Chinese checkers, also known as Sternhalma, is a strategy board game that was actually developed in Germany. The game can be played by two, three, four, or six individuals playing alone or with partners.
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Though the name would imply that the game had some ties to China by origin or tradition, in reality, it’s not Chinese or even related to checkers! The origin story of this game shows how things can be re-imagined as they travel around the world. In order for the game to become what we know it as today, it had to bounce between the U.S., England, Germany, and then back to the U.S.
Chinese checkers is loosely based on a board game known as Halma. A thoracic surgeon named George Howard Monks created Halma in the U.S. between 1883 and 1884. The name “Halma” was derived from the Greek phrase “to jump.”
In this version of the game, the board was square, checkered, and allowed two or four players to participate. The goal was to move all your pieces from your camp to the one in the opposite corner of the board. This was done by jumping your game piece over the others.
It’s believed that Monks based Halma off Hoppity, a famous English game. Sadly, it was not popular or widely played, so no surviving copies are left. However, the good news is that Monk’s game somehow made its way to England, where it gained notoriety.
Within a few years, the game traveled around Europe, and in 1892 the game board we recognize today was invented. The same year, Ravensburger, a German toy company, released a six-pointed star game board to accompany the game. The company referred to the improved game as Stern-Halma.
Like its predecessor, Stern-Halma was a quick success, and people liked the game because of its simplicity. Since there were no complicated rules or need for strategy, even young children could learn to play quickly.
Eventually, Stern-Halma arrived back in the United States, which is where it was named Chinese checkers.
The reintroduction occurred in 1928 when it was released by the toymaker J. Pressman Co. They chose the name “Hop-Ching Checkers” to latch onto what was known as “Oriental fever.” This trend swept the country following two events: The first was King Tut’s tomb being discovered in 1922 and the second was Mah-Jong being introduced as an Asian tile game in 1923.
The game experienced a sharp rise in popularity, which led other toy manufacturers to produce the game too. These other companies were the ones to first use the name “Chinese checkers” as a more generic version of Pressman’s name. Since no one held the rights to that name, it was okay; that is, until 1941, when Milton-Bradley was able to secure a patent for the phrase “Chinese Checkers.”
Today, you can find a game board on display at the Heritage Center Museum’s 19th Century Gallery, but it’s not the six-pointed star and doesn’t have a maker’s mark. This means it’s most likely one of the first versions of the game that was made for young kids.
Though this game is not nearly as popular as it once was, it’s still a great game to introduce to your children and grandchildren. It’s not only fun but rich in history. So, if you have one stored in a closet somewhere, dust it off and have some good old-fashioned fun!