Today is the birthday of Milton Bradley, a games manufacturer who made board games in America fun. He was born in Vienna, Maine in 1836 but grew up in Massachusetts. Bradley first worked as a draughtsman, then learned lithography and opened the first colour lithographers in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1860. He was doing a roaring trade selling pictures of the Republican presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln. Then Lincoln decided to grow a beard. Bradley’s stock was worthless. He had to think of something else to print.
He found inspiration in an imported board game given to him by a friend and, in the winter of 1860, came up with a game he called ‘The Checkered Game of Life’. The idea was a deceptively simple one, you start at ‘infancy’ in the bottom left hand corner and you are aiming to reach ‘happy old age’ in the top right, trying to pick up 100 points along the way. The player made a move, not by throwing dice, as they were associated with gambling, but a six sided top called a teetotum. Often, you can choose which direction you want to move, but you might land on a square that sends you somewhere else. If you can get to the square marked ‘school’ you can go straight to college and earn five points. If you land on ‘ambition’, you are sent to the square marked ‘fame’; you earn nothing, and it’s uncomfortably close to the squares marked ‘jail’ and ‘suicide’, if you hit that square, obviously you’re out. Bit brutal really.
Board games had been around for a long time. The Checkered Game of Life is what is known as a square board race game. It’s history goes back at least a thousand years to an Indian game called Vaikuntapaali. The aim of that game was to reach Vishnu and karmic liberation. If you landed on a virtue you could go up a ladder. If you landed on a vice, you were swallowed by a snake. You might recognise this game, which was first sold in the UK in 1892 under the name of Snakes and Ladders. I’m told in the US it’s called Chutes and Ladders.
Bradley’s game might not sound like a whole lot of fun, but the game it was based on was a religious one. ‘The New Game of Human Life’ appeared in London in 1790 and arrived in America a few years later. The idea was similar but your goal was salvation. You were speeded on your way by virtue and slowed down by vice. The first person to die won. A couple of other games called ‘The Mansion of Bliss’ and ‘The Mansion of Happiness’ appeared around 1800, but they were similar in nature. You were forever being whipped for being a Sabbath breaker.
Although Bradley’s game was still pretty dark, its concept of success was very different from the religious games. It rewards industry with wealth and perseverance with success. Beware of entering politics though. It might win you ‘congress’ and five points, but you’ll be way back down the board again near crime and poverty. Also unlike the other games, you get to make your own decisions about which way to move and it is possible to win without reaching ‘Happy Old Age’. Milton Bradley believed that “the journey of life is governed by a combination of chance and judgement.”
His game was a huge success. He sold several hundred copies on a sales trip to New York and by the spring of the following year he sold around 45,000. Then the Civil War broke out. He briefly tried to move into making weaponry but when he saw all the bored soldiers that were stationed in Springfield, he had another idea. He began to print smaller versions of his game, along with chess, checkers and backgammon, that they could easily fold up and carry around. He sold them at a dollar each to soldiers and charitable organisations who bought them in bulk and distributed them. Bradley had invented the first travel games.
In The Checkered Game of Life, the chances of going to school are pretty slim and the square marked ‘poverty’ is sadly close to infancy. Bradley must have dwelt on this because he soon became involved with the kindergarten movement, which aimed to provide free education for poor families. The kindergarten movement promoted early education through playing, singing and drawing. Bradley began to produce paints, coloured paper and crayons, all of which, to the detriment of his company, he gave away for free. He also made geometric wooden toys and spent months choosing exactly the right colours for them. In Springfield the first kindergarten students were his two daughters. Its first teachers were Bradley, his wife and his father.
In later life he took to napping in his office; he would order the presses in his factory stopped for half an hour just after lunch so he wouldn’t be disturbed. You probably haven’t heard of Milton Bradley. In his Checkered Game of Life, it is possible to win without focusing on wealth and fame and it doesn’t seem as though he was interested in either. I think he still won though and his story shows us how life can turn on something as simple as somebody else suddenly deciding to grow a beard.