On the first page of The Death of the West, Patrick Buchanan proclaims that “America has undergone a cultural and social revolution.” He argues that opinions, beliefs, and values have, in the last generation, been altered by elites using TV, the arts, educational institutions, and various avenues of entertainment to transmit their ideas.

One of those areas of entertainment, though not mentioned by Buchanan, is the popular board game.  Amid the cultural decay facing today’s children, perhaps a wary—and weary—parent would not initially consider board games problematic.  Indeed, game industry giant Hasbro Inc. (which owns, among others, both the Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley lines) has recently promoted “family game night” as an alternative to other, less wholesome diversions.  And that has a nice ring.  Many baby-boomer parents well remember the fun they had as children playing such games as Risk, Careers, Clue, and, of course, Monopoly.  Many of the vintage board games of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, however, have been altered in recent years to be more “relevant” to current sensibilities.  These changes sometimes affect not only the hip new design of the board and the box but the content and the rules of the games themselves.

Take The Game of Life.  Introduced in 1960 to commemorate the centennial of Milton Bradley’s initial foray into the board-game business, Life quickly became one of the company’s most popular items, complete with a photograph endorsement by Art Linkletter on the box.  But Milton Bradley was bought out by Hasbro in the early 1980’s, and, in 1992, the game received a dramatic facelift to “include ‘Life Tiles’ which reward players for recycling their trash, learning CPR and saying ‘no’ to drugs.” 

The starkest example of the different approaches of the two versions of Life is found in their views on marriage and children.  In the 1960 version, a player “stops by the church” to get married and receives from every other player a cash present of $500 each time a baby is added.  The old game clearly envisioned a family full of children, even though the player’s plastic car token has only four seats for the kids.  The rules explicitly advise that, “if you have more than four children, just crowd them in as you do in real life.”  This sentence was removed from the revised game’s rules, even though the new SUV-like tokens still have only four seats.  (The new rules, however, remind the players to “buckle up.”)

The value placed on children in the old Life is even greater when the player retires.  For each child, a player receives $20,000.  If a player happens to be childless, however, he is expected to fork over $50,000 to an orphanage.  Clearly, children are viewed as an asset, which increases in value as a person reaches old age.

In the updated version, a player receives a Life Tile each time he adds a child, but the tiles are placed face down and not looked at until the end of the game.  By this time, the player most likely draws no association between a child and the cash value of a Life Tile.  Moreover, the tiles say nothing about children.  Whatever money the player receives comes from a certain deed performed or some other happenstance.  In fact, after being placed in the family vehicle, children are not heard from again, save for a few spaces where the player must shell out cash for each child’s daycare, summer school, and college.  At retirement time, the children are nowhere to be found—no doubt relying on a government pension to take care of Mom and Dad.

The original version also includes a space where a couple celebrates their wedding anniversary.  That space was removed when the game was updated. 

The original Life uses pink and blue pegs to represent people, and the current Hasbro CEOs apparently were under no pressure to change the color scheme.  But the game was updated in a number of other ways with the modern, fashionably sensitive family in mind.  The playing board now includes illustrations of people in harmony with various flora and fauna.  This fits in nicely with the environmentalist spin on several of the spaces, such as “Adopt a pet,” “Plant a tree,” and “Support wildlife fund.”  Though many of the Life Tiles (such as “Build better mouse-trap”) are innocuous enough, among those with the highest cash values are such socially conscious initiatives as “Save endangered species,” “Help the homeless,” and “Solution to pollution.”  By comparison, the original version seems obsessed with the mere accumulation of wealth.  This is not to say that the 1960 version has no philanthropic conscience to it; the space, however, simply reads “Give to your favorite charity,” rather than presenting the player with a PBS-style agenda.  (Needless to say, the $5,000 space that says “Catch a whale skin diving” was not retained.)

The nature of Life has always been that, on any spin, fortune can strike you for ill or for good, and this remains the case.  In the original, however, there is a basic stability in the player’s family, job, and earnings that is missing from the
later version.  There are four spaces in
the current edition on which you might change careers—including a “midlife crisis.”  Seven other spaces can cause you to trade salaries with another player.  In the 1960 version, this cannot happen, even if you are sent back spaces (a possibility not retained in the updated model).  The original rules assure a player that he can always depend on his vocation: “Once a doctor, always a doctor.”  And, lest anyone question the stability of matrimony, the 1960 rules explicitly say that you cannot get married again, declaring that “There’s a law against bigamy!”

The hard knocks of life are softened in the 1992 version.  Gone are the “revenge” and “share the wealth” cards by which an opponent could take your money.  No doubt owing to the inherent goodness of people, only an occasional anonymous Life Tile can be taken by an opponent (and only if the pile has dried up).  The original game represented an understand-ing of man’s fallen nature in spaces on which shiftless relatives and flimflamming friends can cost a player money.

This softening of the blows that life can bring is also seen in the revised game’s approach to the stock market.  It is possible to lose your stock but not to lose any money investing in the market.  In the original, playing the market is a monetary gamble.   

The sense of cradle-to-grave security is most apparent at the game’s conclusion.  What was originally called the “Day of Reckoning,” when your ultimate fate could range from becoming a millionaire to winding up in the poor house, is now simply called “Retirement.”  Even if a player doesn’t end up in “Millionaire Estates,” he can rest easy at “Countryside Acres,” presumably in a comfortable, assisted-living environment.

Ironically, in their attempt to update The Game of Life, the manufacturers have dated it.  Too many of the changes reflect today’s “correct” nostrums.  These platitudes place the game squarely within a post-1970 era of Earth Day and small families.  The game will no doubt need additional facelifts as the years go on, since more novel social innovations will put a strain on the company to keep it current.  What’s on the horizon: children before marriage?  Cash awards for installing three-gallon toilet tanks?  A space that reads “Enter into domestic partnership, collect presents!”?

By contrast, a look at the original Life reveals, for the most part, a game not tied to a narrow historical period.  Save for one or two spaces that mention helicopters and a visitor from Mars, the 1960 version would make sense to anyone born after the introduction of the automobile.

Furthermore, the playability of the 1992 version has suffered, primarily because of the surprise Life Tiles that are only revealed at the very end.  Life, after all, was not designed to be a mystery game.

Worst of all, the potential for adventure for a young player has, to a great extent, been removed from the new version.  One space reads “Don’t drink and drive.”  Sound advice, but hackneyed and preachy nonetheless.  And what does the corresponding space in the original game say?  “Weekend in Vegas, collect $50,000.”

So what are parents to do if they did not hold on to their old games?  Happily, not all of the baby-boomer board games have been altered.  Monopoly is still being manufactured with its early design and rules, and it even ignores the ravages of inflation by keeping the same prices and values for the properties, houses, and hotels.  And Clue still plays like it did in 1950.  True, many of its fans have lamented the fact that the murder suspects and the rooms of the house have been redesigned.  At least the rules and object of the game are the same, however, as are the weapons and crime scenes.

If you have a little time and patience, you can try to obtain the original versions of the games.  Many websites sell a wide variety of used board games at relatively affordable prices.  Surprisingly, many of the old games can still be found complete and in good, clean condition.  I have found the quality and craftsmanship of a used 1960 Life to be superior to the brand new 1990’s version.  Life is noted for its teetotem, the numbered spinner that indicates how many spaces players should move.  The spin was consistently smooth and true on the old game, while the new one often sticks without making a complete turn, forcing the player to spin again.  It may be trite to say, but it is true: They really don’t make them like they use to.