Famed board game manufacturer Milton Bradley has been creating diversions for well over 150 years, and The Game of Life is among its most celebrated. Check out 12 facts about the game’s history, its controversies, and how it wound up someplace far more revered than your closet.
1. IT WAS MILTON BRADLEY’S FIRST-EVER GAME.
Before Milton Bradley became synonymous with cardboard amusements, the 23-year-old developed The Checkered Game of Life in 1860. Because games were considered a waste of time, Bradley tried to downplay its frivolous nature by eliminating any dice or cards, instead boasting of its “virtuous” teachings. Consisting of 64 squares that took players from “Infancy” to “Happy Old Age” with pitfalls in between, the game sold 40,000 copies during its first year of release, making Bradley a recognized name in recreation.
2. "SUICIDE" WAS AN EARLY SQUARE.
In less politically correct times, Bradley’s earliest version of Life offered both great reward—advanced education, marriage—and significant penalties for making poor choices. Instead of a prosperous retirement, players could find themselves on “Suicide,” a square marked with a head encased by a noose. You could also find yourself upon “Ruin,” where you fall over drunk and destitute.
3. CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS LOVED IT.
Sensing a need to supply Civil War soldiers with items to occupy their minds, Bradley offered a bundled game set that included chess, checkers, dominoes, and his own Checkered Game of Life. At less than five ounces, the package was small and light enough to be mailed virtually anywhere; Bradley advertised it as “just the thing” to send to members of the armed forces during Christmas.
4. IT WAS REINVENTED IN 1960.
To commemorate the game’s 100th anniversary in 1960, Milton Bradley gave freelance designer Reuben Klamer a task: update and retool Bradley’s original idea for contemporary audiences. Klamer added a spinner, tiny plastic avatars in automobiles, piles of cash, and removed most of the more morbid fates for players. The revised, suicide-free edition has gone on to sell over 50 million copies.
5. ART LINKLETTER HELPED SELL IT.
Klamer had a relationship with television host Art Linkletter stemming from an attempt to imitate the success of Wham-O’s Hula Hoop with their Spin-A-Hoop. When Klamer designed the new Life, Linkletter promoted it heavily on air and even appeared on boxes with the quote, “I heartily endorse this family game.” The $10,000 bills were printed with his face on them.
6. BRADLEY APPEARED ON THE MONEY.
As a tribute to the company’s namesake, Milton Bradley manufactured all denominations of bills from their 1977 release with the face of an older, bearded Bradley.
7. IT EVENTUALLY REWARDED GOOD BEHAVIOR.
Klamer’s reimagining of the game drew perpetual criticism for rewarding materialism: The player with the most money wins. In 1992, the company offered an update featuring squares that allowed players to adopt pets, vote, and drive sober.
8. IT BECAME A TV GAME SHOW.
Recognizing Life had unparalleled brand recognition, Hasbro—which absorbed Milton Bradley in 1984—paired with TV network the Hub Network in 2011 to air The Game of Life as a family game show. Teams competed in trivia and activities of daily living like barbecues; a computer-generated board moved car pieces through squares. At least one contestant got motion sickness from having the prop shaken by crew members to simulate driving. It lasted one season.
9. THE ONLINE VERSION OFFERED SAME-SEX MARRIAGES.
Never one to shy away from hot-button issues, Life drew some ire from conservative groups in 2009 when it was discovered that players operating an electronic version of the game could enter into same-sex marriages. As Endgadget pointed out, however, it was always possible to stick two of the same color stick people into their plastic cars in the analog version.
10. THEY SWITCHED TO VISA.
While the paper currency has long been a fixture of Life, in 2007 Hasbro offered Life: Twists & Turns, which switched out hard cash for a Visa-branded credit card reader. Critics huffed that it would devalue money in the eyes of juvenile players; Hasbro countered that the game taught fiscal responsibility.
11. THERE’S BEEN CONTROVERSY OVER OWNERSHIP.
In early 2015, Lorraine Markham sued Hasbro for $2 million in unpaid royalties, claiming her husband, Bill Markham, had revised the game for its 1960 reissue and didn’t receive credit for it. According to NBC News, Reuben Klamer insists Markham only came up with an unused prototype of the game board that underwent revisions before Klamer turned it in. The case is ongoing.
12. IT’S IN THE SMITHSONIAN.
In honor of Life’s enduring place under American beds and on shelves, the Smithsonian Institution made it part of their permanent collection in their National Museum of American History, where it joined another Milton Bradley creation: Simon.