The Checkered Game of Life
Milton Bradley’s First Game, 1860
by Bruce Whitehill
Based on a talk given by the author at the 2010 Board Game Studies Colloquium in Paris.
The United States in 1860. Immigration from Europe continued, following the emigration of more than 1.3 million people from England and, especially, Ireland over the previous decade. Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was less than 44 years, though a man in his 20s could be expected to live, on average, to 60. There were 33 states. The population was over 31 million, 4 million of whom were slaves. The country was divided between the slave owners in the Confederate states of the South and the abolitionists—those against slavery—in the Union states of the North. The move from farmland to cities continued, as did the westward migration, even though the Gold Rush in California had ended in 1855. The elevator and the burglar alarm had just been invented and the new Western Union was exploiting a recent invention, the telegraph. Increased industrialization led to more leisure time and to improvements in the welfare of children; children were allowed more time for play, once the schooling and the chores were done. The Northeast—or, more exactly, New York, Pennsylvania and New England—was the industrial center of the country.
In the heart of this area, Springfield, Massachusetts, one man, Milton Bradley, a draughtsman in his early 20s, decided to embark on a business that would not only alter his life, but change the impact that games had on society for educational and recreational activities in the United States and Europe.
The Start of the American Game Industry
The American games industry began as an industry in 1843 with the games of two brothers, William and Stephen B. Ives. Following the style of the Game of Goose, invented in the 1500s in Italy, and keeping with the morality of the time, the two men created a simple path game, The Mansion of Happiness, similar to its English counterpart, in which virtue was rewarded and vice punished.
The Mansion of Happiness, Ives, 1843
There had been games invented and manufactured in the U.S. before then, but very few; meanwhile, Ives began producing many other games, predominantly card games, in the 1840s and early ‘50s.
Then in the 1850s, John McLoughlin added a few games to his publishing business (most games at that time were produced by book publishers) and soon his two sons joined together to form a company, McLoughlin Bros., which was to become the premiere games company of the 19th century. They were prolific, and their games were of high artistic quality.
The Amusing Game of Conundrums, 1853, by John McLoughlin,
father of John and Edmond, the “McLoughlin Brothers”
after whom the company was named in 1858
Just a few years later, in 1860, a young Milton Bradley decided to turn his lithography company into a game company.
Milton Bradley, draughtsman
An Introduction to Milton Bradley:
Milton Bradley, a name firmly associated now with Springfield, Massachusetts, actually was born in Maine, in 1836. He moved with his family to Lowell, Massachusetts, when he was 11, and then to Hartford, Connecticut, when he was 19. That same year, he decided to leave home and he moved to the “big” city, Springfield, Massachusetts, population just over 14,000. The day he arrived, he walked into the well-known maker of rail cars, Wason Car-Manufacturing Company, and asked if they had a draftsman. According to Bradley’s diary, when the company superintendent replied that they didn’t, Bradley asked if they needed one and announced that he was the man for the position. He got the job, at seven-and-a-half dollars a week. A recession in 1857 forced the company to shut its doors a year later, and in 1858, Milton Bradley decided that he would go into business for himself. Using his savings from work, he rented a small second-floor office on Main Street and hung out his sign: Milton Bradley – Mechanical Draftsman and Patent Solicitor.
The first two years were tough, but a little luck—that Bradley himself may have had a hand in—caused the Pasha of Egypt to negotiate the re-opening of the Wason Car-Manufacturing plant and provide Bradley with the contract to design and supervise the building of a special observation car for the potentate. When Bradley’s work was done, he was given a lithographed print of the rail car and enough money to buy equipment for his business. Studying the print, he felt that lithography would be the way to mass-produce images, and he bought a lithographic press—the only one in Massachusetts outside of Boston—from a Rhode Island company. He expanded his space to take over the floor below and changed his sign to
Milton Bradley Co.
As people focused on the politics of the nation and the recession continued into the summer of 1860, Milton Bradley found that his new purchase—his lithographic press—was sitting idle. His friend and confidant, George Tapley, tried to lift the young man’s spirits and, after inviting him over for an evening, introduced him to an old game, made in England. This was to change both men’s lives: in short, Bradley wondered why he couldn’t invent a game and mass-produce copies of it on his press.
Such a venture was not without risk, since many considered a game trifling at best and sinful at worst. In the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, America was seeped in a strong religious-based morality. Worship was encouraged, and the social code of the era dictated that idle time be spent not in play but in “seeking a state of grace”(source: Shea, James. It’s All In The Game, p. 48). In the cultural milieu of the time, games, in general, were frowned upon, unless they had some redeeming educational or social value. And dice were considered “tools of the devil,” since they were used primarily for gambling. Bradley thought that by introducing a moral element to his game he could overcome the prejudices that prevailed at the time.
Using the pattern of a standard checkerboard, he created his first game, The Checkered Game of Life, a morality game of virtue vs. vice similar to Ives’ 1843 The Mansion of Happiness. The object was to be the first player to reach Happy Old Age.
Bradley met with great success, and his game sold well, even in a time when people’s thoughts were focused on slavery and a nation divided, when there was little pre-occupation with play. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Bradley introduced The Checkered Game of Life in a “pocket” version—perhaps the first “travel” game in America—with its miniscule size designed to fit into a soldier’s pocket or knapsack, allowing some recreation off the battlefield.
Bradley was prolific and was able to overcome the public’s reluctance to playing games. The Phrenological Journal, sometime in the early 1870s, wrote about the Milton Bradley Company, “We can say of all their games, that they may be introduced in any and every family without danger of offence or corruption,” and that playing these games “will make your ‘evenings at home’ so pleasant that none will seek pleasure in places of temptation.”
Decades later, Playthings magazine described The Checkered Game of Life, a “morality” game, as “the first game with a purpose (that) taught a lesson of success through integrity and right living.” It wasn’t the first—but it was the first to sell well.
Milton Bradley lived another 50 years after the start of the Civil War—well beyond the predicted 60-year life span of that time—and he created what was to become the largest games company in the world. He went from mechanical engineer and draftsman to businessman, and was a game inventor along the way. The focus of this paper is not so much the man or his company, but this very first game he invented, The Checkered Game of Life.
The Checkered Game of Life
The design of Milton Bradley’s first game was a simple checkerboard, a familiar form to most people, with alternating red and white squares in an eight-by-eight grid. The red squares were neutral and the white squares contained words representing good or bad values or conditions, from honesty or perseverance or truth to idleness or crime or ruin. Landing on a constructive trait or situation would send the player forward, advancing his positive path through life, whereas landing on a place of vice would impede a player’s progress. Starting from Infancy, in the lower left-hand corner of the board, each player tries to reach Happy Old Age, in the upper right corner, a space marked with the number “50”, as quickly as possible—with a certain condition that will be discussed later.
Numbered spaces, besides the “50,” included Honor, Happiness, College and Success, all showing 5; too other more unusual spaces worth 5 on this path through life were Fat Office and Congress. Wealth was the only condition valued at 10.
Through the use of a checker pattern, and with the board representing the achievements and pitfalls of life, Bradley decided on the title for his game, “The Checkered Game of Life,” using “checkered” to mean the ups and downs or successful and unsuccessful periods of a person’s life. The rules read that the game “represents…the checkered journey of life, and is intended to present the various vices and virtues in the natural relation to each other….”
In the introduction to the instructions, one finds “The journey of life is governed by a combination of chance and judgment, the chance representing the circumstances in life over which we apparently have no control, but which are nevertheless governed to a great extent by the voluntary actions of our past lives.” By “past lives”, Milton Bradley meant experiences in one’s earlier years. The player has a choice of a number of moves he can make to his possible advantage, but, as the instructions continue, sometimes “circumstances propel him to pursue a course greatly to his disadvantage; but any such necessity can generally be traced to some false move made in the former part of the game, the effects of which could not be foreseen.”
Landing on a space indicating a positive trait takes you closer to your goal: Landing on Bravery sends the player ahead to Honor and from Ambition to Fame. Spaces noting ill deeds (for example, “Crime”) will move you back (using our example, to “Prison”). If you land on a space occupied by another player, you send that player to Jail; there may not be any moral connection there, just a device used purely as an element of game play.
One surprising thing, which may be what seems to identify The Checkered Game of Life as particularly American and not European in its social context, is that although the goal is to reach “Happy Old Age”, the journey, as Bradley describes it, is one “which shall make him the most prosperous,” clearly equating happiness with wealth. Similarly, some of the direction spaces lead to moves that were very telling for the period: for example, “Influence” took you to a “Fat Office”, both spaces that provide you immediately with points. Obviously this was a fact of life, same as today.
In Bradley’s original game, one space was marked “Speculation” and was an exception to the rules. If while on that space you get a 3 or a 6, you move to Wealth, the only descriptive space (one with a condition or a direction) on the board worth 10 points instead of 5; however, any other number sent you to Ruin. Maybe the gambling element didn’t play well with the morality of the period, or Bradley decided against having one exception to his well-crafted rules, so later versions (possibly in 1866 or the 1870s), “Speculation” was replaced by “Government Contract,” a space that shot you to Wealth immediately upon arriving there.
If Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life is as much of a “morality” game as he said it was, the description spaces and whether they move you close to or further away from the goal should be a good indicator of what was valued at the time. For instance, Perseverance takes you to Success, which is considerably closer to Happy Old Age and gains you 5 points. Honesty takes you to Happiness, which is also worth 5 points and closer to the end. School takes you to College, also worth 5 points and a good move forward. Politics sends you to Congress, which, interestingly enough, is worth 5 points but is much further away from the goal. Surprisingly, when Cupid takes you to Matrimony, you don’t get points nor are you any closer to Happy Old Age. Another oddity is that although one space is marked “Truth,” no space sends you there directly, nor are you taken anywhere from that space.
Gambling leads to Ruin, moving you further from your goal, and Crime sends you to Prison, a considerable penalty; once in Prison the player loses a turn, since, as Bradley put it, “…any person who is sent to Prison is interrupted in his pursuit of happiness.” Worse than that is Suicide. There was a strong social taboo against suicide, and landing on that space meant you were “thrown out of” the game! “For how can any person continue to travel towards Happy Old Age after committing suicide?”
In my 1866 copy of the game, someone rubbed out the man hanging by a noose from the tree branch, an image shown clearly in the 1860 version; the word “suicide”, which would have appeared at the top and, upside down, at the bottom of the space, has also been erased.
In general, Bradley chose the location of his printed directional spaces carefully. “Poverty”, for example, was very close to the starting space of “Infancy.” If you arrived at Poverty shortly after Infancy, you would not be penalized, since, as Bradley explained, in starting out life, it is “not necessarily a fact that poverty will be a disadvantage.”
But if you arrive at Intemperance, the space diagonally next to the goal of Happy Old Age—Bradley put it as “fall into Intemperance,” meaning “lack of restraint,” usually in terms of alcohol consumption—you are sent back to Poverty, a major setback at that time in the game. As Bradley proclaims, “It is only by constant and renewed exertion that the lost ground can be regained.”
The same holds true for Disgrace. Early in life a person may be in disgrace through no fault of his own. But later, as he approaches old age, a person can fall into disgrace as a result of idleness, so landing on Idleness impedes the progress of the player and sends him all the way back to Disgrace.
The Unusual Method of Play
Was The Checkered Game of Life particularly unusual or innovative for its time? So far we’ve seen similarities to The Mansion of Happiness or the game of Snakes & Ladders, in which landing on what we’ll call positive spaces, or virtues, moves a player forward along the track, and landing on negative spaces, or vices, sends a player back.
At first glance—if you were to try to interpret the rules of Milton Bradley’s 1860 gamefrom the board without the accompanying instructions—one would suppose that the player needed to arrive as quickly as possible at Happy Old Age, the space marked “50,” which, during the mid 19th century, might have been only 50 years old.
But the numbers turn out to be points. And the goal, then, was not just to reach Happy Old Age, but to reach it when you had accumulated a certain point score—specifically 100— including the 50 points provided upon landing on that space. For the mid 19th century, this was a very unique way of determining the winner of such a contest. If a player did not have the requisite number of points when reaching Happy Old Age, he or she would have to continuing moving around the board to acquire additional points. However, moving off the Happy Old Age space and then returning to it on your next turn would earn you an additional 50 points, guaranteeing you the win.
The movement around the board was also unique in Bradley’s first game. In other games with similar patterns, movement was usually from left to right, then up one space, then from right back to left, and so on. A “Snakes and Ladders” or circular “Goose” style of game would also allow the player to jump ahead to spaces further along the path, or would force the player to move backwards from a space of detriment.
But Bradley instead employed a “coded” system, giving the player a choice of moves each time. This was in keeping with his concept of individuals also having choices throughout life.
To avoid using dice, which were not well accepted (as explained earlier), Bradley included a teetotum, a simple cardboard hexagon with a wooden pin through the center (similar to the one in the photo), creating a spinning top with 6 numbers on it. The uppermost number after twirling the teetotum governs whether a player could move one or two spaces, and in what direction, according to a chart printed on one of the four “record dial” (scoring) cards provided with the game. It’s interesting to note that, in spite of the inclusion of four cards, Bradley remarks that the game may be played also “with equal interest by more or less, as the company may be.”
Spinning a 1 or 4 allowed you to move, respectively, one or two spaces up or down; a 2 or 5 gave you the choice of moving right or left, one or two spaces respectively; and a 3 or 6 let you move one or two spaces, respectively, diagonally in any direction.
Starting with his The Checkered Game of Life, Milton Bradley turned his one-man “Mechanical Draftsman & Patent Solicitor” company into one of the largest game companies in history, surviving almost 125 years before being bought by Hasbro.
Though Milton Bradley died in 1911, the company he created with that first game, The Checkered Game of Life, bequeathed more American classics than any other game company and went on to become perhaps the largest game company in the world. His name no longer graces the boxes of Hasbro games, but his initials “MB” still represent the name that left such a remarkable legacy.
Hasbro celebrated the 100th anniversary of Milton Bradley’s first game The Checkered Game of Life in 1960, shortening its title to The Game of Life. The anniversary edition bore no resemblance to the original, did not include the aspects of vice vs. virtue, and did not use any of Bradley’s elements of movement. That was unfortunate, since the 1860 game was unique not only because it earmarked the start of a great company but because it introduced a remarkably novel way of movement on a gameboard, while weaving in a theme of the triumph of good over evil.
Milton Bradley’s first game, “The Checkered Game of Life,” now forgotten except by historians, was unique for its time. Its distinctiveness was not so much in the way it typically mirrored the social values of the period, but in the unusual, perhaps sophisticated way in which it was played, at a time when most family games were relegated to moves of chance, requiring few, if any, decisions. Additional information about the game, the man that invented it, and the company that grew from it, can be found, among other places, in the resources below:
Milton Bradley’s “The Checkered Game of Life” has been pictured and/or described in (in chronological order):
McClinton, Katharine Morrison. Antiques of American Childhood.New York, NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1970.
“Collecting American Board Games,” by Judi Culbertson, The Antique Trader Weekly magazine, Aug. 22, 1984; shows the 1910 edition.
“Your Turn,” by Rebecca Sawyer, Country Living magazine, May 1988.
Walsh, Tim. The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys. Sarasota, Florida: Keys Publishing, 2004.
“The Meaning of Life—What Milton Bradley Started,” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker magazine, May 21, 2007. In the magazine’s “American Chronicles” section, this in-depth look at Milton Bradley—the man and his philosophy—examines the morality of the times (1860s) through Bradley’s “The Checkered Game of Life” and compares it to the 100th anniversary edition of the game and a revised edition 47 years after that.
The BBC Documentary, “Games Britannia (Programme 2): Monopolies and Mergers”; aired December 2009.
Additional Information about Milton Bradley, the man and his company (in chronological order):
_________. Milton Bradley, A Successful Man. Springfield, MA: Milton Bradley Co., 1910. The story of Milton Bradley – a 50th anniversary tribute.
Shea, James. It’s All In The Game. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1960. The history of Milton Bradley through 1960.
Shea, James Jr. The Milton Bradley Story. Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1973.
Frederick, Filis. Design and Sell Toys, Games, and Crafts. Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1977.
“Great Beginnings, Part II: A Concise History of America’s Four Major Game Companies From 1800s to the Depression,” by Bruce Whitehill, Antique Toy World, Sep. 1986.
O’Brien, Richard. The Story of American Toys. New York, NY: Abbeville Press, 1990.
Whitehill, Bruce. Games: American Boxed Games and Their Makers 1822-1992, With Values. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, 1992.
Whitehill, Bruce. Americanopoly: America as Seen Through Its Games. La-Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland: Musée Suisse du Jeu (Swiss Museum of Games), 2004.
“Milton Bradley,” by Andrew Boyd; Episode 2545 from The University of Houston’s College of Engineering, “Engines of Our Ingenuity.”