The Game of Life, Then and Now

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I loved playing Monopoly when I was a kid. I liked all the money and little houses, but when I couldn’t convince my family to sit through hours of dice rolling, the game of Life was the next best thing.

Game of Life 1960s

The game of Life as I knew it...Art Linkletter approved.

The sweet Life

Like many of the games I had growing up, Life was another garage sale find my mother picked out, and surprisingly enough, the game was complete. I remember it being a huge box and when I got home discovered an equally massive game board…but this was no normal game board. Whereas Monopoly just had some simple, ordered squares on it, Life had mountains and buildings and a giant spinner! It was like the Wheel of Fortune was in my living room, only smaller. Better yet, every player drove a car, which means I wasn’t always arguing about being the car like I did when I played Monopoly. The board was a lot of fun, even though it looked like it was designed by Stevie Wonder, and the cars were cool, but better than all of that was the money.

The game of Life introduced me to denominations of cash I could never have imagined. I thought I was rolling big time with a $500 bill in Monopoly, but now I had $50,000 and $100,000 bills at my disposal, each with some old guys’ pictures on them. This was a step up from Uncle Pennybags…it felt more legit. Life felt like an adult game. It didn’t hurt that Life also had a few extras like promissory notes, fire insurance and life insurance, and you could even play the stock market. There was a lot going on and keeping track of everything was quite a chore for any child, but I liked that challenge. I liked that it demanded a little more responsibility…and I also learned what the heck a promissory note was.

Game of Life spinner

Thankfully some things never change

Predicting the future

One thing I couldn’t have predicted was just how much the game of Life follows what the average person’s real life was really about. You start out pretty much poor and then go to college, then get married, then acquire some kids and then experience a bunch of random events that could pay off the first time and then bankrupt you the next time, eventually all leading you to a life of riches or (usually) a trip to the poor house with nothing more to show for it than a good story. Say what you want, but the game of Life lived up to its name. Life introduced me to the importance of insurance and showed me the stock market is always a gamble. It also showed me you never want to have more than two children and apparently you can buy yourself a nice yacht for a mere $36,000…not bad.

Of course, my whole experience with Life is based on the 1960s release of the game, which featured a whole-hearted endorsement by Art Linkletter on the box. To this day I couldn’t really tell you who Art Linkletter was or why his endorsement on Life made a difference, but every time I hear his name I just think of this game. Nonetheless, this version of the game felt and looked just like the time period. Even though I was playing the game in the 1980s, I knew it was older than that and that was part of the fun. I always liked learning about the history of the game and I loved thinking about my parents playing this same game when they were young. It felt special knowing we all have stories and memories about the same game.

Game of Life

I'm surprised they didn't increase the number of children you could have.

Life comes to an end

Unfortunately, like many of my toys and games, Life lost its attraction and became cannibalized for other purposes. In this case, that cause was Monopoly. I find it ironic that Life served as a replacement for Monopoly only to have Life be eaten alive by a Monopoly addiction later in life. My friends and I would play some hardcore Monopoly to the point where we needed more cash, houses and hotels. LEGObricks served as super hotels while the $20,000 and $50,000 bills from Life ultimately served as Monopoly money. You’ve never seen a free parking pot until you’ve seen a few $100,000 bills in it, each with Art Linkletter’s face on it. Thanks to Monopoly, my yard sale game of Life was slowly dismantled and eventually got so out of whack and missing parts that it was unplayable. I think my game of Life eventually ended up in the trash, although every now and then I find a random auto insurance policy in a box of old toys.

Life ain’t what it used to be

A few years ago while my wife and I were wandering the aisles of Target looking for something to do, we decided to buy the game of Life and relive a bit of our youth. Of course, what we found on the store shelf was not the big 1960s version I grew up with. No, this was an updated version with cartoon characters and smiling families all over the place. I was not amused and not impressed, but I was in for even more of a shock when we started to play with a few new rules and changes.

Game of Life

If only real pay days put 50s in my pocket.

It had been a while since I had played that original game of Life so my memory was a bit fuzzy, but as we played through the new version I started to notice quite a few differences that just kind of confused me. This modern game of Life introduced career cards and salary cards, as well as “Life” tokens that are redeemed at the end of the game for some extra money points. Apparently just meandering through the twists and turns of Life earning and spending money wasn’t enough. The career cards tie directly to the salary you command and help you quickly feel depressed about your luck before you even earn your first Pay Day. There’s nothing worse than seeing your friend get $80,000 being an athlete while you’re stuck with $30,000 as an artist. I feel like the original game of Life kept things a little more fair, at least to the point where your luck was limited to what square you landed on. However, the one way these new careers lend themselves to being a better game is that some “pay” squares on the board are tied directly to a career, so you’re not always paying the bank. If you land on a square that makes you buy a painting, your money goes to the player that is the artist rather than the bank. I admit that’s kind of fun, but only if you have more than two players, which in my case, isn’t that often.

Even though the new game of Life adds a few rules and concepts to the game, it’s entirely playable, but there’s one area where they just dropped the ball entirely – the design. Not unlike the card game Mille Bornes, the 1960s version of Life had a very simple and stylish design. It wasn’t adorned with a bunch of eye candy and it focused on what was important. The game board today is almost over done with cartoons and photos but even that I can forgive. What I can’t forgive is the complete un-design of the money. Life used to have some stylish bills that made you feel like you were playing with more than just fake money. The old Life money had very ornate designs with etched pictures of people and all the frills a real dollar bill has. This new game of Life dumped all that in favor of a more traditional Monopoly-like design that is little more than a color and a number and it no longer feels important. It doesn’t make you want to hold it and not let it go…it’s just, bad. On top of that, apparently they also felt things like fire insurance and promissory notes were too complicated. They dropped fire and life insurance entirely from the game and now we just have a basic “bank loan” rather than a beautiful, red IOU note. They even replaced the car tokens with an SUV. No longer can you take your family of six out on the town in your big, green Cadillac. Sorry, you’re stuck with the Durango.

Changes in car tokens, money designs and careers are one thing but when you change the end of the game you’re just asking for trouble. If you look hard enough at the game of Life you’ll notice that now you can’t really lose. Sure, one player will have more money than all the others but you can no longer end up in the “Poor Farm” as you could before. You’ll either go to the prominent “Millionaire Acres” or the less-classy “Countryside Acres,” which sounds more like assisted living. Either way, you never end up in a place that sounds too bad, which really isn’t how life always turns out is it?

Game of Life money

Only one word can describe that money - boring.

A life to enjoy

Despite all this poo-pooing, the updated game of Life is still fun. It’s the same core game that I played when I was little, with just a few extras. However, it’s unfortunate that many of the additions don’t seem to add much to the game. Changes like these always make me wonder why Milton Bradley thought they were needed. I understand that Art Linkletter might not carry the same weight now that he did in 1962 but did the game really need a major overhaul? Lets just say that the modern version of the game of Life in my closet now doesn’t get played all that much, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m 20 years older. Although, I don’t care how old you are, throwing down a couple hundred grand on the board still feels good.

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About Author

Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

3 Comments

  1. I’d invite you to play my 1960s Life game if you’re ever in the Carolina area–it was one of the first board games I learned as a kid, playing it at my grandparents’ house. When my parents were cleaning out their game cupboard, I immediately volunteered to give the Life game a new home.

    I had bought the version on sale at Wal*Mart back in 2011–no wheel at all, just a white electronic disc that you inserted mock-credit cards into. No handling paper money or anything–where’s the fun in that??

    Thanks for the article; I agree with you about the new game(s). ^_^

  2. Hmm… Kinda just seems like not liking the new version of something from your childhood, but thats just my opinion.

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