The Checkered Game of Life

In the previous introduction to Board Games of the 19th Century, I explained how games are teaching tools, used throughout history to instruct children on the lessons and structures of life. Games use different mediums to help us to see life as the unforgiving, random journey it truly is. Games help us to impose a sense of rule and structure on this chaos.


Sense from the senseless

The Checkered Game of Life is one such attempt to impose sense on the senseless. The story behind the game is not as profound as the lesson it teaches, however. Both the story of the game and the game itself are interesting insights into history and the human condition.

In 1860 the United States was in turmoil, with the nation literally breaking apart in The Civil War. The election of President Lincoln had set off a rush for the exists across the South.

With the onset of war, Milton Bradley introduced The Checkered Game of Life.

The Checkered Game of Life

The game moved players along a track from Infancy to Old Age, guided by pointing fingers and texts.

The fun was everywhere, but so too were lessons about unsettling elements of existence. For example, you were promptly put out of the game if you were to land on the space called “Suicide”. It is interesting to note that children were intentionally being exposed to the possibility of a sudden and dramatic death. The teachable moment was profound, albeit inappropriate by our standards today.

Obviously today there is no longer a suicide square in the Game of Life. In fact there are credit card machines and even tech careers for today’s children to play through. Of course, suicide is no longer considered something that just happens randomly. It is not something that happens as if by chance.

It is interesting how killing oneself, which today we see as symptomatic of mental illness, was seen as random in the nineteenth century.


This is the second part of the post Board Games of History. To read the first part of this story, please find it here.


In The Checkered Game of Life, Milton Bradley chose to use a spinner and not dice to advance players around a board. At the time dice were considered taboo. Dice were associated with gambling. A spinner was used because it was deemed more in line with the moral defense of children.


A Lesson About A Violent Time

As a teaching tool it is easy to see how this game helped children to understand the era they were born into. The country was a violent place in the 1860’s. The children who played the first “Checkered Game of Life” would no doubt be dealing with death of loved ones, as everyone knew someone killed or maimed by the Civil War.

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Antietam: 22,717 casualties

The Lesson Learned from Life

The game would offer reassurance to children that there was a path for them through these uncertain times, and that they could live to be long in the tooth and not perish like someone close to them had no doubt suffered.

All games are teaching tools. The Checkered Game of Life shows us how this time was one of uncertainty about survival, in contrast to the certainty of eternal salvation that dominated the nation just two decades prior.

In the third and final installment of this post, we will see how changes over time are reflected in the board games of the 19th century. The third post of this series will focus on a the most famous board game of all time.

Will you be able to guess which game it is?

I guarantee you that the lesson it reveals is not what you will ever expect.

If you enjoyed this story, please check back with Historydojo soon.

Author: Tyler Rust