Board Games Were Indoctrination Tools for Christ, Then Capitalism
The very weird tale of how American board games used to teach you how to get to heaven, and later, how to make bank.
Illustration by Gavin Spence
It’s 1843, and you twirl the spinner to find your fate. Will you succeed through industry, temperance, and chastity? Or will you wallow in drunkenness, get sent to the whipping post for breaking the sabbath, or live an almost perfect life, only to be undone by ingratitude?
It was worth braving these perils—after all, to win meant moving your counter to the center of the spiral and taking your place in the kingdom of the elect. At the center of the board was a knot of industrious, temperate, chaste people lounging in an English garden in front of a country house. It was, quite literally, heaven. This is The Mansion of Happiness, the first widely available board game in American history, and it was explicitly designed to indoctrinate children into Christian values.
And fun fact: You’ve probably played it without even knowing—because in the 20th century, Milton Bradley rebranded it, creating the classic board game Life. That journey from religious teaching aid to cradle-to-grave simulation not only tells us much about how American values have changed and adapted, it also offers a window on how board games made the pivot from moral guides to entertainment products.
Board games were not a force in early American history. Chess and checkers existed, of course, and card playing was widespread, but both cards and dice were heavily associated with gambling, making their use in “children’s’ entertainment” like board games inappropriate.
But the largest thing that held game development back was a lack of leisure time. Agrarian America was a society of constant manual labor by people of all ages, meaning that only the children of the very rich could afford an idle hour to waste on games. But that began to change during the industrial revolution, when childhood was identified as a distinct time of life—a learning period where society used both play and study to shape children into productive adults. Simultaneously, the country’s new industrial techniques and products could, for the first time, manufacture games on a mass scale.
The Q. & S. B. Ives Company of Salem, Massachusetts first published The Mansion of Happiness in 1843. According to a 2001 article in Antiques magazine—"Teaching Success Through Play: American Board And Table Games, 1840–1900”—that makes it the first mass-produced board game in American history.
The rules were based on an English game that released around 1800, which was itself based on an Italian game that emerged in the 16th century. One story goes that Anne W. Abbott, the daughter of a clergyman and a prolific board game designer, developed the American version of The Mansion of Happiness—though there’s some dispute about the attribution. In any case, Ives tried to make the game as attractive as possible, filling the board with appealing, hand-colored lithographs.
The result was a beautiful game that, it was claimed, provided entertainment as well as moral instruction. To avoid the anxieties surrounding dice, Ives instead included a teetotum—a top somewhat resembling a dreidel—as the random number generator. Later versions of the game included a spinner, which remains the modern standard for board games targeted at small children.
The Mansion of Happiness was a smash success, staying in print for over 120 years—but where exactly was the fun? The game was no more engaging than Candyland. Players simply took turns spinning, moving, and either taking extra moves or penalties when they landed on a virtue or a vice.
Not exactly Settlers of Catan.
The truth was that most of the game’s enjoyment was probably social. With random counters governing a player’s chance of winning and losing, there was an inherent thrill of risk as players got closer to the end. Though admitting it would probably have damaged Ives’ sales, the excitement came from the ecstatic loss of control gamblers find in roulette or craps—the imagined push and pull of luck. Indeed, the game’s seeming randomness in fact aligned with Protestant beliefs about predestination, that personal misfortune was divine punishment for misbehavior, unfaithfulness, or hidden character defects. To flick the spinner was, mechanically, to submit oneself to the will of God.
To flick the spinner was, mechanically, to submit oneself to the will of God.
There was also likely an element of uncomfortable comedy, as children giggled over their friends becoming drunks or thieves. That shaming aspect was even more present from another instructive card game of this era, Old Maid, where the object was not to be left holding the titular card. Game publishers illustrated these decks with comedic depictions of middle-aged women living with cats and parrots—the subtext being what horrors awaited an unmarried woman.
The Mansion of Happiness spawned a slew of imitations, both from Ives and its competitors. In 1875 the McLoughlin Brothers of New York City published a similar game called The Games of the Pilgrim’s Progress, where players began at the City of Destruction and passed abstract scenes such as The Cross and The Valley of Death before attaining final victory in The Celestial City.
Ives also branched out into other genres to spread its evangelical message—in 1844 they published the ludicrously titled strategy game The Game of Pope and Pagan or Siege of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian Army. In this not-at-all-offensive (that is, extremely offensive) title—which sported board art of half-unclothed “natives” gathering around a roaring fire—the player takes charge of “a band of devoted missionaries” as they attack “the strong-hold of Satan, defended by [the] papal and pagan Antichrist.”
In case the nativist and colonial rhetoric wasn’t clear from the game’s rules, the missionary pieces were white (“the symbol of innocence, temperance, and hope”) while the enemy counters were black (“denoting the gloom of error, and their grief at the daily loss of empire”). The rules suggested that anyone playing the “black men” in the game would have to do good works in real life, having simulated defending such a bad cause.
The purpose of these mid-19th century American board games, then, was less to provide amusement and more to drum the lessons of American Protestantism into the children who played them. It was the child’s duty to live a Christian life focused on the ultimate goal of heavenly reward. They would follow society’s moral conventions and, if they deviated, their punishments at the prison or whipping-post were only to be expected. Furthermore, it was their duty to defeat and convert religious enemies such as native peoples and devious Catholic subversives.
Judging by its sales, this outlook was wildly popular.
Yet the secular forces of capitalism were already undermining this religious outlook. Within three decades of The Mansion of Happiness’ first printing, American board games would be largely about competition and making a buck.
Just before Thanksgiving of 1883, a sixteen-year-old boy named George Parker got off the train in Boston, dragging his mother’s old suitcase. While the bag was unremarkable, its contents were extraordinary—it held stacks of his own, self-published card game Banking. He had come to Boston in order to sell it to shops and wholesalers.
Within three decades of The Mansion of Happiness’ first printing, American board games would be largely about competition and making a buck.
George had invented Banking the previous summer, when his friends got bored of moralizing, strategically restrictive games like Mansion of Happiness. After conceiving of the new game and testing it by modifying an existing card game, George created a freewheeling game of speculation and trading, where players could borrow cards from the bank but had to repay them with interest. Instead of advancing to heaven, players in Banking formed partnerships with each other, shared profits, and (of course) stabbed each other in the back.
On that first trip to Boston, Parker sold out the entire case. Soon, he was selling Banking as far as Providence, and expanding his game catalogue to include games on modern, secular topics like financial speculation, the railroad, and office delivery boys. He brought his siblings into the business, and Parker Brothers was born.
According to Philip E. Orbanes, game designer and author of The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers, from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit, it was only natural that Parker would react against the restrictions of the earlier games.
“Like most teenagers… he and his friends were now aware of money and the desire to have more of it. It was a most appealing fantasy.” In addition, the lack of strategy in The Mansion of Happiness didn’t jive with the times. Parker and his friends were growing up in a world of explosive growth and human innovation—an era of steam engines and telephones—where the divine control of Mansion’s spinner seemed too restrictive.
“They saw the results of entrepreneurship, which required initiative, not compliance. The world was changing, and opportunity seemed unleashed. So why not, in turn, unleash the vicarious decision-making (and rewards and penalties) inherent in a game of skill?”
By 1889, Parker Brothers would grow large enough to buy Mansion of Happiness publisher W.&S.B. Ives Company, bringing the whole thing full circle. Secular games hadn’t just exploded, they’d bought out their moralizing predecessors.
But George Parker wasn’t the only board game publisher interested in capturing the new, capitalistic era of American life. In 1860, a minister’s son named Milton Bradley developed his own version of the Mansion of Happiness, known as The Checkered Game of Life. Like its predecessor, The Checkered Game of Life was a moralistic game of vices and virtues, but instead of working toward paradise, Bradley’s game ended on “Happy Old Age.”
The point was that Protestant ethics, while also reaping a spiritual reward, led to earthly prosperity. When the Civil War started, Bradley developed a pocket-sized game kit that included versions of chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes, and his own Game of Life. The set, extremely popular among soldiers, spread the new game across the United States and has remained in print almost continually. Milton Bradley reissued the game in 1960 under the simpler title The Game of Life, later simply shortened to Life. Along the way, it shed any pretense toward religion.
By the 1880s, this secularization of board games was in full swing. This sudden movement away from religious life and toward capitalism wasn’t merely in the realm of entertainment. The advent of cities and industrial careers created an entire generation of upwardly mobile workers, meaning for the first time many workers—including women—could act independently from their family.
In an environment of 52-hour workweeks, people were less likely to spend their single day off at worship. The trend was particularly noticeable among Jewish refugees who emigrated to New York, fleeing persecution in Tsarist Russia. Within a generation, most abandoned traditional religious observances and clothing, opting to work on Saturdays and spend Sundays enjoying the fruits of their new freedom.
Added to this was a hunger for media about themes that affected people’s lives. Beginning in 1868, novelist Horatio Alger authored a string of rags-to-riches bestsellers about poor boys persevering through adversity to attain wealth and success.
McLoughlin Brothers decided to ride the Alger wave with their Game of the District Messenger Boy. In this twist on the Alger model, the players all started as telegraph messenger boys on the outer ring of a circular game board. But unlike Mansion of Happiness and The Game of Life, players spiraled their way toward the center of the corporate web, gaining promotion until the winner became head of the corporation. According to the 2001 Antiques article, companies jumped on the bandwagon, publishing games like The Office Boy, The Errand Boy, and Cash.
Accompanying this explosion of Alger games was a new interest in the financial industry. By the 1880s, America had emerged from a decade-long recession and once again saw bankers as inspirational figures rather than villains. In 1883 (the same year as Parker’s Banking) McLoughlin Brothers published Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall Street Game, a fanciful game of betting on commodity gains and losses as determined by a spinner.
Along the same line was the card game Commerce, which replicated the chaos of the New York Stock Exchange. Each Commerce deck had 48 cards in eight suits representing commodities: Pork, Coffee, Corn, Sugar, Oats, Cotton, Flour, and Butter. At the beginning of each round, the dealer distributed the entire deck equally and opened the “trading floor.” Instead of turns, in Commerce everyone shouted out trades at the same time (“Trade two!”), wheeling and dealing until one yelled “Corner!” signaling that they had collected all the cards of one suit—cornering the market. That player gained a point and the cards were reshuffled and distributed for the next round. The first player to three points won.
Naked capitalism and competition were not just the theme, but the point.
In addition to their more raucous gameplay, games like Commerce and Bulls and Bears swerved ever further away from religious themes. Not only was there no religious instruction, they didn’t even bother with pushing an Alger-esque values system of hard work and honesty. Naked capitalism and competition were not just the theme, but the point.
Commerce was also one of the first commercial board games to market through sex appeal. Its cover wasn’t a stock exchange scene, but a Gibson Girl-lookalike playing Commerce.
This was no accident. In an era of supervised courtship, board and card games were a popular way to have wholesome fun in mixed company, while still giving the occasion an air of formality. Orbanes points out that in this period, players still dressed up to play games, wearing neck-to-ankle dresses and full suits—in other words, they looked their best, a perfect recipe for flirtation.
“Board games were just coming into their own as the modern form of indoor social interaction,” says Orbanes. “ To invite a friend of the opposite sex to play across the table must have been quite exciting. ” Games, he says, may not have included physical touching, but they did give a sense of emotional closeness.
And indeed, the decade of Commerce also gave rise to games that seemed designed to let players touch each other, accidentally or not. The Ouija board was so famous as a flirtation device that Norman Rockwell illustrated a hormone-charged session for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Other more raucous, physically active Parker Brothers games like Ping-Pong and Pillow-Dex (imagine table volleyball with a balloon) combined players looking ridiculous with occasional collisions between the sexes.
“Pillow Dex and Ping-Pong could result in contact (accidental or otherwise) which surely added to their appeal among young adults,” adds Orbanes.
In other words, these games served the same role in the 1900s that Twister would in the 1970s.
Within fifty years, games had gone from preaching religiosity and hard work to celebrations of easy wealth. While Ives once published a game that sent the those in a “Passion” to get dunked in cold water, their new corporate owner Parker Brothers was making it easier for young couples to flirt.
The board game industry had grown up, from a teaching tool for children to an entertainment for adults—and as it did, it abandoned the messages of the divine in exchange for the pure escapism of fun.
And games would never be the same.