The Game of Life has a bad reputation among serious board game enthusiasts, and rightfully so, because it sucks. Dictated almost entirely by the whims of a plastic spinner, Life involves no real strategy. The choices the game does give players are so frequently overturned as to be rendered meaningless. The complete lack of significant player agency makes the game far too simplistic for competitive adults, while the inclusion of concepts like insurance, promissory notes, and investments are too much for children young enough to enjoy the linear gameplay. Despite not being much fun at all, however, the game endures. And, as the above video from Great Big Story explains, we’ve got Abraham Lincoln’s beard to blame.
Even if it isn’t any good, Life does have an important place in board game history: it was the first game created and sold by Milton Bradley. Prior to launching his board game empire, Bradley was a successful lithographer in Massachusetts. Bradley’s best-selling image was of a young, beardless presidential candidate: Abraham Lincoln. Bradley invested heavily in producing said image, only to meet near financial ruin when Honest Abe decided he had to go and grow himself an iconic beard and render Bradley’s inventory of beardless Lincolns worthless.
In 1860, desperate and looking for a rebound venture, Bradley decided to adapt an imported board game a friend had given him into something an American audience would appreciate. He called it The Checkered Game of Life. The game was fittingly salty for a man who had almost gone broke because the president couldn’t be bothered to shave: potential outcomes included “poverty,” “disgrace,” and even “suicide.” Yay! Game night! The Checkered Game of Life would be a massive hit, the first of many for Bradley. It’s still produced today as Life, although in a much less morbid format.
Elsewhere in the video, you’ll find stories about better games, including a 35-years-and-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign, some high-level Nigerian Scrabble, and the beefcake hunks of Dream Phone.