It all started so simply. I was browsing the board game isle of my local Fred Meyers last week when I stumbled on a blast from my past. Just seeing it immediately got my mind to start moving, which is odd because as a kid, it barely made me think at all. Milton Bradley pioneered this game from India and brought it to the states approximately six decades ago. Yet even now in the year 2011, it still stands on store shelves in a disguise of contemporary commercial franchises. So what exactly was it that I saw? Well, this.
Boy does this bring back the memories. The original Chutes and Ladders has got to be one of the first board games I’ve ever played. Now, as I look back on it, a good 18+ years older, it begs a question: What kind of impact could a simple game like this possibly have that keeps it going for so long with so little changed to the actual game? Is it deep like Monopoly? No. Just spin the spinner and move your token. Does it require the development of any mental skill like Blokus? No. As long as you can count, you’re set. Is it addictive or appeal to a wide audience like Tetris, Yahtzee, or Connect 4? No, it doesn’t really do that either. Yet despite all this, or even because of it, I believe that Chutes and Ladders is the absolute perfect game for young children in their developing years.
The original Chutes and Ladders, as I remember it, casts you in the role of one of four everyday neighborhood kids who are in a race with each other on a 10×10 square grid that counts from one to a hundred, and the first one to reach the 100 spot wins. Why are they racing? No idea. How far does each square represent? Who knows? But as the race begins, we soon learn that Chutes and Ladders becomes less about the destination and more about what happens in between. If a player lands their character on a space that depicts a child performing a good deed like a chore or a selfless act, their character gets to climb a ladder, skipping ahead up the board to where it displays a reward for such behavior. If, however, their character lands on a space representing a reckless or naughty act, they must slide down the chute back down the board as punishment.
One of the reasons I feel this is the perfect game for preschool-aged children is the same reason why an older demographic might find it empty and downright boring. It is a game that relies completely and utterly 100% on chance. Don’t get me wrong, there are dozens of games in which your odds of wining are strictly swayed by the roll of the dice, or the spin of a spinner, or the turn of a card, but even games like Monopoly, Life, or Sorry require some semblance of a strategy and have complex rules that require attention. With Chutes and Ladders, it is completely unnecessary. All you can do is spin the spinner and hope for the best. This makes it perfect for children because it means that while playing it, they have just as much a chance at winning the game as their older, smarter parents. As kids, they deserve to play something where everyone has an even chance of winning, no matter how much experience you may or may not have. It teaches them to play fair.
Speaking of teaching, I believe there is another valuable lesson to be learned with this game. MB Games was very careful in how they crafted this game. The four character tokens you play as in the game are the same kids represented on the board performing the good/bad deeds that cause them to go up and down the board. Yet it’s also very careful not to be biased, as it shows all of them doing both good and bad deeds evenly. What this is trying to show us is that everyone is capable of good and bad. Ideally, Chutes and Ladders wants to teach kids a moral: In a perfect society, everyone starts their life off at the same place. As you go through life, you will be rewarded for your nobility and punished for your recklessness. Yet no matter how good or bad you are, how far you really succeed in life will still require some faith and a lot of luck. Yeah, it’s a cheesy kids’ moral, but it’s a moral for kids nonetheless.
Another great thing about this game? It’s versatile. There are so many ways to design this game. You can find so many versions of this game now in all kinds of franchises that really benefit the moral up and down system. There is a Chutes and Ladders edition with Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and even for Toy Story 3. The Marvel Super Hero Squad edition I saw in stores had eight playable Marvel heroes: Spider Man, Wolverine, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Silver Surfer, and…the Phoenix? (Seriously, that’s the female character they choose to use? Why not Storm? Or Rogue?) Anyway, the board cleverly depicted the heroes doing the good deeds up the ladder, while having the villain characters like Venom, Dr. Doom, and Magneto performing the evil deeds down the chutes. Oh and let’s not forget the infamous “Snakes and Ladders” knock off.
Okay, now to be fair, “Snakes and Ladders” was actually the original title of the game when it was first manifested in Ancient India. Back then, it was a game Hindu practitioners showed children to teach them about their moral beliefs and to seek the “ladder to salvation” and avoid vices. Using snakes in that game made sense, as they each represented one of twelve sins of Hindu culture that would inevitably lead a man’s rebirth in a lower life form.
So technically, “Snakes and Ladders” taught kids in India almost the exact same lesson hundreds of years ago that “Chutes and Ladders” continues to subconsciously teach kids around the world today. The biggest difference really is that it takes the whole religious element out of the game and replaces it with common do’s and do-not’s all human beings can relate to.
And that is why I think that Chutes and Ladders is a wonderful part of American culture that deserves to be remembered. It’s the game every kid wants to play. Easy to learn, colorful, and fair.
Want to find more board games? Have a look at these: