This Weekend, Play Mark Twain's Board Game!


Mark Twain in 1877, a few years before he invented the game that would, if there were any justice, be a favorite in bars the world over. Happy deathday, sir! - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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  • Mark Twain in 1877, a few years before he invented the game that would, if there were any justice, be a favorite in bars the world over. Happy deathday, sir!

In an astonishing oversight, Daily RFT neglected to mention that this past Wednesday, April 21, was the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the Missourian also known as Mark Twain.

Twain had a long and eventful life, but today Slate explores a generally overlooked portion: His career as board game inventor.

Clemens originally created Memory Builder in the early 1880s as a fun outdoor activity to educate his three daughters about the order of the British monarchs. (History was always one of his greatest intellectual passions.) He drove stakes into the driveway of their home in Hartford, Connecticut, at intervals meant to represent the length of each reign.

Later, he decided Memory Builder would make an excellent indoor game to while away the evenings. For two years he labored in the hopes of earning vast sums of money, even neglecting the composition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He received a patent on the game in 1885, but the whole thing ended the way his entrepreneurial ventures usually did: very badly.

Still, elements of Memory Builder have been preserved by Twain scholars.

Here is the board:

  • Image source

Each square represents a different year in the century. 76 can stand for 1376 or 1776 or 1976 or whatever. The top row of holes in each box is for accessions ("to thrones, presidencies, etc."), worth 10 points. (Twain considered these "the most conspicuous landmarks of history.") The middle row is for battles, worth five points, and the bottom row is for "minor events" like births, deaths and inventions, worth one point each. The twist: The player with the most minor events at the end of the game wins an extra 100 points. In Twain's words: "MORAL - The minor events of history are valuable, although not always showy and picturesque."

You can also get points for knowing miscellaneous facts, each worth one point and recorded at the bottom of the board. Wrote Twain:

Miscellaneous Facts are facts which do not depend upon dates for their value. If you know how many bones there are in the human foot (whereas most of us don't), you can state the number and score one point. Populations, boundaries of countries, length of rivers, specific gravity of various metals, astronomical facts--anything that is worth remembering, is admissible, and you can score for it. If you explain what England understands by it when a member of Parliament "applies for the Chiltern Hundreds," do it and score a point. Waste no opportunity to tell all you know.

After a predetermined period of time, or just when everybody gets bored, the player with the most points wins.

To play, each participant announces a historical fact, names the year it happened and plants a pin in the appropriate hole. For example, if you triumphantly yell, "Battle of Agincourt, 1415!", you place your pin in the middle row of box 15 and bask in the glory of your five points. You can also confine play to a particular century and, if you want to make it really hard, one country in that century.

The benefits of playing the game are manifold, as Twain proudly noted in the 1891 edition of the rules:

When a particular century is chosen for the game, one should not confine it to one country, but throw it open to all countries. If one sticks to that century long enough he will acquire a valuable idea of what is going on in each of its decades throughout the civilized world. The most careless reader of history can name the masters of England who lived and died during Louis XIV.'s long reign, and can list the conspicuously important events that had place in England and France during that period; but to them historic night reigns in the rest of the European world-or nearly that, anyway.

Often one knows a lot of odds and ends of facts belonging in a certain period but happening in widely separated regions; and as they have no connection with each other, he is apt to fail to notice that they are contemporaneous; but he will notice it when he comes to group them on his game-board. For instance, it will surprise him to notice how many of his historical acquaintances were walking about the earth, widely scattered, while Shakespeare lived. Grouping them will give them a new interest for him.

The greatest histories are the reverse of lavish with dates; and so one is sure to get the order and sequence of things confused unless he first goes to a skeletonized school-history and loads up with the indispensable dates beforehand. This will keep him straight in his course and always in sight of familiar headlands and light-houses, and he will make his voyage through the great history with pleasure and profit. Very well, if he will gather his dates and play them on the game-board a while, he may then attack any history with confidence.

Go here to play a Twain/Clemens-specific version of Memory Builder.