The 54th annual World Championship of Snakes and Ladders was held last weekend in conference room B at the Circus Circus in Las Vegas. A grueling 3-day double-elimination tournament sponsored by Dr. Scholl’s and the American Herpetological Association, only the finest gamers in the world are invited: the stakes are high, the competition fierce, a dream realized for one and shattered for sixty-three others. Placing a respectable third, the roundup brought home a year’s supply of foot powder and an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of 1968 champion Bernard “Silky” Smith. Let’s roll the dice on the roundup…
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1. Modern style board games are less than two centuries old. Borne of 19th century Puritanical dogma, the first board games aimed to teach morality rather than entertain—because in a very literal sense, God forbid kids have fun. The Mansion of Happiness, widely considered the first US board game, was released in 1843 and promised “an instructive moral and entertaining amusement.” I do not believe that promise was kept.
In the game, players move around the board in hopes of reaching the “mansion of happiness,” a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. Landing on spaces depicting acts of virtue moved one closer to the mansion, while landing on sinful spaces moved one back towards the “outhouse of anguish” (note: outhouse thing not actually true). This was some serious Calvinist brutality—no CandyLand enchanted gumdrop forests and chocolate seas to be found. Greed or ingratitude or immodesty might send one to the (metaphorical, I assume/hope) pillory, the “house of correction,” or the whipping post. The New Pilgrim’s Progress, released in 1894, was similarly grave: players moved from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, stopping at the Slough of Despair along the way. Fun for all ages! I know I made up the outhouse thing, but not kidding: the slough of despair thing is real.
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2. The Checkered Game of Life—later just The Game of Life—was unveiled in 1860. It was the first game invented by Milton Bradley, then a little-known peddler of lithographs whose previous claim to “fame” was a portrait of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln, which sold modestly. The goal of Life (the game) was to earn the maximum number of points by traveling from one corner of the board, “infancy,” to the other, “happy old age.” Intervening spaces were mix of moral and immoral acts (honesty, ambition, idleness, gambling, crime) and their consequences. Though the game featured less emphasis on corporal punishment than Mansion of Happiness, it was still brutish: consequences of immorality including prison, “ruin,” suicide, and poverty. Benefits included fame and wealth, and to prove the game was from a near-unrecognizable era: making it to Congress.
Modern versions of Life are endorsed by “famed” “comedian” Art Linkletter. The game teaches kids the importance of legalized racketeering (insurance policies), the virtue of debt (promissory notes), the benefits of heteronormative legally-sanctioned monogamous pair-bonding, and to embrace moral hazard (playing the stock market). I used to think Monopoly had a bad message, but consider the 1885 game Monopolist, marketed as “On this board the great struggle between Capital and Labor can be fought out to the satisfaction of all parties, and, if the players are successful, they can break the Monopolist and become Monopolists themselves.” That description did not end how I was expecting.
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3. Board games of Christian virtue are not relics of 19th-century Puritanism: 1993 saw the release of Larry Burkett’s Money Matters: The Christian Financial Concepts Game, in which players win the game by paying their bills on time. Rod and Tod Flanders love it, but move only one space at a time instead of using dice because it’s less fun that way.
Some other interesting board games: Probe (more distressing as a noun or a verb?), the oddly-named triptych of Headache, Frustration, and Aggravation, and the single most badass game of my childhood, Fireball Island. There are things I miss from childhood just out of a sense of nostalgia, of remembering how much fun it was at the time—but I legitimately miss Fireball Island because it was awesome and I would play it tomorrow. Caves, giant fire-spewing tiki gods named Vul-Kar, rickety bridges that might collapse when you cross them, Indiana Jones wish fulfillment, and SMOLDER PITS. Here’s my christmas list this year: Fireball Island. That’s it.
Another board game trivium: Karl Marx invented an early version of Hungry Hungry Hippos called “Hungry Hungry Proles,” in which the players only “won” by evenly allotting the marbles amongst each other. If one player collected too many marbles, he was named “the ruling class” and ejected from the premises or murdered, depending on house rules. Files released under an FOIA request show that J. Edgar Hoover encouraged Hasbro to re-engineer the game into its capitalism-encouraging current form, said to have been greatly enjoyed by Ayn Rand.
(I made up that last paragraph. Sorry.)
Final trivium: Pit, the capitalist card game in which the goal is to corner the commodities market and is so boring even the Weirs don’t enjoy it, was invented in the early 20th century by famed seer and huckster Edgar Cayce.
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4. Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) is variously known as “the sleeping prophet,” “the father of holistic medicine,” and ‘the most documented psychic of the 20th century,” none of which are necessarily good. Cayce’s career as flim-flammer and inveigler was sparked when a hypnotist “cured” him of a severe laryngitis through the power of psychic/hypnotic suggestion, a special brand of quackery Cayce then took up himself. A goodly portion of the rest of his life was spent doling out special home remedies, health and diet tips, and psychic cures, including:
- for cancer prevention, he recommend three almonds a day (“the number of the almonds shall be three. Four is right out.”)
- for dropsy (dropsy! was this in 1350s France?), he recommended “bedbug juice”
- for tuberculosis, “fumes of apple brandy from a charred keg”
- and—my favorite—”the raw side of a freshly skinned rabbit” placed fur side out, on the breast, to treat cancer
- for any other maladies, drink some beef broth and apply camphor oil
- Gelatin enhances glandular activity. GLANDS
- Squirrel should be stewed or well-cooked
- Ice cream is far preferable to pie, which combines starches and sweets.
When he wasn’t healing dropsy, Cayce was giving “readings,” in he lapsed into a catatonic trance and tapped into some kind of mystic telepathic communication channel, delivering pronouncements on the past lives of people around him and predictions for the future. He did not shy from putting these predictions on the record: some 14,000 readings survive. Among those predictions, Cayce is largely responsible for popularizing the legend of Atlantis as an advanced civilization swallowed into the ocean. How advanced? Advanced enough that they invented a death ray that would be re-discovered by the US in 1958. Advanced enough that they developed electricity and atomic power, but powered the entire nation through an even more advanced giant glowing crystal, which was eventually overburdened and self-destructed, triggering the volcanic eruption that destroyed the island. Cayce even predicted that Atlantis would re-emerge from the depths in 1968 or 1969; maybe it happened and it got lost in the shuffle. And 2001 should have seen us finding a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx, containing the library of the Atlanteans, and the secret of the Great Crystal. Where is my mystic knowledge of the ancients?
Cayce also predicted that California would break off into the ocean. He predicted that New York and Connecticut would break off into the ocean. He covered all his bases when it comes to North American catastrophes: “Many portions of the East Coast will be disturbed, as well as many portions of the West Coast, and the central portions of the United States.” So everywhere then? Great, thanks. He also predicted Japan would break apart and be swallowed by the ocean…
Like Nostradamus, his oodles of warnings have been selectively chosen and twisted into prophecy by true believers. Not that your belief mattered to Cayce, who demanded credit for incorrect predictions: “Prophecy is never given for any other purpose than as a warning. For this reason, a successful prophecy is one that has been averted and therefore does not happen.” When he’s right, he’s right. You have to give him that. But also when he’s wrong, he’s right. You have to give him that too.
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5. In 1958, Nathan Mendelsohn was a sociology professor with big dreams: a utopian model city to rival the country’s greatest. To that end, he purchased more than 80,000 acres of desolate Mojave Desert a hundred miles north of LA, designed a Central Park clone complete with artificial lake, and set to laying out lots, water mains, electric grids, and roads. (100 miles north of LA), designed a Central Park clone complete with man-made lake, and set to laying out lots, water mains, electric grids, and roads around it. It was a dream realized: California City is the state’s third largest city…by land area. But only 14,000 people live there, clustered around that reservoir, leaving more than 180 square miles of unfinished land and vacant lots—even though, ghost-like, the roads, water mains, and electrical grid are all there.
The city’s failure feels uniquely American: most people bought lots as land speculators, never intending to move there, only profit when other people did. The phenomenal weirdness of California City is that, unlike ghost towns that boomed then busted, it was never alive in the first place. The roads are laid out, paved, named, and signed, but end up nowhere, like post-industrial Nazca lines:
The city public works department, either out of an overweening sense of civic duty or an abundance of optimism, still maintains those roads. The patch of greenery in the back is where people actually live. If the whole thing looks like the first 10 minutes of a doomed game of SimCity2000, that’s because it basically is. Most of the lots are still owned, but without collective action there’s no real incentive to do anything with them, leaving the town with stillborn roads, empty lots, and creepy half-finished abandoned hotels.