The Self-Made Man: Milton Bradley

Board games are pretty great, I have to say. They’re cheap for the amount of replay value you get, they’re a social activity that can easily be combined with dinner and drinks, and they’re an abundant source of pointless arguments with friends that can last for hours, especially if drinks are involved.

The recent resurgence of board games among people my age shows that a lot of other people feel the same way I do, but they may not know that the board industry as we know it can be traced back to an entrepreneur. Milton Bradley, who founded the creatively-named Milton Bradley Company in 1860, is pretty much the McDonalds of board games, and many of that company’s titles—Monopoly, Candyland, Operation, Battleship, etc.—are synonymous with the idea of rolling dice and moving your token accordingly until you land on a square that completely ruins the game for you. Or, in the case of Operation, being honked at every time you screw up.

Not that I’m speaking from years and years of losing or anything.

The interesting thing about Bradley is that his first business ambition failed. Born to a working class Massachusetts family that survived on odd jobs and luck, Bradley worked as a mechanical draftsman and became fascinated with lithography, ultimately deciding to go into that business. He bought a used lithograph machine and printed technical drawings for local companies, as well as a popular lithograph portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who was running for president at the time. Sales started strong for that item, but they went down the toilet once Lincoln grew his iconic beard (Bradley’s prints were of a clean-shaven Lincoln) and never recovered.

A lot of people would have thrown in the towel at that point, but Milton didn’t want to put his ambitions or drafting skills out to pasture quite so easily. After playing an imported board game at a friend’s house, he got to work making something similar for an American audience, and The Checkered Game of Life hit shelves (or horse carts or whatever) in 1860. We know it as The Game of Life, or just LIFE.

Then as now, the game used a player’s progress along a modified checker board to simulate their path in life from college to retirement. The original game got a little dark at times, as some of the riskier squares on the board were things like “Prison,” “Ruin,” and “Suicide.” Yeesh.

Still, the game was a huge success, in part because it promoted the idea that a successful life was really just a quest for accomplishment, which set it apart from other board games that were thin excuses for heavy-handed moral guidance. Bradley’s secular businessman’s approach to defining happiness has its own problems, of course, but it was probably a welcome relief from the tight-girdled Puritanism of that era.

Bradley did a lot with his wealth once he got it—he’s basically the reason why we have kindergarten—but he’s proof that sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed. Without venture capitalists or an Ivy League education to see him through rough patches, Milton Bradley had to be creative and accept risks that a guy like Mark Zuckerberg—for all he’s done—has never really had to face.

Now then, someone play Battleship with me. I’m feeling lucky this time.


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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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