The Mansion Of Happiness

When we think of games that have stood the test of time, our mind immediately goes to games like chess and draughts, as popular today as they were centuries ago. Their origins are lost in the mists of time and so we will never know whose brainchild they were. If I were asked which was the longest continuously published board game with a known designer, until recently I would have been scratching my head. The answer is The Mansion of Happiness which first saw the light of day in 1800 in England and its last edition ceased publication in the United States in 1926, a run of 126 years.

As the 19th century dawned, games were supposed to be not only entertaining but also educational. And if a child were to learn anything, it was to learn how to live their life according to Christian (Protestant) values. The reward, of course, was the prospect of going to heaven. George Fox, an English children’s author and game designer, came up with the idea of The Mansion of Happiness, and to ensure there was no doubt as to its purpose subtitled it An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement.

It was a board game, consisting of sixty-six spaces in in a spiral leading to the middle of the board where the Mansion of Happiness aka Heaven is situated. Just to entice you to reach your goal the Mansion is shown as a house with a garden complete with happy men and women making music and dancing. Sounds like my idea of hell. Players progressed around the board in turns, spinning a teetotum, a wooden device shaped like a spinning top with numbers on the rim, to determine the number of spaces they were to move.

The journey to the Mansion was fraught with perils, difficulties and the occasional reward and was akin to Snakes and Ladders in design. Landing on certain spaces propelled your journey to your ultimate goal, but if you were unfortunate enough to land on spacing depicting vices you were sent to the pillory, House of Correction or prison. Landing on the square depicting Sabbath-breakers earned you a trip to the whipping post (I wonder whether the game could be played on a Sunday), while idlers were condemned to poverty and those landing on pride were sent to learn some humility. The game was not exactly subtle in its messaging.

The game contained a booklet setting out the rules and aims of the game. It too did not spare the poor child details of its fate if it strayed from the straight and narrow. “Whoever possesses piety, honesty, temperance, gratitude, prudence, truth, chastity, sincerity is entitled to advance six numbers toward the Mansion of Happiness”, it intoned. “Whoever gets into a passion must be taken to the water and have a ducking to cool him…whoever possesses audacity, cruelty, immodesty, or ingratitude, must return to his former situation till his turn comes to spin again, and not even think of happiness, much less partake of it”.

The initial version of the George Fox’s game came a hardcover booklet which folded out to make a linen board. It must have been reasonably successful as in its launch year of 1800 it ran to three editions. It was not until November 25, 1843 that it was produced in America, by W & S.B Ives of Salem in Massachusetts, becoming slightly more deluxe in the process, whilst avoiding any charge of vanity or immodesty. It consisted of a folding game board with a pocket made from cloth and cardboard attached to the bottom, which held the rules, counters and the teetotum, sadly made from ivory.

In the States it ran to thirteen editions and you can imagine that it appealed to elderly relatives to give than to the poor children who had to play it. The likes of Monopoly and Scrabble have some way to go to knock it off its perch.  

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