowledge of “expert networks” to reach a refined view of the future, a “social technology” as Helmer later called it. Aspects of these approaches show up today in everything from scenario planning to the increasingly popular forecasting tournaments described in Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s bestseller, Superforecasting. Helmer and Gordon also saw the extension of these concepts in Future the game as a way to bring back the idea of long-range central planning as an acceptable and useful practice. As Helmer wrote in The Futurist magazine in early 1967, this kind of top-down planning had been tainted with a “bad odor” in the public’s view because of Cold War associations with socialism.
Kitchen table gaming
Kaiser reached out to RAND in the summer of 1966 through Dr. Hans Goldschmidt, a Kaiser engineer with an interest in the future. Goldschmidt was a weekend tinkerer who liked to make his own shop jigs and models, some of which he’d patented. Gordon recalled the connection to me in a 2020 conversation, particularly Kaiser’s reason for the contact: “I was working with RAND as a consultant in their math and policy department [and] Olaf and I had, time-wise, just about finished the long-range forecasting study published in 1964. We were friends, and we got this call from Kaiser, from Hans Goldschimdt saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re looking for a game since [our company is] twenty years old, and we want to commemorate that, and we want to send that out to our customers.’”
Goldschmidt had called at the right moment. Gordon had been teaching across town at UCLA, and was working out some of his and Helmer’s ideas on the university’s new computer. Part of this experimentation involved building a simulation game with their forecast data and playing through variations, a practice that was increasingly common in RAND circles.
The result of this was the genesis of yet another new methodology: the cross-impact matrix. By being able to calculate the impact of one trend’s probability on another, Gordon and Helmer were able to set a simulation in motion by connecting the impacts of different trends on one another — a simple version of much more complex modern game engines. For example, if trend A, with its own probability, happened around the same time as trend B, the probability of trend B occurring may change as a result — A might make it more or less likely that B occurs, and so on.
According to Gordon, the seeds of this approach had come out of the work that brought him into RAND’s orbit. “At Douglas, I was doing a job I really loved,” he recalled, having recently led NASA’s nascent Saturn booster program, as well as launch of the Pioneer 1 lunar probe. “At the time, I wrote a book called ‘The Future’, and that got me to RAND, because the basic method I was using to write the book was interviewing people who were at the leading edge of their fields and asking them a simple question, ‘Where do you think it goes?’”
When Goldschmidt approached RAND, Helmer and Gordon realised they had something in their pockets that might be useful: a ready-made game of predictions. Adding to that, Kaiser gave the RAND team carte blanche to turn it into something special. “It was a giveaway, and the resources of the Kaiser Company were essentially at our disposal,” Gordon remembered. “We had professional artists. If we wanted to make it out of plastic, they would make it out of plastic for us. So we had no limitations with respect to design. We could do whatever we want. So we actually sat down one day and said, this would be fun to play through. And we made the list of events or developments that constituted the cards. And then, our own judgments around that list came to life.”
The process of developing the game was iterative, and followed no particular guidebook. Some mechanics and concepts were worked out at RAND’s offices on Santa Monica’s Third Street, where rooms overflowed with mathematicians and newly acquired computing tools, according to Gordon, but the core of it took quiet time on weekends, where the pair sat in Helmer’s West LA home testing different approaches. “I was at Olaf’s house, sitting at a kitchen table where we did the layout of a game,” Gordon said. “It was not the back of a napkin, but the surface of a kitchen table.”
From Helmer and Gordon’s paper version, Kaiser made some changes to put it into production. Gordon recalled to me that the process took all of three to four months in the summer of 1966, with only a rough schedule to adhere to. What they arrived at was a table-top game that had the polished look-and-feel of a mass market product of the era — a Milton Bradley-esque box of delights, with colorful labelling, matching plastic coins, currencies, and sliders, parts to assemble, and a clever system of play, heady topic notwithstanding. Players familiar with games of Monopoly and Life on a formica dinette set, or scattered across basement carpet tiles, would be at home cracking open Future on a Saturday night. Equally, the handsome box and eye-catching tones weren’t meant to be out of place on an executive’s polished office credenza, where most boxes of Future were intended to land.
Playing the future
How does one make complexity playable? Fortunately, having starter forecasts at hand solved the “what” problem. The topics covered by the Report on a Long-range Forecasting Study, augmented by other issues selected by Helmer and Gordon, provided the 60 “Events” or issues that may or may not come to pass in the future. Each player is given fifteen Events, ranging in probability from 80 percent (such as “3 out of 4 people to live in cities and towns,” or “Manned military space base exists”), down to 20 percent (including “Annual wage of $6,000 is guaranteed to all breadwinners,” and “Effective physical treatment of mental illness is possible”), descending in increments of 20 percent. For each Event, a corresponding colored slider on the game board is set to the probability as determined by the experts.
The next ingredient was “when.” To make forecasts a game, as with superforecasting or prediction markets, a payoff date is needed to validate a claim; one needs a date when the validity of the forecast can be concretely measured, otherwise it just remains a prediction. In the case of “Future,” Helmer and Gordon took the target date of the source study: 1986, twenty years later, setting up a symmetry with Kaiser’s 20-year commemoration. If so much had happened in politics, science and society since 1946, what might be possible another two decades hence?
Future also needed a “how,” or a way to get to 1986. This is where the 20-sided die came in. With each Event set at the expert probability, something was needed to generate the aforementioned payoff, or future occurrence. A roll of the die at the reading of each Event provides a set of three numbers on the upward face which, if any match the expert-set probability, tells the player whether the forecast was “true” or not by 1986.
Up to this point, Future feels like a modified game of Hi-Lo in Las Vegas. At the outset of the game, each player is asked to mark whether they agree with each forecast on a scoresheet, and the probabilities set. Events are reviewed one at a time, and a roll of the die generates a “does/does not occur” such that the player can score her “bet” against that of the expert and the simulated reality of 1986 on the die.
But, this is a game about connections and contingencies, where events have impacts on the probability of other events. This is where the gameplay of Future takes on another dimension. As Event cards are played one by one, they meet or miss the rolled probability, but they also increase or decrease the probabilities of other related events. For example, if autos are barred from cities, people might work from other locations, increasing the probability of business by picture phone, as the game calls it. This exclusion might also decrease the number of cars in use. Players who have the latter two trends would adjust their respective event probabilities as the first event is played.
A game of influence
So the game goes, round by round, until all Events are rolled for, the future determined, the occasional surprise card or news story intervenes to spice things up, similar to Monopoly, and scores totalled. This is only for Version 1 of gameplay, though. A Version 2 is also possible, and possibly closer to reality — it’s played with money. Remember the billion-dollar bills? This is where they come in, as a means of buying probabilities upward or downward, depending on the interests of the player. With a starting pile of cash, each player can effectively bet against the other, pushing and pulling different innovations, upgrades or social breakthroughs. Of course, there is a return on these investments for winning turns, growing the cash pile of the successful future-maker, foreshadowing the cash-splashing Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos of the 2020s. As the game instructions cheekily put it, the winner is the player who “has made the most of the future.”
I asked Gordon about this aspect of the game specifically, and whether it set a less than desirable example, a question which itself shows the gap between the values of 1966 and today. “We were looking for a way to grade the accomplishments of the players,“ he told me. “Here’s your money and with it, you can change the probability of events. That’s what policy is — changing the probability of future events. We saw the money aspect as being similar to an R&D investment that has the effect of making various events more probable, in other words, like real life.”
Future made the front page of the Business section of the New York Times at its launch in October 1966, touting some big names of government and industry who would be playing along including the aforementioned Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a known data hound whose affection for quantification some blame for the US losing Vietnam. Also included were Treasury Secretary Henry H. Fowler, Roger Blough, then chairman of US Steel Corporation, and New York City Mayor John Lindsay (also of original Batman TV series cameo fame). The game also made the cover of one of the earliest editions of The Futurist magazine in February 1967, alongside a small mention of an upcoming book by a journalist named Alvin Toffler that would deal with the future. We now know that book as Future Shock, the 1970 global bestseller that actually did put future-gazing on the pop culture map.
After Kaiser distributed its copies, the story of Future mostly goes quiet, however. Gordon remembers very little follow-on activity, aside from a handful of educators who used the game in their classrooms, including one version which was modified to look specifically at urban futures. He said the CIA also obtained a copy, but little is known publicly about its use there. Since the game wasn’t offered to the general public, it largely became bookcase ornament, or drifted into second-hand shops over the next decade.
Gordon went on to re-run his and Helmer’s calculations on newly available computers at UCLA in 1968, which enabled the analyses to be run many times, using a Monte Carlo-type sampling approach to produce more refined probabilistic models. This refinement of the cross-impact approach produced the more lasting outcome of the game in what became known, plainly, as “cross-impact analysis”. This process of modeling intersecting probabilities enabled everyone from the CIA to research institutes, universities and think tanks to run more sophisticated, larger scale simulations of everything from the Uruguayan economy to nuclear technology to the global lumber industry, and many other strategic play-throughs in smoke-filled meeting rooms.
The game fades away, but the hopes remain
The feeling that struck me most deeply as I unboxed Future for the first time in the summer of 2020 was just how timely many of the “events” selected by Helmer and Gordon to make up the gameplay still are. In addition to computer-brain interfaces, elimination of racial barriers, four-day work weeks, there are numerous others that remain, or have resurfaced, as hot-button issues: household robots, lab-grown organs, free public education, nuclear arms reduction, synthetic proteins, 3D TV, genetic manipulation, credit cards replacing paper currency, commercial space flight, smart drugs, and landing humans on Mars. The summer of 2020 threw some of these issues into extreme contrast, featuring as it did the momentous emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in marches across America, amid an unfolding pandemic, during what would be a contested election season, punctuated by several landmark Mars mission launches. It was strange to look at this antique that presaged this heady moment when all futures seem to be happening at once.
And, as many commentators remarked that summer of 2020, America in particular hadn’t seen such a convergence of turbulence since the mid-1960s. This was the context in which RAND was looking ahead at the challenges facing policy-makers of that era, and one in which Helmer and Gordon created the game during a summer balanced between the previous summer’s Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Timothy Leary’s LSD experiments and Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth” revelation on one side, and escalation in Vietnam, shocking political assassinations, and eventual Moon landing to come on the other.
When I interviewed Gordon, he reflected on the time and how some fundamental aspects of society were changing the threats and opportunities futurists considered, something Alvin Toffler captured as his eponymous zeitgeist factor in Future Shock. “This was the age of the hippie, and social norms were changing,” Gordon recalled. “The birth control pill was changing sexual mores, and criticism of institutions was beginning — it was alright to revolt. We didn’t know what the hell was going to happen as a result of all that.”
He likened it to the challenge faced by so many around the COVID pandemic, as futurists and strategists have continued to fumble with scenarios and models of various exit pathways. “We’re in that situation now. The downside is really a downside, and the upside isn’t all that up. You’ve got a big gap — there’s high uncertainty. In that sense, there’s a parallel.”
Tomorrow and tomorrow
A layperson might look at this time-as-a-flat-circle of continued hopes and challenges and ask, “Why are we still here? Shouldn’t futurists have fixed this, or gotten better at forecasting in the last fifty years?” The simple answer is, futurists don’t control the future, only illuminate the landscape ahead, and try to chart pathways through it to the benefit of their clients, society, or both. In the big picture, progress toward an achievement or milestone, which most of the trends in Future are, depends on several critical factors. Was it a plausible milestone, as in, could we even develop the technology to get to Mars by 1986 or have safe brain implants in two decades? Did enough of the impacted parties maintain their focus on it long enough to realise it? Have other issues happened in the meantime to speed up or block important change from happening?
The more complex answer lies somewhere at the intersection of society’s distorted distance vision, and deep systemic bias toward technological innovation, and away from social progress. The former can be measured theoretically in terms of value — dollars, euros or yuan — and the latter we fail to value enough to change. From the perspective of 1964, looking back 20 years meant looking back at a phase of extraordinary technological, political and social change — nuclear weapons, the emergence of computing, mass housing, the emergence of dual-income households, the entrenchment of a bipolar global political dynamic, pharmaceuticals, television, satellites and space probes.
This parade of advancements might lead forecasters to expect a similar rate of change ahead. But, as recent experience with everything from Facebook’s impact on elections to COVID-19 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlight, while technological advancement might be roughly forecastable, accompanying social change or economic or political innovation isn’t as easily anticipated. We rarely foresee the exact outcome of their collisions.
A mechanism of control, or totem for thinking?
As a futurist in my 50s, it’s striking that so many of the issues explored by the game have remained similar to those we contemplate today, while methodologies for forecasting and enabling change, and attitudes about the future and who gets to speak for it, have evolved. In her paper “The Future Boardgame: Prediction as Power over Time,” Jenny Andersson writes that the game is an artifact of control that “embodied various claims to know and shape the future, and they were, or so it is proposed here, concentrates of forms of futuristic expertise.”
Andersson goes on to call Helmer and Gordon’s table-top game “a powered social technology with ambitions to shape the social world, manage social conflicts, and create forms of order to the general messiness of social time.” At the time, Future, was in a way a playful version of a more serious endeavour by an elite with its hands on the levers of policy, intended to get ahead of that “messiness” of social conflict, delicately balanced arms race, and rapidly evolving technologies.
I put this positioning to renowned forecaster Paul Saffo, formerly of Institute for the Future, and now a professor at Stanford. Saffo has also collected copies of Future over the years, and has stayed in touch with Gordon as well, sometimes discussing the game. “The interesting thing about games like this is the number of people who actually played it was probably very small,” Saffo told me. “But the very fact that the game existed — that people considered the possibility of playing a game [about forecasts] was in many, many ways much more important than whether people actually play the game itself.”
In Saffo’s view, the game’s very existence is an important marker of aspiration, rather than a mechanism of control. “The idea of the game itself: that you could anticipate the future by looking at these factors… that was the big event,” he said. “Over the years, I would visit older colleagues in the futures field, and everybody had a copy on their shelf, most not opened. But they had a copy; it was kind of a totemic icon.”
One aspect of this aspiration — to make consideration and understanding of the future more accessible — has led to futures work becoming more high profile. This has particularly been the case over the past decade, as a generation of young and diverse strategists and designers who were reared on Playstation, Magic: The Gathering, and assorted role-playing games move into professional foresight and forecasting, using game-based designs to explore new takes on the futures we may face. To that end, table-top futures games have become widespread, and are seen as a useful and approachable gateway to deeper consideration of the factors that are shaping our world. These games are not about being right, but instead, they are mainly about being aware of issues and the possibilities these issues’ interlinkages might spark.
Saffo thinks to aspire to more than that, the pursuit of a better game — a better simulation — in search of more refined or thoughtful forecasting misses the point. “All tools serve the same purpose,” he told me, “I don’t care whether it’s crystal balls or dice. They all serve the same function as [Future] served, which is a physical prompt to consider options and possibilities.”
This is perhaps what Helmer and Gordon had in mind fifty years ago. It’s why proto-futurists like Herman Kahn stopped speaking in quantitative proabilities and started telling stories instead. Having sharper data, making accurate predictions, or winning the theoretical game isn’t what’s important. Getting people to talk about the future, to probe it, to feel it themselves and become more aware of what drives it is the critical element is largely the objective.
Tools like games with cards and dice are a means to an end, a boundary object around which to converge our diverse expectations and understandings, enticing us to share our perspectives and fill gaps in knowledge — to link assumptions and unknowns. They are best used not to deliver an answer, but to spark collective understanding, and maybe, just maybe, generate a little imagination.
Scott Smith is a futurist, writer, and managing partner of Changeist. He is the author of “How to Future: Leading and Sensemaking in an Age of Hyperchange,” published by Kogan Page in 2020, and co-author of “Future Cultures: How to Build a Future-Ready Organization Through Leadership,” with Susan Cox-Smith, to be published in October 2023.
Thanks to Susan Cox-Smith and Samantha Culp for comments on this piece as it was being shaped. Thanks also to Julian Hanna, Simone Ashby, Lily Higgins and Grace Turtle for mid-pandemic playtesting and reflecting.