Snakes and Ladders
Game of Snakes and Ladders, gouache on cloth (India, 19th century)
|Playing time||15–45 minutes|
|Skill(s) required||Counting, observation|
|Synonym(s)||Chutes and Ladders|
Snakes and Ladders is an ancient Indian board game regarded today as a worldwide classic. It is played between two or more players on a gameboard having numbered, gridded squares. A number of "ladders" and "snakes" are pictured on the board, each connecting two specific board squares. The object of the game is to navigate one's game piece, according to die rolls, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively. The historic version had root in morality lessons, where a player's progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes).
The game is a simple race contest based on sheer luck, and is popular with young children.
The size of the grid (most commonly 8×8, 10×10, or 12×12) varies from board to board, as does the exact arrangement of the snakes and ladders, with both factors affecting the duration of play. Random die rolls determine game piece movement in the traditional form of play.
Snakes and Ladders originated in India as part of a family of dice board games, that included Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). The game made its way to England and was sold as "Snakes and Ladders", then the basic concept was introduced in the United States as Chutes and Ladders (an "improved new version of England's famous indoor sport") by game pioneer Milton Bradley in 1943.
Known as Moksha Patam, the game was popular in ancient India and emphasized the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi or Gyan chauper, dates to the 16th century. The game was called Leela and reflected the Hinduism consciousness surrounding everyday life. The underlying ideals of the game inspired a version introduced in Victorian England in 1892.
Moksha Patam was associated with traditional Hindu and Jain philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. It emphasized destiny, as opposed to games such as pachisi, which focused on life as a mixture of skill (free will) and luck. The game has also been interpreted and used as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. The board was covered with symbolic images, the top featuring gods, angels, and majestic beings, while the rest of the board was covered with pictures of animals, flowers and people. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft. The morality lesson of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through doing good, whereas by doing evil one will inherit rebirth to lower forms of life. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins. Presumably the number "100" represented Moksha (salvation).
When the game was brought to England, the Indian virtues and vices were replaced by English ones in hopes of better reflecting Victorian doctrines of morality. Squares of Fulfillment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart was more forgiving as it contained each in the same amount. This concept of equality signifies the cultural ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption.
The association of Britain’s Snakes and Ladders with India and gyan chauper began with the returning of colonial families from one of Britain’s most important imperial possessions, India. The décor and art of the early English boards of the 20th century reflect this relationship. By the 1940’s, very few pictorial references to the Indian culture were found due to the economic demands of the war and the collapse of British rule in India. Although the game’s sense of morality has lasted through the game’s generations, the physical allusions to religious and philosophical thought in the game as presented in Indian models appear to have all but faded. There has even been evidence of a possible Buddhist version of the game existing in India during the Pala-Sena time period.
In Andhra Pradesh, this game is popularly called Vaikunthapali or Paramapada Sopana Patam (the ladder to salvation) in Telugu. In Hindi, this game is called Saanp aur Seedhi, Saanp Seedhi and Mokshapat.
Each player starts with a token on the starting square (usually the "1" grid square in the bottom left corner, or simply, the imaginary space beside the "1" grid square) and takes turns to roll a single die to move the token by the number of squares indicated by the die roll. Tokens follow a fixed route marked on the gameboard which usually follows a boustrophedon (ox-plow) track from the bottom to the top of the playing area, passing once through every square. If, on completion of a move, a player's token lands on the lower-numbered end of a "ladder", the player moves the token up to the ladder's higher-numbered square. If the player lands on the higher-numbered square of a "snake" (or chute), the token must be moved down to the snake's lower-numbered square.
If a player rolls a 6, the player may, after moving, immediately take another turn; otherwise play passes to the next player in turn. If a player rolls three consecutive 6s, the player must return to the starting square (grid "1") and may not move again until rolling another 6. The player who is first to bring their token to the last square of the track is the winner.
A variation exists where a player must roll the exact number to reach the final square (hence winning). Depending on the particular variation, if the roll of the die is too large the token remains in place.
The most widely known edition of Snakes and Ladders in the United States is Chutes and Ladders from Milton Bradley (which was purchased by the game's current distributor Hasbro). It is played on a 10×10 board, and players advance their pieces according to a spinner rather than a die. The theme of the board design is playground equipment—children climb ladders to go down chutes. The artwork on the board teaches a morality lesson, the squares on the bottom of the ladders show a child doing a good or sensible deed and at the top of the ladder there is an image of the child enjoying the reward. At the top of the chutes, there are pictures of children engaging in mischievous or foolish behaviour and the images on the bottom show the child suffering the consequences. There have also been many pop culture versions of the game produced in recent years, with graphics featuring such characters as Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street.
In Canada the game has been traditionally sold as "Snakes and Ladders", and produced by the Canada Games Company. Several Canadian specific versions have been produced over the years, including version substituting Toboggan runs for the snakes. With the demise of the Canada Games Company, Chutes and Ladders produced by Milton Bradley/Hasbro has been gaining in popularity.
During the early 1990s in South Africa, Chutes and Ladders games made from cardboard were distributed on the back of egg boxes as part of a promotion.
Even though the concept of major virtues against vices and related Eastern spiritualism is not much emphasized in modern incarnations of the game, the central mechanism of Snakes and Ladders makes it an effective tool for teaching young children about various subjects. In two separate Indonesian schools, the implementation of the game as media in English lessons of fifth graders not only improved the students' vocabulary but also stimulated their interest and excitement about the learning process. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that pre-schoolers from low income backgrounds who played an hour of numerical board games like Snakes and Ladders matched the performance of their middle-class counterparts by showing improvements in counting and recognizing number shapes. An eco-inspired version of the game was also used to teach students and teachers about climate change and environmental sustainability.
Mathematics of the game
Any version of Snakes and Ladders can be represented exactly as an absorbing Markov chain, since from any square the odds of moving to any other square are fixed and independent of any previous game history. The Milton Bradley version of Chutes and Ladders has 100 squares, with 19 chutes and ladders. A player will need an average of 39.6 spins to move from the starting point, which is off the board, to square 100.
In the book Winning Ways the authors show how to treat Snakes and Ladders as an impartial game in combinatorial game theory even though it is very far from a natural fit to this category. To this end they make a few rule changes such as allowing players to move any counter any number of spaces, and declaring the winner as the player who gets the last counter home. Unlike the original game, this version, which they call Adders-and-Ladders, involves skill.
In popular culture
The phrase "back to square one" originates in the game of snakes and ladders, or at least was influenced by it – the earliest attestation of the phrase refers to the game: "Withal he has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders."
All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it's more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother.
According to Eric Blinderman, a company spokesman, "A playground setting replaced the snakes that were thought to put kids off." Along with changing the name to a more "kid-friendly" title, the board game has added a much more colorful board and in some cases, the board has been altered to contain less spaces to traverse the board, making the game more appealing to youths. The most recent cover of the game adds a very happy-looking dog, as well as a slogan reading, "The Classic Up and Down Game for Preschoolers", clearly displaying the intended audience that the American game is meant to appeal to. An early British version of the game depicts the path of a young boy and girl making their way through a railroad and train system. Among the spaces of the board are multiple cartoon graphics, also adding interest to young players. From the day of its creation to the early 1970s, the game's cover depicted only five white children. In more recent covers of the game, there have been up to twelve children on the cover of varying ethnicities. Black children were also implemented on the cover for the first time in 1974, demonstrating some of the impact of the American Civil Rights movement on popular culture.
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- Chutes and Ladders Hasbro's official page
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- Leela, the Game of Knowledge Hindu version
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- "The Cutes and Ladders Game" mathematical analysis by Dave Rusin of Northern Illinois University
- "Dial up some obscure stats for the Chutes and Ladders game" Perl software to generate statistics
- Jain version of Snakes and Ladders explained in an interactive demonstration hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum