Ice House

This Rare Vintage Board Game Offers a Glimpse Into Houston's Past

Hoping to snag a copy of Boomtown Houston? Have you looked in your attic recently?

By Timothy Malcolm April 25, 2019 Published in the May 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

A few months ago Donald Hayes heard about an item up for sale on Facebook Marketplace: the circa-1980 board game Boomtown Houston. Hayes, a vintage board game collector and officer with the Pearland Historical Society, contacted the seller, who explained he had about 40 copies, still in their original shrink-wrap, which were recently found in a garage attic.

“It checked off the boxes for me,” Hayes explains, “being vintage, being Houston-specific, and being rare .... My radar was buzzing loudly.”

That was how Hayes found out about Boomtown, although he ended up buying his own copy from another seller, for $30. He also did some research, discovering that it was the creation of local businessman Robert Heineman.

As it turns out, Heinemen came up with the game’s concept as an urban-design graduate student at Harvard in 1972. After graduating, he moved here to help oil industry pioneer George P. Mitchell craft his master plan for The Woodlands. This was the late ’70s, and Houston’s population was soaring. Heineman saw an opportunity to monetize his game concept by setting it in Space City. Boomtown Houston was born.

“It probably took a year or two to develop the game,” Heineman told Houstonia. “As I went through it, I would invite friends over and we’d play. In the middle of the game, if something didn’t work, I’d change the rules. I usually ended up winning.”

Up to four people can play Boomtown, as characters Aunt Hattie, Billy Bob, Day Bue, and Fast Eddie. Each has a budget and can bid on properties, in neighborhoods including Downtown, the Galleria, and Montrose, as well as along major streets such as Main and Westheimer. Own all the squares in a given area, and property values multiply. The player whose properties are worth the most after everyone has spent all their money wins.

It may sound like Monopoly, but Boomtown is closer to modern real estate and tycoon-strategy games Power Grid and Ticket to Ride. It comes with poker chips for betting, property cards, a score sheet, and pieces for each character.

Boomtown Houston creator Robert Heineman with illustrator Bill Merriman in the '80s.

Those characters, plus the colorful box cover and game board showing a cartoon version of Houston, were illustrated by Heineman’s friend, Houston architect Bill Merriman. As part of his online digging, Hayes got in touch with Merriman’s daughter Carolyn, who was thrilled to hear about the discovery and said she hoped to get her hands on some of the recently discovered copies for her own family—who do own the game and have been known to play it on occasion—as well as Heineman’s.

It was over the weekend before Thanksgiving 1980 that, after receiving orders from department stores across the city, Heineman’s extended family assembled the games in his sister’s dining room before shrink-wrapping the boxes using a rented machine. The next morning he hand-delivered copies from the back of his van. He even tried to sell them to holiday shoppers: He’d sit beside displays at Neiman Marcus and now-defunct department store Sakowitz and pitch the game.

In all the family produced 5,000 copies, but demand wasn’t strong enough. “Unfortunately, in 1980 it was the beginning of electronic games, and that just killed board games for several years,” says Heineman. “A lot were discontinued. But it was fun.”

Today there could be a few dozen other copies of Boomtown Houston still in the wild. Snag one, and steal a glimpse not only into the late ’70s, a time of optimism in a fast-changing city, but also into the mind of a man who played a major role in the region’s growth.

“Think about what Robert Heineman’s life was like from 1972 to 1980, as he’s standing shoulder to shoulder with George P. Mitchell as he’s developing The Woodlands,” says Hayes, who’s shown off his copy of Boomtown on Instagram but hasn’t opened it. “It’s almost like Sam Houston’s diary—it speaks much more to the person behind it.”

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