The 1990s were a glorious time to be young. The advent of mainstream videogaming was in full swing, with Game Boys and Sega systems abound. Comic books were being mass-produced with price tags right around $1.00 and new companies were popping up all the time to try their hand at unseating the big boys (anyone remember Malibu Comics? Wildstorm? Eclipse? The list goes on and on). Slap bracelets, Starter jackets, Hypercolor shirts, and wide-bottomed JNCO jeans were ruling the teenaged fashion market. And of course, anyone who’s anyone who wanted to be cool was playing the radical new game with little cardboard discs in between classes, on the playgrounds, and before you spent the rest of your night watching TGIF on your TV sets. That’s right, this week we’re throwing it all the way back to POGS.
How did a random game about stacking cardboard discs and them knocking that stack down with a slightly heavier plastic disc become a real thing? Most historians (and I use that word extremely loosely here) trace the beginnings of the game back to Japan around the 17th Century, with the advent of the Japanese game called Menko. Menko pieces were roughly the size of milk-bottle caps and featured depictions of cultural icons printed on one side. The gameplay was simple enough: stack your pieces up with your opponents, then use a slightly-heavier disc to “slam” the stack, knocking the discs over. Any discs that got flipped, you kept, and once all the discs in the stack had been flipped in subsequent turns, whomever had the most discs flipped, wins!
When Japanese families started to migrate to Hawaii in the early 20th Century, they brought the game play with them. For lack of having “official” playing pieces, kids started to use the bottle caps from the Haleakala Dairy in Maui – because so many caps came from the bottler’s Pomegranate-Orange-Guava juice, the initials P.O.G. became the game’s calling card. When elementary school teachers began using the game in classrooms as a way to work with math skills, kids of all ages and backgrounds picked up the gameplay, and the phenomenon quickly spread to mainland America.
It didn’t take much time at all before companies started using pogs as promotional items, printing the discs with characters, brands, sports logos, and so much more. McDonald’s featured pogs, which they called “Power Discs,” in their Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Happy Meals (kids with extra-keen eyes could also spot the spinoff VR Troopers in there as well!). In the height of the craze during the mid-’90s, the World Pog Federation had official rules, tournaments, and even their own mascot – Pogman, who looks suspiciously like Captain Caveman on cocaine.
Much like the Beanie Baby craze to come a few years later, the market was absolutely saturated with pogs, so much so that there’s really not much “collector’s value” for pogs these days, aside from pure nostalgia purposes, of course. There are, however, a few designs and sets that seem to fetch higher prices on today’s resale markets than the average disc. The aforementioned Power Rangers Happy Meal pogs are still in high demand and are fan favorites. 1990s mainstay The Simpsons had two different pog sets printed, one set with 20 different designs and the other set with a whopping 50 designs; of all these, the Bart Simpson pog, of course, is the rarest. Some pogs featured “cutout” designs, in the shapes of stars, triangles, etc., instead of a perfectly-round disc, and these intricate designs can be worth something if all their edges and spokes are intact. The Star Trek “Stardiscs” were actually released to consumers as two un-punched pogs on a trading-card style sheet – the rarest of these pogs, The Next-Generation versions of “old Scotty” and “old McCoy,” are very hard to come by. And of course, the Haleakala Dairy got into the fun by releasing “reprints” of their milk bottle cap designs on cardboard pogs.
I have to admit, this whole article was spurred into existence by a conversation between my 26-year-old wife and I where she heard a word she had never encountered before and then so sweetly and innocently asked me: “What are pogs?” One Facebook post later with a lengthy thread of responses from my friends, and I knew I had a column to write. I hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane with me!
Tony Schaab is bad, and that’s good. He will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one he’d rather be than he! A lover of most things sci-fi and horror, Tony is an author by day and a DJ by night. Come hang out with Tony on Facebook and Twitter to hear him spew semi-funny nonsense and get your opportunity to finally put him in his place.