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Plugged In

The shady origins of five popular board games

Plugged In

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(Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images News)

Quaker extortionists and Monopoly? The Civil War and The Game of Life? We usually associate board gaming with family time, but several of the most popular games out there have some not-so-family-friendly origins.

So if you're looking to spark some interesting conversations next time you gather 'round the table for an evening of dice and fake money, here are a few of the lesser known tales of history's biggest board games.

Monopoly and the Quakers

You may have heard the legend that an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow invented the game of Monopoly during the depression, somewhere around 1935. That's not entirely true.

A Quaker named Lizzie Magie, in fact, first created the game in 1904 to showcase the evils of property ownership (the original title was "The Landlord's Game".) Magie was a supporter of the Quaker tax reformer Henry George, and the game focused on players extorting one another.

It was a hit in the Quaker community -- a big one. One enthusiastic fan was a hotelier named Charles Todd, who would sometimes play with his guests. One regular visitor was (you guessed it) Charles Darrow, who asked Todd to write up the rules for him.

Once the game took off, Parker Bros. learned its true origins and had to do some damage control. It bought the rights for $500 from Magie, who believed her original game -- and its anti-property philosophies -- would finally be distributed to the masses. And it was, though only for a couple hundred copies, at least, before it was discontinued. Turns out people had more fun with Darrow's tweaks to the game.

The Hard Life

On the surface, Life seems like a pretty happy-go-lucky game. You get a job, have kids and can't wait for payday. Even if things go south, you’ll still find plenty of good events as you inch towards retirement.

The original game was a lot darker, though. Created by Milton Bradley himself, the game was originally sold under the name of "The Checkered Game of Life" during the Civil War. Less a whimsical journey and more a moralistic lesson, it was meant to teach virtue and principles to children.

Before there was payday, there were squares that included poverty, disgrace, and gambling to ruin. The game even came with a "Suicide" square -- which, if landed on, marked your last turn. Way to bum us all out, Milton.

The darker side of Clue

Anthony E. Pratt was a fire warden during World War II. While walking his beat one day, he thought back to a favorite pre-war game he and his friends used to play called "Murder!"

"Between the wars," he once said, "all the bright young things would congregate in each other's homes for parties at weekends. We'd play a stupid game called Murder, where guests crept up on each other in corridors and the victim would shriek and fall on the floor."

He transformed that somewhat morbid real-world distraction into a board game. The original version, though, was a bit harsher than what we play today. In addition to the gun, rope and other murder weapons, it included an axe, syringe, shillelagh, poison, and even a bomb. Not sure that’s the most inconspicuous weapon, but it’s probably effective.

Scrabble’s Poe past

If it weren't from his love of master of the macabre Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Butts might never have developed Scrabble.

The game, which has been a valuable resource in teaching spelling and vocabulary to kids, was born when creator Butts was reading Poe's "The Gold Bug," a story that involves figuring out a code based on how frequently letters are used. Butts decided to tweak that a bit and sat down to count out how frequently letters appeared in an issue The New York Times, which was quite the undertaking.

He called the game Lexico and spent more than 16 years waiting for it to take off. It wasn't until 1952, when Jack Strauss, manager of Macy's, played the game on vacation that things exploded. Strauss loved it so much that he demanded to know why it wasn't on Macy's store shelves. An order was placed and a classic finally found its audience.

Chutes and Ladders (and Murder and Lust)

If it seems like this immensely popular children’s game has been around forever, there's a reason: it has. The concept has been traced back to an Hindu game called Leela -- a game of self-knowledge -- as well as an Indian game called Daspada.

Leela was created by Hindu scholars with the intention of teaching moral values. Daspada came about in the second century with a similar purpose, but using ladders to represent virtues and snakes to represent vices (hence the title ‘Snakes and Ladders’ in the U.K.).

Those vices were serious business, too. Included among them in Daspada were Vulgarity, Drunkenness, Murder and Lust. Yikes.

One thing's for certain, though. The game's a lot easier than it used to be. As society has become more focused on accentuating the positives for children, the number of ladders (which you use to progress in the game) has increased, while the number of chutes/snakes (which send you back several spaces) has gone down.

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