Mark Twain Invented a Board Game Called Memory-Builder

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Mark Twain: writer, philosopher, riverboat pilot... board game designer? Indeed.

During the summer of 1883—which also happens to be when he was working on Huckleberry Finn—Twain was trying to create an easy way for his daughters to remember the English monarchs and the dates they ruled. “These little people found it a bitter, hard contract,” he wrote. “It was all dates, they all looked alike, and they wouldn’t stick.” Twain had figured out his own method of remembering things thanks to his tenure on the lecture circuit, and he knew that if he could help his daughters see the reigns, they could conquer the Conquerer and his successors. He measured out 817 feet - each foot represented a year - and then put stakes in the ground where Kings and Queens started their reigns. As you can see by his own drawing, it ended up looking a lot like a life-sized version of Candy Land (pictured).

Slightly more interesting than trying to memorize index cards, right? As his daughters learned the monarchs, they traipsed through the yard. "When you think of Henry III. do you see a great long stretch of straight road? I do; and just at the end where it joins on to Edward I. always I see a small pear-bush with its green fruit hanging down," he once wrote.

When Twain's daughters learned the monarchs in two days (they had been trying all summer), he knew he was on to something. After a couple of years of tinkering, he patented Memory-Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates—a game board similarly divided by year. The game came with straight pins, and players would stick a pin in the appropriate compartment to show that they knew the date of a certain event. Points were awarded based on the size of the event and how specific players could get on the date. The board could represent a certain century or all centuries.

The rules are rather complicated, and to quote one critic, the game board looks like “a cross between an income tax form and a table of logarithms.” When he made up some sample games and tested them in some toy stores in 1891, it became clear that, this time, Twain did not have a bestseller on his hands.

Mr. Clemens did influence a hit board game, though. In 1889—exactly when Memory-Builder was under way - George Parker of Parker Brothers copyrighted a map board game called The Amusing Game of Innocence Abroad. It was loosely based on Twain’s 1869 book Innocents Abroad, tales of American tourists in Europe. Though the game sold well enough to be reprinted 25 years later under a slightly different title (Good Old Game of Innocence Abroad), Twain apparently didn’t make a penny off of it.

If Memory-Builder sounds fascinating to you, you can play a game about Mark Twain that's loosely based on his failed invention.

September 6, 2011 - 10:41am
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