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Milton Bradley and His Life’s Checkered Past

In 1860, Springfield, Massachusetts’ Milton Bradley decided America needed a new game, and so he created a modern blend of the old-fashioned morality games and the simple checkerboard to come up with The Checkered Game of Life.

Born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836, Bradley was raised in Lowell, Massachusetts and later moved to Springfield. His initial calling was as lithographer, but in 1860 he hit it big with the new game.

Game board from the Checkered Game of Life by Milton Bradley

Game board from the Checkered Game of Life by Milton Bradley

Bradley's creation was a departure from most children's games of the day that featured more overt religious overtones. In the game Mansion of Happiness, for instance, players navigated the board by moving their game pieces along a track covered with spaces such as: chastity, truth and prudence -- which allowed the player to advance -- while cruelty, immodesty or ingratitude would force the player backwards. Events such as failing to honor the Sabbath would send the player to the "Whipping Post." The goal of the game was to reach the Mansion of Happiness, heaven.

In Life, Bradley focused on secular themes. Players started from a square on the board labelled infancy and attempted to reach the 'Happy Old Age' square. Along the way they were rewarded with points for college and perseverance and might find themselves in Congress. Alternatively, they could experience poverty, idleness, suicide or prison and lose points.

Bradley manufactured some stock of his new invention and headed off in 1860 to sell it.

"The game represents, as indicated by the name, the checkered journey of life,” the Rules of the Game said, the object for the player was simple: “to gain on his journey that which shall make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress.”

The game was an overnight success, selling 40,000 copies its first year and launching Milton Bradley into the toy business that would bear his name long after his death in 1911.

The modern version of life -- updated with twists such as "buy furniture" -- was launched in 1960 to mark the anniversary of the original, and the Game of Life remains available today in a variety of editions.

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