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...