5 Classic Board Games With Disturbing Origin Stories
If there's one thing we've learned in our time here, it's that there's absolutely no cherished childhood memory, from nursery rhymes to candy bars, that doesn't have some dark and gritty origin story. But surely our favorite board games sprang fully formed from the land of bunnies and rainbows, right? After all, they're just a bunch of colorful squares on a board meant to let families kill time in the pre-video game era.
The Game of Life -- and Suicide
Released way the hell back in 1860, The Game of Life is one of the best-selling board games of all time and the single oldest game in the Milton Bradley library. It's a charming get-together game in which families around the world experience all the fun of paying their insurance, and ultimately, witnessing the miracle of humanity reduced to a dong-shaped plastic peg.
How Milton Bradley views its consumers.
The Disturbing Origins:
The original version of Life was somewhat more pessimistic than the one we play today. Some of the board's original squares included "Disgrace," "Poverty," and "Ruin," as well as "Crime," "Prison," and -- no joke -- "Suicide."
Making a square for "Suicide" is one thing, but landing a job at the "Fat Office" is just plain cruel.
Even though today this would be like having a slot for the Joker's pencil trick in Operation, the original version of Life nevertheless sold like hotcakes.
So who was the psychopath behind this grim game? Milton Bradley himself, who was going through a bit of a rough time when he made it. Bradley was a professional lithographer at the time, and was driven to financial ruin, solely because Abraham Lincoln grew a beard. We're not making this up. Mr. Bradley was making a pretty sweet dime in 1860 selling lithographs of a then-beardless Abraham Lincoln until a little 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell sent Honest Abe a letter asking him to grow a beard, which he did. This unprecedented presidential fashion statement basically destroyed Bradley's business after all his unsold portraits of clean-shaven Abe were judged "so yesterday."
At the end of his rope and out of alcohol, Mr. Bradley sat down and sketched The Checkered Game of Life, we imagine with a loaded gun on the table.
As a result, for decades children throughout the country actually had fun killing themselves in a board game.
Of course, the grimmest aspect of the game is still present in the version we all know today: After you have had all your children, affairs and midlife crises, win or lose, you die at the end of Life.
"Congratulations! Thanks for playing!"
Clue -- Killing Time Between Nazi Bombs
So right away we see that, like with any form of artistic expression, you learn a lot about the state of mind of the creator from the finished product. This brings us to Clue. It's a dark goddamned subject for a game if you think about it -- some of the murder weapons would only work by splashing the brains of the victim all over the floor of the fancy mansion. So under what circumstances would someone think this was an appropriate game for kids?
"Manning 'em up for the goddamn Marines."
The Disturbing Origins:
The game was released in England in 1949 under the almost intentionally dumb name Cluedo. And, while most board games enjoy the reputation as something you save for a rainy day, the rainy days that brought you Clue were rains of Nazi bombs on British households. Clue is the only board game on this list made possible because of Adolf Hitler.
The original Parker Brothers.
Clue/Cluedo was devised in 1943 by a wartime fire warden named Anthony E. Pratt, who came up with the game while "walking his beat" in between the Nazi firebombings. Withholding any pretense, the game's working title was Murder! Basically, it was Saw II in a box. He quickly sold his idea to a game company.
This is seriously how you played the game.
Waddington Games had to hold off on production for a while, because the game was to include a ton of pieces and materials were still being rationed due to, you know, the world war raging around them.
Also, we should probably mention that this game not only included the classic gun, rope, knife and three makeshift de-brainers, but also an axe, syringe, poison, a bomb and a "shillelagh."
Yeah, we had to Google it too.
That's right, in the original Clue you could totally kill a dude with a bomb. It took a lot to shock that generation, and understandably so.
Monopoly -- The Stolen Game
Released in 1935, Monopoly is the most popular board game in the world behind, well, chess. It has sold more than 275 million copies, been played by more than a billion people and prompted people such as Wall Streeter Derk Solko to describe it as one of the most amoral experiences in the history of entertainment: "Monopoly has you grinding your opponents into dust. It's a very negative experience. It's all about cackling when your opponent lands on your space and you get to take all their money."
The real game involves considerably less dancing with cartoon dollars and considerably more broken relationships with siblings.
The Disturbing Origins:
The official story according to Hasbro is that during "the height of the Great Depression" an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow proposed Monopoly to Parker Brothers in 1934, was first rejected, but eventually closed the deal. This is the official legend as told by -- no joke -- Mr. Monopoly, the goddamn robber baron on the box.
A face you can trust.
Since anyone should be suspicious of any company that leaves their official truth-telling to their mascots, several people have smelled a rat big enough to investigate the story. It turns out that, in a strangely appropriate revelation, Monopoly was actually pirated wholesale from a board game called The Landlord's Game which was patented in 1904 by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie.
A Quaker who apparently had something against illustrations.
This game was very much the Monopoly we all know and hate, except it included a crucial second round designed to teach "just how unfair monopolies can be." That's right, Monopoly is actually supposed to be a lesson on unscrupulous business practices comparable to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, but the monopolistic bastards at Parker Brothers deliberately kept it evil to appeal to the darker angels of our souls.
How did they get away with this? Easy. According to PBS' History Detectives: "a large firm which manufactures games" bought out Ms. Magie's patent for $500.
It was an offer she couldn't refuse.
As for that "legend" on Hasbro's website, that was even easier for Parker Brothers. They just had their fictional spokesperson Mr. Monopoly make it up to better suit their image of a family-friendly monopoly. The fact that they pulled all this off during the Great Depression, seriously, that takes balls.
At long last, Mr. Monopoly shows his true face.
Trivial Pursuit -- The Pursuit of Plagiarism
It's that infuriating family trivia game that your annoying know-it-all uncle always wins.
The Disturbing Origins:
Long before Trivial Pursuit famously became the bane of George Costanza, its distributors found themselves in the middle of a damning lawsuit. It turned out as many as one third of the questions in the game were lifted from the book Super Trivia, vol. II by Fred L. Worth.
Which, in a way, invalidates every victory your asshole older cousin ever claimed.
How do we know this? Because Worth deliberately slipped an error into his book to catch any would-be plagiarists. Sure enough, when Trivial Pursuit hit the stores, that one bad answer turned up on the cards (Detective Columbo's first name is Frank, not Philiip). This seemed like a key point to Worth, since, you know, trivia was the entire point of the game. He sued.
Unfortunately for Worth, Trivial Pursuit foiled his clever plan -- the game's creators, Scott Abbott and Chris Haney, successfully convinced every lower court that being both lazy and stupid was not a crime now that they were rich. Worth took his case all the way to the US Supreme Court, figuring that writing a third of their material for them entitled him to a cut of the game's gargantuan profits ("Trivial Pursuit" was basically the national pastime in the 80s).
But the creators' argument (which the court agreed with) was that you can't copyright facts. It's the same reason you can't copyright a phone book -- those numbers belong to everybody, even if somebody else spent hundreds of hours assembling and researching them.
Still, it'd have been nice if they had at least thanked the man.
"Deluxe" means "twice the thievery".
Chutes and Ladders -- A Game of Hell
A favorite with preschoolers, Chutes and Ladders is billed by Hasbro as a game about "rewards and consequences." Do good deeds and you get to ascend up the board on some ladders. Dick around and down the chutes you go.
The Disturbing Origins:
For those of you who are British, you may be familiar with the game's foreign incarnation: Snakes and Ladders.
The British Empire was once in the business of terrorizing India and subsequently robbing it of everything good to come out of that country. Snakes and Ladders was one of those things. Over there, the game was known as Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam, which meant "the ladder to salvation."
Sure enough, all this "salvation" business has to do with Hinduism, and all those snakes scattered across the board are temptations. Except that, in this version, landing on a snake's head didn't just send you back a few squares. The idea is that for each temptation you land on you die and have to go through life all over again.
Vaikuntapaali was meant to illustrate how even a successful life can be ruined at the zero-hour due to one small screw up. Some of its original squares of "evil" included disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, and debt. As you advance through the game, you have to contend with still greater challenges such as rage, greed, pride, murder, and, yes, lust.
The original game box.
As though the game we know today isn't frustrating enough, in the Indian original it is virtually impossible to advance to the end without landing on at least several temptations. It's almost as if whoever came up with this fun party game viewed everyone as some kind of a Hell-worthy sinner, especially those with the unfortunate luck to land on temptation after temptation for eternity.
"GENTLEMEN, I HAVE A GAME FOR YOU TO PLAY."
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For more things we probably shouldn't give to kids, check out 15 Unintentionally Perverted Toys for Children and The 13 Most Unintentionally Disturbing Children's Toys.
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