The 54th annual World Championship of Snakes and Ladders was held last weekend in conference room B at the Circus Circus in Las Vegas, and the trivia roundup was there as the lone US representative. 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.”
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). For a “game,” it did not fuck around—there were 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. Get to heaven or die tryin’. The New Pilgrim’s Progress, released in 1894, was not dissimilar: players moved from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, stopping at the Slough of Despair along the way (not made up). Fun for all ages!
2. The Checkered Game of Life (later just The Game of Life) came out in 1860 and was the first game invented by Milton Bradley, then a largely-unsuccessful and little-known lithographer; his previous claim to “fame” at that point was a portrait of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln, which was not a big seller. The goal of 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 included acts of morality (honesty, ambition) and immorality (idleness, gambling, crime), and their consequences. There certainly was less emphasis on corporal punishment than Mansion of Happiness, but it was still pretty real: consequences included prison, “ruin,” suicide, and poverty; benefits included fame, wealth, and making it to Congress, clearly this game comes from a different time.
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.
3. Some board game trivium: In case you thought that games of Christian virtue were relegated to 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. It’s a favorite of Rod and Tod Flanders, though they move only one space at a time instead of using dice, because “it’s less fun that way.”
Other interesting board games include the distressingly named Probe (I can’t decide whether that being a noun or a verb is worse), the oddly-named triptych of Headache, Frustration, and Aggravation, and the most badass game of my childhood, Fireball Island. God I miss Fireball Island: caves, giant fire-spewing tiki gods named Vul-Kar, rickety bridges that might collapse when you cross them, and SMOLDER PITS…
Karl Marx actually created an early version of Hungry Hungry Hippos called “Hungry Hungry Proles,” in which the players won by evenly allotting the marbles amongst each other. The player with the most marbles was deemed “the ruling class” and, depending on house rules, either ejected from the premises or murdered. 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.
The preceding paragraph is 100 percent made up. Sorry. Pit, the card game in which one attempts to corner the market on commodities (not including pork bellies) and is so boring even the Weirs don’t enjoy it, was actually invented in the early 20th century by famed seer Edgar Cayce.
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, from my vantage, 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 continued to practice 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.
Besides his apparent healing powers, he was able to lapse into a catatonic trance from which he would give “readings,” sometimes involving the past lives of people near him and other times involving predictions of the future; of the more than 20,000 readings he gave, some 14,000 survive. Among his various predictions, Cayce is largely responsible for the enduring legend of Atlantis as a super-advanced island-nation swallowed into the ocean and forgotten by history. How advanced? Advanced enough that they created a death ray he predicted would be re-discovered by the US in 1958. Advanced enough that they powered the entire city through a giant glowing crystal, until they turned said crystal to 11 and it self-destructed, triggering the volcanic activity that doomed them (this after they had discovered electricity and harnessed atomic power, but set it aside in favor of the Great Crystal). He even predicted Atlantis would re-emerge from the depths in 1968 or 1969. Maybe it happened and the media just missed it, 1968 was a busy year. 2001 should have seen us finding a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx, containing the magic library of the Atlanteans. Where’s my mystic knowledge of the ancients?
Other predictions include California breaking off into the ocean, New York and Connecticut breaking off into the ocean (he covered all his bases on the North America front: “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.), and Japan breaking apart and being swallowed up by the ocean…sounds familiar…
Also, China being converted to Christianity. Like Nostradamus, his vague warnings are twisted into prophecy and there’s no shortage of true believers (though he was not well-regarded by leading contemporary parapsychologist JB Rhine). Not that it mattered to Cayce, who demanded credit even for his 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.” I refer to this belief as “Edgar Cayce’s Epistemological Nightmare.”
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 (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. His dream was realized, after a fashion: California City is the third largest city in the entire state…by land area (some 185 square miles). But only 14,000 people live there now, most clustered around that reservoir, leaving vast swaths of unfinished land and thousands of vacant lots—even though the roads, water mains, and electrical grid are all there. In a sort of tragedy of the commons, most people bought lots as land speculators, with no intent on moving in. Thus, the phenomenal weirdness of California City is that—unlike ghost towns that boomed and busted—it was never alive in the first place. The roads are all named and laid out and signed, but the cul-de-sacs go to nowhere, like post-industrial Nazca lines:
That greenery in the back is where people actually live; the whole thing looks like the first 10 minutes of a doomed game of SimCity 2000 (which, in a way, it sort of is). The city public works department, either out of an overweening sense of civic duty or an abundance of optimism, still maintains those roads. As it happens, most of the lots are owned, but no one has any incentive to do anything with them, so the town is left with the remnants of roads (popular with dirt bikers and the like) and creepy half-finished abandoned hotels.