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The 1960s Drinking Game Sensation, Pass-Out

In the '60s and '70s, many adult gatherings came with the presence of one ubiquitous board game: Pass-Out, essentially Monopoly with booze. Drew Lazor on how the game came to be, and what it says about our society's very different stances on drinking then and now.

pass out board game illo house rules

Many million-dollar ideas have sprouted from scribbles on smudged cocktail napkins. Frank Bresee’s required something a little bigger.

It was the early 1960s, and Bresee, who made his living coordinating prizes for shows like Let’s Make a Deal, was in a Hollywood lounge frequented by television types. He doesn’t remember how many rounds in he was when it hit him, but as soon as it did, he knew he had to get it down. Using a Magic Marker, Bresee began sketching out on the white tablecloth in front of him the beginnings of a board game based entirely around drinking, factoring in feedback from buzzed patrons who wandered over to see what he was doing.

In a move that likely didn’t please the owner, he rolled up the tablecloth and brought it home with him at last call. “When I woke up, I found it all written down,” says Bresee, who needed a second to catalog the creative output of the previous evening. “I said, ‘That’s no good.’ So I changed it into Pass-Out.”

Copyrighted in 1962 and sold around the world since then, Bresee’s appropriately named game is a relic of a bygone era of social lubrication—a more emancipated time when everyone drank, everyone smoked and no one was there to nanny-state the results. From the Xs-for-eyes stick figure that serves as the game’s mascot to the mischievous, mildly lascivious instructions, Pass-Out is not exactly subtle about its intentions. If you play, you are going to get drunk. And if you don’t, you’re not playing it right.

Moving pieces methodically around the perimeter of a square field of play, Pass-Out resembles Monopoly at first glance. In fact, there’s even a corner space called “The Bar” that functions more or less like Rich Uncle Pennybags’ jail. But no funny money ever exchanges hands here—the relevant currency, instead, is alcohol. Rolling a pair of dice, players work their way across a series of spaces, each of which features a different instruction. Depending on where you land, you could end up sipping your own cocktail, forcing competitors to sip theirs, smoking a cigarette (“LIGHT UP”), smooching another player (“Take one drink and kiss your partner, or take three drinks and kiss all partners”) or reciting a treacherous tongue twister out loud.

Those verbal challenges—“Amos Ames the amiable astronaut aided in an aerial enterprise at the age of eighty-eight”—are doled out to players via “Pink Elephant” cards, a cheeky reference to the hallucinatory beasts synonymous with drunkenness (see, for reference, a bottle of Delirium Tremens beer). The object of Pass-Out is to collect ten of these cards before anyone else, which stretches out gameplay in a way that all but guarantees a hangover. But, as Bobbie Bresee, Frank’s wife of 42 years, puts it, “All you have to do is go around the board once and you’re drunk.” (Her preferred drink to play with, in the early days, was a Greyhound: vodka and grapefruit juice over ice.)

Bresee, who’s best known for his work as a radio host and historian, started off small, selling Pass-Out directly to retailers in his native Southern California. By the late ‘60s, it had blown up, both on college campuses and with members of the American military, to whom Bresee marketed directly via hosting gigs on the Armed Forces Radio Network. He also advertised in publications like Playboy (Bobbie, an actress, is a former Bunny), whose readership was pretty much the perfect target (“The nationwild party-drinking game that’s stimulating spree-loving guys & gals everywhere”).

passout game advertisement

Pass-Out’s success led to more than a dozen other adult-oriented releases from Bresee, games with names like Sip & Strip and Sip-n-Go Naked, but his original concept remained his most successful. Though it’s not currently retailed widely in the states beyond Amazon, Pass-Out is still carried in stores overseas, especially in Great Britain, where it’s enjoyed some of its most consistent sales over the years. “It bought this house [in Hollywood], it bought a house in Hancock Park, two Rolls-Royces, dozens of trips to Europe and all my opera dresses,” says a chuckling Bobbie, who dusts off her personal copy every time she hosts a Bunny reunion at her home.

Considering its wide appeal at the time—Bobbie remembers her own mother owning the game when she and Frank first met, in 1972—it’s notable that Pass-Out isn’t better-known among modern gamers. This certainly has something to do with its pre-digital heyday, but you also have to wonder if the shifting public perceptions surrounding drinking have something to do with its current obscurity. Bresee got a sobering taste of this in 1991, when a Florida-based civic group accused the game of causing the death of a 16-year-old girl. (Medical examiners could not conclusively prove that alcohol was a factor in her death, and no legal action was taken.) The game, then and now, is plastered with warnings prohibiting minors from playing it.

Aside from a phenomenon like Cards Against Humanity, there just isn’t much edge to today’s mainstream board game industry. It’s hard to picture a game like Pass-Out—not to mention its marijuana-centric, never-released cousin, The Pot Game—hanging out on a Wal-Mart shelf next to Candyland and Clue in 2016. America has loosened up on many issues in the past 50+ years, but we’ve walked back some others, due in large part to experience. Correlating heavy alcohol consumption with harmless recreation, especially in the context of a candy-colored kit atop your kitchen table, is not an association everyone is comfortable making. By no real fault of its own, Pass-Out fell out of favor by remaining carefree in a climate defined by caring.

Still, the Bresees are pleased with the life the game has helped them lead. A few years back, Frank, who is 86, suffered a serious stroke, which has affected his speech, movement and recollection. He’s well on his way to recovery, but many of his accomplishments are suddenly “brand-new to him,” says Bobbie. “We have to fill his memory banks with all this stuff again.”

The most logical place to start, then, for both Pass-Out’s creator and anyone new to the game, is the mission statement emblazoned across every box: “Winners love the game, but losers have all the fun.”

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