Saturday, August 20, 2011

From the Game of Goose to Snakes and Ladders

Amongst the more surprising items in the Wellcome Library’s collections, are a small selection of board games produced across the past three centuries. While they may seem a little drab in comparison with more modern pastimes, the board games of the past can provide an important and useful insight into historical social beliefs and concerns, and even allow us to some extent gauge the amount of enjoyment derived from watching a grown man bark like a dog...

The games this brief foray into a very specific material history will focus on are by and large 'race games' derived from the Game of Goose, an Italian import from the Middle East played by rolling dice and advancing around the board in a circuit. Newe and most Pleasant Game of the Goose, translated into English for the first time John Wolfe in 1597, is widely credited as the progenitor of the particular type of board game in our collections. While not all of our games attempt to be educational, those that are attempt to address geography, morality and health, and in this respect they are fairly representative of larger thematic groups of historical board games. [1]

Given the variety of historical games in the Library it makes sense to try to address them thematically. Our oldest geographical game, Le Iev Desnations, published in the 17th century, is an educational race game featuring the spiral structure and 63 places common to games of goose. The game purports to teach the "morals, fashions and customs” of the nations of the world, which are presented to educate those "curious about history and geography". The modern player would likely find the descriptions of the depicted nations more interesting than the playing of the game itself which is a straightforward game of chance. The game describes the French as being "of advantageous size" with "beautiful head[s]", claims that French women are "charming [in] body and spirit", and states that the nation is "faithful to their king, courteous to foreigners and very Catholic". The English on the other hand are "blonde, well made", while "the mob [is] impudent, beautiful and harsh". Native Canadians receive a harsher treatment, described as being a "medium size" people "with little thought for the future" who "believe and consult often their god Cadouagny". The game is otherwise notable for its other early colonial descriptions of contemporary human cultures and for its miniature maps depicting a (to the modern eye) inaccurately large “Terre Austrelle”, and that label the Antarctic region "incognue" - unknown.

Another thematic group of games is less educational: The Game of Chance or Harlequin Takes All is a straightforward race around the board in which players try to win tokens added to a kitty, each position on the board entailing some sort of illustrated forfeit or prize, usually simply raising the stake by adding to the kitty but sometimes requiring more unusual actions. Position 9 for example requires the player to pay 6 into the game’s kitty (a relatively hefty fee in context) and for them to “look at the Turk”, a forfeit which seems to have lost its contemporary significance. Other actions include missing two turns sitting in a chair, being fined for “breaking a pitcher”, or being trapped awaiting “rescue from a wood”. Particularly interesting is the forfeit for stopping at position 23; the unfortunate player loses all stake in the game and must “bark until it is over”, like a dog. Dying though is a mere setback: players must “give way to the corps, pay 9 for ye grave and begin the game again” upon landing at 31. Strangely, the game can only be ended once a player has landed at position 13, the Harlequin, illustrated by a figure in the characteristic chequered costume leaving a house with a club and a sack, at which point they collect the kitty and end the game. The publisher, Laurie and Whittle of London, would reuse many of the images and mechanics of The Game of Chance in their later New and Entertaining Game of the Goose. This game is significant for its reintroduction of the goose motif from the game’s heritage without the punitive trappings imposed in The Game of Chance. Though some of the more mature positions have been removed or reworked, most notably the “drink to your friend” tile, the death tile remains, perhaps suggesting that the publisher recognised its value as a memento mori.

The third group of games represented are ‘morality games’ that sought to impart contemporary morality to the players through a simple system of reward and punishment. Perhaps the most elaborately named of the games discussed here is Laurie’s Instructive Moral and Entertaining Game of the Mansion of Happiness. The game’s moral tone is far from subtle; the playing board itself has the tag-line “virtue rewarded and vice punished,” and the rules admonish players in possession of “Audacity, Cruelty, Immodesty or Ingratitude” to “not even to think of Happiness, much less partake of it.” For other attributes the game has more specific and contemporaneously appropriate forfeits; “Whoever becomes a PERJURER must be put in the pillory and pay a Fine of one.” Punishments at the infamous Bridewell prison, in the stocks or at the whipping post are also instructed. Some significance might be found in the production of this exceptionally upstanding morality game from the publisher of The Game of Chance that rewarded drinking and incorporated a stronger element of gambling; Laurie, whose name the company still used and who would have overseen the production of The Game of Chance, left the business in 1815, possibly allowing for a change in direction toward more educational games, though it may be the case that the game is simply a product of the emerging market for morally educational titles. [1]

Interestingly, a second morality game held by the Library, a late 18th century Indian game titled Jnana Bagi; the Game of Heaven and Hell was one of the influences on the the western board game Snakes and Ladders. A tool for teaching ethics, the 82 hand drawn and coloured squared are inscribed with symbols denoting living creatures and moral attributes. Significantly, the longest ladder on the board is from position 17, labelled “compassionate love”, to position 69, “the world of the absolute.” Compared with the later western morality game, the Game of Heaven and Hell is much richer in symbolism; the rewards and setbacks posed by the snakes and the ladders illustrate an understanding that life is fraught with successes and challenges, perhaps a more complex lesson than the didactic moral certainties illustrated by the Mansion of Happiness.

The final category of games is that of the ‘health game’. Building on the historical precedent of games as vectors for educational ideas, health games have been produced at various times to support campaigns confronting contemporary health concerns. See how they won: the game of good health, is a departure from the previous games discussed so far, in that it isn’t strictly a board game, though remains worthy of consideration through its value as a record of contemporary concerns.

A ball and maze puzzle with hazards, dating from the 1930s, the game charts the player’s progress from “slumdom”, highlighting contemporary fears of urban degradation, past the many health risks threatening young people in the early twentieth century urban environment; lack of sunlight, rickets and pneumonia, amongst others, toward “The Great Goal, Good Health”. Given its context the game’s subject matter is not at all surprising; it was produced to raise funds for the Vincent Square Infant’s Hospital in London, a charitable children’s hospital that would have directly confronted the problems created by poor living conditions in the city.

Sixty years later, another health game confronts a later public health concern: the spread of HIV/AIDS in modern America. TrianguAIDS, a book cover designed as a board game played in much the same way as the other ‘race games’ in the collection; players move around the triangular board by rolling dice, trying to avoid the hazards (in this case a “Hooker”, “Pusher” or “Little Action”) which somewhat morbidly increase the player’s chance of contracting HIV. Once a player becomes a carrier a second area of the board is opened up to chart their swift progression with the virus to an inevitable death, and the ability to spread the condition to other players creates an escalating sense of paranoia. In some respects the game owes more to historical morality games than to health games; the instructions’ didactic tone and the penalisation of players for finding themselves in morally questionable positions is characteristic of this particular genre of pedagogical pastime.


[1] Caroline G. Goodfellow, ‘The Development of the English Board Game,

1770-1850’, Board Game Studies,1998, 1: 70-80.


- A game involving many of the countries in the world. Engraving by Antoine de Fer after Louis Richer (Wellcome Library no. 35129i)

- A board game with various forfeits, penalties and rewards. Etching. 1794 (Wellcome Library no. 33448i)

- A large goose, with three golden eggs: numbered circles printed on the body of the goose for playing a counter game. Coloured engraving. 1848 (Wellcome Library no. 35130i)

- A layout for a board game, with the rules of the game. Engraving. 1851 (Wellcome Library no. 37628i).

- Game of Heaven and Hell (Jnana Bagi) (Sanskrit Alpha 276)

- See how they won: the game of good health (Oversize ephemera. EPH+13)

- A book cover designed as a board game about safer sex risks by the Walraven Book Cover Company. Colour lithograph, 1992. (Wellcome Libary no. 668792i)

Author Simon Wilson

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