An 1899 Parker Brothers game catalog ad prominently featured two Spanish–American War board games—The Battle of Manila and The Siege of Havana. The objective of each, the ad explained, was to destroy the Spanish ships: “. . . all players are Captains of war ships, American side, it merely being a friendly rivalry to see who will accomplish the most towards the victory of our Flag” (Parker Brothers “Illustrative Descriptive List” 3).  No one took the position of the Spanish. No one was compelled to contemplate American defeat. All players assumed the role of valiant U.S. naval commanders doing their part to advance American interests abroad.

Long before role-playing games or the popular VR and first-player shooter games such as Hell Let Loose and Pavlov VR, Americans reenacted wars through tabletop board games, puzzles, and card games. Prior to World War II, no American conflicts were highlighted more in board and card games than the Spanish–American War and its offshoot, the Filipino–American War. Thanks to advances in production techniques—namely chromolithography—manufacturers such as Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and McLoughlin Brothers, had begun mass-producing board and card games in the late nineteenth century. They were well-positioned to capitalize on the Spanish and Filipino wars, the first major international conflicts in which the United States had been involved since the launch of the American board game industry. Game manufacturers thus joined other American cultural producers, such as journalists, novelists, playwrights, and artists, who crafted images of the battlefield for home-front audiences and shaped collective memories of war. Games offered a new paradigm, however, by facilitating a novel type of vicarious participation for players of all ages.

Between 1898 and 1902, the toy industry produced a multitude of games and puzzles focused on famous battles and military figures, informing the public’s contemporary and historical understanding of the Spanish and Filipino conflicts as righteous, patriotic causes worthy of support and celebration. Game manufacturers thereby furthered a national commitment to American military involvement abroad. Interventionism remained contested, to be sure, and multiple factors contributed to public support for subsequent conflicts. But for countless families, games about the Spanish–American War normalized international American military engagement. This article analyzes fifteen emblematic puzzles, card games, and board games—untapped elements of Spanish– and Filipino–American ephemera providing what historian Bonnie M. Miller has called, “visual cues to encode messages of power within shifting political terrain: to mark good guys from the bad and to designate the boundaries of racial and cultural inclusion” (4). Historian David Traxel has argued that the Spanish-American conflict thrust the U.S. onto the global stage, paving the way for subsequent American engagement overseas (Traxel). Both Miller and Traxel have highlighted the significance of war-related ephemera, but neither explored the central role of games. As this article will demonstrate, game designers used a variety of images, game-types, and instructions to lionize key military leaders, facilitate vicarious participation in the conflicts, and unify citizens on the questions about the wars and their consequences.


In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington urged his fellow Americans to avoid international imbroglios, but the United States soon engaged in conflicts with France, Britain, and Mexico, to name only a few (Washington). The Civil War, and the long recovery from it, focused attention largely on domestic affairs, but by 1898, the United States had turned its attention to events unfolding in Spanish-controlled Cuba. Less than 100 miles from the coast of Florida, Cuba—along with Puerto Rico—was one of the few remaining Spanish-controlled areas in North America. Cuban revolutionaries had made several attempts to achieve independence, and in 1895 they began another effort to free themselves from Spain. In response, the Spanish retaliated with a strategy that decimated rebel supply bases and forced many civilians into “reconcentration” areas. The competing newspapers of Americans William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer painted an image of a Cuban nation struggling against the tyrannical efforts of Spain. This discourse won considerable support among domestic audiences and served as the backdrop for key events leading to the American declaration of war in April 1898, namely the interception of a Spanish diplomat’s cable criticizing President McKinley’s policies and the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in the Cuban port of Havana (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 35-52).

Several major sea and land battles resulted in a quick and decisive American victory, elevating leading commanders to popular heroes and fostering a sense of national pride. On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey attacked a Spanish squadron at Manila Bay, Philippines, to pin down Spanish naval forces world-wide. The speed with which Dewey decimated the Spanish squadron, and the minimal loss of American lives, made him an instant celebrity. Other naval battles at Guantanamo Bay and Santiago de Cuba illustrated the U.S. Navy’s prowess. On the ground in Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt emerged as a major figure when his Rough Riders cavalry helped win the Battle of San Juan Hill. By mid-July, an American victory seemed imminent. Once Cuba fell, Guam and Puerto Rico capitulated to the United States. On August 12, hostilities ceased, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December. Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines all came under American control, the first subject to an American protectorate and the rest annexed outright (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 54-92).

Despite the end of the Spanish–American War, American troops continued fighting in the Philippines until 1902. Their opponent was a one-time ally, Emilio Aguinaldo, a proponent of Filipino independence whom the Spanish had exiled and whom Dewey, promising Filipino freedom from Spain, had brought back to ally Filipino forces with American ones and together route Spanish ground troops. When Aguinaldo discovered that the Americans had no intention of relinquishing the Philippines, lest they fall into the hand of Germany or Japan, he then led Filipino guerrillas against the Americans in a bid for independence. American involvement in the Philippines fueled anti-imperialist sentiments at home, but U.S. officials persisted, determined to secure the islands for a Pacific naval base and a commercial link to China. While the fighting was more brutal than the Spanish–American War, the United States made headway by capturing Aguinaldo in 1901. Aguinaldo pledged allegiance to the United States and, although occasional skirmishes lasted for nearly ten years—primarily against the Moro people in the southern Philippines—the Americans gained effective control of the islands (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 97-98).


Reporters cabled daily accounts of action in Cuba and the Philippines to American newspapers, and game manufacturers capitalized on the steady flow of information to produce related games quickly. Of the fifteen games selected for this study, all were produced between 1898 and 1902 (Kile).1 Manufacturers encoded messages in several ways. Illustrations of prominent individuals and key elements of the armed forces created an overarching motif of patriotism and primed players to support American involvement in the conflicts. Game strategy served the same purpose. Manufacturers had long produced race games, for example, and adapted them to the Spanish– and Filipino–American wars with re-enactments of the volunteer/enlistment process, land battles, and naval engagements. Game pieces, such as miniature cannons, allowed players to feel as if they were in the thick of the fight. And trivia games quizzed players on the origins, course, and consequences of the wars, encouraging them to absorb a nationalistic version of events.

In The Game of the Little Volunteer (1898), players entered the war as volunteer drummer boys and raced to ever-greater positions of authority. Using a double-arrow spinner, players worked their way through a serpentine path of red and blue checkerboard squares featuring army vignettes. Landing on certain squares, such as “shot, go back to the hospital,” delayed one’s journey, while others, like the “drill” square, propelled players forward. The goal was to become Commander-in-Chief, conflating military and political positions but emulating the path to the presidency that generals like Ulysses Grant had taken and that Roosevelt himself would later take. In The Charge (1899), players pretended to be Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders attempting to race to the top of San Juan Hill before the Spanish. Roosevelt at San Juan (1899), a trivia game featuring a medallion with Roosevelt in his Rough Rider uniform on the box, also highlighted Roosevelt’s leadership and the role of his Rough Rider cavalry unit at San Juan Hill. Players answered such questions as “Where did the Rough Riders land in Cuba?” and “Name standard work that Roosevelt has written” (Figure 1). These three games celebrated the volunteer spirit that imbued the Rough Riders and the rough-and-tumble nature of the group, encouraging players to prize volunteer service and the “rugged individualism” already associated with Roosevelt. Ongoing American involvement would necessitate additional volunteers, both military and civilian, and these games encouraged players to see themselves in those roles—to take the place of the volunteers of 1898 ( “The Little Volunteer” and “The Charge”; New-York Historical Society “Roosevelt at San Juan”; and Miller 158).

Figure 1: Roosevelt at San Jaun, 1899, Chaffee and Selchow (Photograph courtesy of The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York)

As famous as the Spanish–American War made Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, naval power was also a crucial aspect of the conflict, since it was fought on islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Influenced by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory that sea power was key to geopolitical power, the United States had expanded the Navy in the 1890s, and, by the time the Spanish–American War commenced, the country boasted a sizeable naval fleet. Several games, including Mimic War (ca. 1898), The Battle of Manila (1898), Schley at Santiago Bay (1899), and Our Navy: A Game for Young Americans (1899), featured images of sailors on the front cover or the game board, and Mimic War included sailors as game pieces. Schley at Santiago Bay featured an illustration of Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, who led American naval forces in the Atlantic, and The Battle of Manila and Our Navy depicted Commodore George Dewey, the commander of American naval forces in the Pacific. Schley, the hero of the Battle of Santiago Bay, was promoted to Rear Admiral, but he was soon mired in controversy by accusations of misconduct from his jealous commander, Rear Admiral William Sampson ( “The Battle of Manila” and “Our Navy: A Game for Young Americans”; New-York Historical Society Online Museum Collections “Mimic War” and “Schley at Santiago Bay”).2 Dewey, in contrast, was promoted to Admiral and was lauded for years to come. He was, in effect, the naval counterpart to Roosevelt, and initially even more popular. Parents named children after Dewey, towns organized parade tributes, and children dressed in sailor uniforms called “Dewey suits” (Miller 113).

The Battle of Manila, a re-enactment game, allowed players to simulate Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay. To defeat Spanish opponents, players hit targets on a board using wooden bullets fired from hand-held cannons. Another re-enactment game, Mimic War, allowed players to simulate both maritime and land battles from several recent conflicts. The cover included images of the Franco–Prussian War, but a central focus was the Spanish–American War. Twenty-four of the game’s military figurines were dressed in navy and army uniforms associated with the Spanish–American War. Players could pretend they were Dewey or Roosevelt or even an ordinary sailor or soldier, imagining themselves as heroes ( “The Battle of Manila”; New-York Historical Society “Mimic War”).

Beyond the roles of crucial commanders and enlisted personnel, many games highlighted the U.S. fleet itself. Uncle Sam at War with Spain (1898), The Battle of Manila (1898), White Squadron (ca. 1898), Battleship Picture Puzzle Cubes (1898), Game of War at Sea/Don’t Give Up the Ship (1898), The Blockade Runner (1899), The Game of Bombardment (ca. 1900), Our Navy, A Game for Young Americans (1899), and The Philippine War: Crushing the Rebellion at Luzon (1900) featured images of American ships on the game board cover or on the actual board, card, or puzzle pieces. Far more than a general sense of the significance of naval power, these games emphasized the maritime origins of the conflict and the specific aspects of ship design and fleet size that gave the U.S. Navy an advantage in 1898—and that would continue to project American military and economic power around the globe. Implicitly, the games thus reflected Mahan’s emphasis on sea lanes as economic corridors vital to the national interest.

Figure 2: Battleship Picture Puzzle Cubes, ca. 1898, McLoughlin Brothers (Photograph courtesy of The Liman Collection, 2000.462, New-York Historical Society)

Uncle Sam at War with Spain, White Squadron, and Battleship Picture Puzzle Cubes included prominent illustrations of the U.S.S. Maine, reminding players of the deadly explosion—blamed on Spain—that had contributed to the U.S. declaration of war. Battleship Picture Puzzle Cubes included twenty wooden blocks that created puzzles of six U.S. ships—not only the Maine but also the Oregon, Brooklyn, Texas, New York, and Olympia (Figure 2). When completed, each image provided information on the ship’s size and armament and its optimal use in battle (New-York Historical Society “Battleship Picture Puzzle Cubes”). The card game White Squadron also provided detailed information on individual vessels. For example, the U.S.S. New York card depicted the warship and described it as a “first-class battleship of 27,000-ton displacement, with a battery of 10 14-inch 50 cal. B.L.R.; 21 5-inch 51 caliber B.L.R.; 4 3-pounder saluting; and 4 21-inch submerged torpedo tubes” ( “White Squadron”; Kile).

Uncle Sam at War with Spain, The Game of Bombardment, and Don’t Give Up the Ship/Game of War at Sea depicted vessels from both the American and Spanish fleets, thereby conveying the importance of overall fleet strength. The card game White Squadron relayed the same message in a different way. This game resembled Go Fish: each deck consisted of fifty-two cards that comprised thirteen “fleets” of similar vessels with each ship labeled “A” (battleships) through “M” (submarines) and then numbers one through four. Each player received five cards with remaining cards placed in a center pile reserve. Taking turns, players asked for the fleet numbers they were missing to complete a “fleet” set. The winner was the person with the most complete groups—in other words, the largest fleet ( “White Squadron”). Thanks to the spurt of Congressional funding for new ships in the 1880s and 1890s, the U.S. fleet was larger and more technologically advanced than its Spanish counterpart. Games such as White Squadron encouraged players to take pride in American industry and ingenuity, the naval power to which they gave rise, and the strategic political and economic advantages that flowed from that military might.

Naval games also immersed players in the conflict, teaching them the importance of strategic decision-making—and of a little luck. Uncle Sam at War with Spain was the most complex battle game related to the war (Figure 3). The game’s board displayed elaborately designed chromolithographic images of major ships, places, and people in the United States and Spain. At one end of the board was Madrid, followed by Spanish and Cuban landscapes, while scenes from Washington, DC, New York City, and Florida adorned the opposite end. Along each side were battleships and cruisers from each country’s fleet. Maps of Florida and Cuba were below the Washington, DC image, and the Philippine Islands were below the Spanish landscape, depicting the territories at stake. In the middle of the board were spaces that listed admirals of both sides along with other squares that joined an “H-shaped” system of squares that had blank spaces as well as ones labeled “mine,” “torpedo,” “supply station,” “out of ammunition,” “coal,” and “short of coal.” The game’s subtitle offered players a challenge to “let the Americans show what they would have done had they been on Spanish war vessels,” with the goal of capturing discs (men), ships, and territory of the enemy by moving men towards ships and territory according to the roll of the die. Players used dice to dictate spatial positions on the board in enemy territory to capture ships. Landing on “out of ammunition,” “mine,” or “torpedo,” sent a player back to his supply station or starting point depending on whether the enemy was in his supply territory. To win, players had to strategically navigate ten men plus a flagman (eleven game pieces) through dice rolls and corresponding moves while staying supplied and avoiding mines, providing some sense of the difficult choices that captains and crews confronted as they jockeyed for position and engaged in battle ( “Uncle Sam at War with Spain”; Rhode Island Game Company).

Figure 3: Uncle Sam at War with Spain Instructions, 1898, Rhode Island Game Company (Photograph courtesy of The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York)

The Game of War at Sea/Don’t Give Up the Ship came with twelve battleships and twelve torpedo boats and included a checkerboard map of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the coasts of the southeastern United States and Central America. The goal was for two players (or two teams of players) to move their twelve ships across the checkerboard and force the opponent’s navy from the sea. The winner was the player most capable of controlling the Atlantic waters—the key to American victory in the Caribbean ( “Game of War at Sea/Don’t Give Up the Ship). The Game of Bombardment recreated a naval/shoreline war scene by having players use a spinner to determine bombardment values for shooting ships from shoreline batteries. White game pieces represented men on the ships; red pieces represented men on the battery. A spinner, numbered three through twelve, represented different positions on the board. Each player took turns trying to capture the other player’s positions, a challenging task emulating the difficulty of hitting moving targets and/or firing from moving ships. The winner was the one with one or more men remaining (either in the fleet or on the battery) once game play ended ( “The Game of Bombardment”).

Figure 4: The Philippine War: Crushing the Rebellion at Luzon, 1900, Parker Brothers (Photograph courtesy of The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York)

Among the games under study, The Blockade Runner: An Exciting Game was the only blockade-strategy board game. It was designed for two-to-four players, one [or two] of whom assumed the role of a runner while the others attempted to form a blockade. The goal was to immobilize the runners before they reached Havana—much as Dewey and Schley had done at Manila Bay and Santiago Bay, respectively (Parker Brothers “The Blockade Runner”). The Philippine War was a game of strategy thatallowed players to re-enact both naval and land maneuvers (Figure 4). Manufactured in 1900, during the most heated stage of the Filipino-American War (1899-1902), the game encouraged players to envision American victory. The box cover displayed American troops in battle and a ship resupplying them. Each player was positioned as a brigadier general commanding five regiments in the northern island of Luzon. The winner was the first to seize five towns and thereby crush the Filipino guerillas (Parker Brothers “The Philippine War”). The Philippine War captured the nature of this conflict with a surprising degree of accuracy. At first, Aguinaldo had confronted American forces with conventional troops. Overwhelmed by superior American firepower, Aguinaldo shifted to guerrilla tactics. American forces responded by seizing villages and “reconcentrating” civilians to deny guerrilla fighters support from the population (U. S. Department of State). Ironically, American commanders resorted to the same approach that the Spanish had used against Cuban revolutionaries, and which had raised such ire in the United States.

Collectively, the card games, board games, and puzzles about the Spanish– and Filipino–American wars reinforced through play a normalized U.S. military engagement overseas, particularly in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Tabletop games did not spur American officials to launch the so-called Banana Wars—repeated military interventions in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti from 1903 to 1934. Nor did tabletop games determine U.S. policy in the Pacific, where Japanese expansion and American determination to maintain military outposts in the Philippines and commercial ties with China would put the two countries on a collision course in the 1930s. But games about the Spanish– and Filipino–American wars did establish an accessible, nationalistic framework through which players could position those conflicts—as a natural consequence of the American presence in the two regions and a legitimate use of American power. Games may have contributed to a sense of invincibility as well. The U.S. had crushed Spanish forces quickly, and even Filipino guerillas had ultimately succumbed to American troops. The long war in the Philippines indicated that American power had its limits. For game players, though, guerrilla fighters could be swept aside in an evening, from the comfort and safety of one’s parlor. The array of games related to the Spanish– and Filipino–American wars also indicated the willingness and capacity of manufacturers to capitalize on armed conflict. Wartime ephemera was big business. The Spanish– and Filipino–American wars offered manufacturers a dynamic market, one so enticing that multiple companies churned out games in quick succession. The fifteen games analyzed in this article are merely exemplars—a sample. The venture was so successful that manufacturers would take a similar approach to subsequent international conflicts, including World War I and World War II, both of which would be depicted as righteous, patriotic causes worthy of support and celebration.3 The start of this trend was the clash with Spain, a conflict that gave rise to new efforts to grapple with war and its aftermath through game play.

  1. White Squadron was a card game released in 1896, but based on later iterations of it that include discussion of the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, it was likely re-issued during this time period as well. ↩︎
  2. For Our Navy: A Game for Young Americans, has different instructions from a different company; an earlier image of the game from illustrated the cards that were part of the original game. ↩︎
  3. For example, World War I prompted another set of board games, including The Champion European War Game (1915), The Great War Game (1915), Kriegspiel Junior (1915), Kop the Kaiser (1917), Chateau Thierry (1918), The Great Allied War Game (ca. 1918), and The Cootie Game (1920). World War II-related board games included Cargo for Victory (ca. 1935) and Blitzkrieg (1965). ↩︎

Works Cited “The Battle of Manila.” BoardGameGeek, Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “The Charge.” BoardGameGeek, Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “The Game of Bombardment.” BoardGameGeek, bombardment. Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “Game of War at Sea/Don’t Give Up the Ship.” BoardGameGeek, Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “The Little Volunteer.” BoardGameGeek, accessed 5 June 2023

 —. “Our Navy: A Game for Young Americans.” BoardGameGeek, Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “Uncle Sam at War with Spain.” BoardGameGeek, Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “White Squadron.” BoardGameGeek, Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.

Hillstrom, Kevin, and Laura Collier Hillstrom. Defining Moments: The Spanish–American War. Omnigraphics, 2012.

Kile, Jenny. “1896 Fireside Card Game of White Squadron. All About Fun and Games, Accessed 5 June 2023.

Miller, Bonnie M. From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish–American War of 1898. University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

New-York Historical Society Online Museum Collections. “Battleship Picture Puzzle Cubes.” Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.

—. “Mimic War.” Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “Roosevelt at San Juan.” Accessed 5 June 2023.

—. “Schley at Santiago Bay.” Accessed 5 June 2023.

Parker Brothers. The Blockade Runner: An Exciting Game. 1899, The Strong National Museum of Play Collection (Henceforth The Strong), Rochester, NY, accession number 107.3952.

—. Illustrated Descriptive List of the Leading Parker Games. 1899, Brian Sutton-Smith Library of Archives and Play at The Strong, Rochester, NY.

—. The Philippine War: Crushing the Rebellion at Luzon. 1900, The Strong, Rochester, NY, accession number 107.4033.

Rhode Island Game Company. Instructions, Uncle Sam at War with Spain Rules. 1898, AGPC Collection of Game Rules, Brian Sutton-Smith Library of Archives and Play at The Strong, Rochester, NY.

Traxel, David. 1898: The Birth of the American Century. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

U.S. Dept. of State., “The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902,” Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute, Accessed 3 June 2023.

Washington, George. “Farewell Address.” The American Presidency Project, September 19, 1796,  Accessed 28 Aug. 2023.

Susan Asbury

Assistant Professor of History
Middle Georgia State University

Susan Asbury holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. She completed a B.A. in History at Berry College and an M.A. in Public History at the University of South Carolina. For nearly ten years, Asbury worked in the museum field as a curator, museum educator, and administrator. Her research interests are in material culture, public history, U.S. history, consumerism, the intersections of popular culture and folklore studies, and social history. She has written articles, book chapters, blogs, and encyclopedia entries on her research. Asbury discovered her interest in the material culture of play while working as associate curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, and is currently working on a book that focuses on the early decades of the American board game industry. She serves as an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University in Macon.

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