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Ideas | Q&A

How Milton Bradley’s morality play shaped the modern board game

(Shutterstock / TAROKICHI)

If Abraham Lincoln hadn’t sprouted whiskers, the world might have missed out on over 150 years of fun and games. When the Great Emancipator grew a beard during the 1860 presidential campaign, it rendered worthless the thousands of clean-shaven Lincoln portraits printed by a Springfield lithographer named Milton Bradley. Facing bankruptcy, Bradley turned to a backup business venture and developed a hit board game, The Checkered Game of Life.

In his new book, “It’s All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan,” author Tristan Donovan chronicles how Bradley and fellow Bay Stater George Parker, of Parker Brothers fame, pioneered the American board game industry.

Donovan spoke by phone with Ideas from his home in Lewes, England. Below is an edited excerpt:

Ideas: What was The Checkered Game of Life?

Donovan: By 1860, America had the start of the board game industry, but it wasn’t big. Production was done mostly by hand, since there weren’t big printing presses. An added complication at the time was that America was a much more puritanical society, and game-playing of any kind was seen by many as sinful and a waste of time.

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Milton Bradley himself was fairly devout. When he set out to make a board game, he was worried his friends would frown upon it, so he wanted to make a game that would teach morality. The basic idea of The Checkered Game of Life was to amass points and in the end reach “Happy Old Age.” You could accumulate points by landing on squares for virtues such as honor and happiness, and there were squares to avoid such as gambling and idleness. It’s steering players to the righteous path.

Ideas: That morality also complicated game play.

Donovan: Dice were considered evil and associated with gambling by many, so instead he used a teetotum, which had a series of numbers printed on it that you spun like a top.

Ideas: George Parker, on the other hand, built his name on rejecting a lot of those conventions.

Donovan: All the games that were available to Parker growing up were largely morality tales like The Checkered Game of Life. He was fed up with it. He wanted to play a game and didn’t want it to be a Sunday sermon every time. His first game, Banking, was basically about amassing money through speculation. The goal was to be the richest, rather than the first to achieve a happy old age. Parker created games that were about fun and making money, which found appeal as Gilded Age America transitioned from a Puritanical society to one about making money and doing well in a career.

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Ideas: Bradley’s first game was rebooted as The Game of Life for the Milton Bradley Co.’s centennial in 1960. How’d it change?

Donovan: It looked nothing like the original. The moral lessons and religious undertones were pretty much gone. It was more in line with the Parker approach of who can make the most money and have a successful career. One thing that didn’t change, though, was the lack of dice, not quite so much for religious reasons but as a bit of a legacy.

Ideas: Are there any common moral undertones in today’s popular board games?

Donovan: Quite a lot of new games are cooperative in which you play together as a team, which traditionally board games haven’t been. In a game like Pandemic, players aren’t competing against each other but working together. Even in The Settlers of Catan, which is a competitive game, ultimately you can only win by cooperating with other people. The moral lesson today is: Some people could be more successful than others, but no one gets anywhere without working together.

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Ideas: What explains the resurgent interest in board games?

Donovan: Games have gotten a lot better. You don’t get games where someone is eliminated in five minutes and can’t play anymore. The Internet has also helped to spread the word on great new board games, many of them originating in Germany.

We’re also getting to the point where people want to take a step back from the online world. One of the great things about board games is you can sit in close quarters with people and see the whites of their eyes. People want to connect more face-to-face, and board games are a great way to reunite with people or meet new friends.

Ideas: Why was New England such fertile ground for the board game industry?

Donovan: In the 1800s, New England cities such as Salem were among the world’s busiest trading ports. Many board games arrived by ship from Britain, so New England had more exposure to early board games than states further west.


Christopher Klein is the author of “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.” E-mail him at chris@christopherklein.com and follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.