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Subject: Snakes and Ladders - possibly the best value game ever. rss

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Simon Taylor
Live in Perth, Australia
Born and bred in Britain
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...into Microbadge ;-)
I've read some reviews of this game that are less than favourable:

"I'd rather poke my eyes out with cocktail sticks covered in chili sauce than play this."
"Winner of Speil des Awfulness 1972."
"If you play this with your children, you deserve to have them taken into Care."
"The worst snake of the lot is the idiot that gave me this game for Christmas."
"Scientists from the Ersatz Game Research Clinic have shown that this game is responsible for the recent rist in gang culture, burglaries and bagpipe playing."

But here's why I think they're wrong, and why this game deserves at least one properly positive review.

Snakes and Ladders is 100% luck. It doesn't matter if you have the brain of Einstein or a catatonic sea slug, because the luck of the dice will determine the outcome. You might as well just roll the dice at the beginning once each and whoever gets the highest number wins and then pack it away again.

This is true. So why go through the motions of playing at all? Here are ten reasons:

1) Billy: Because Claire doesn't always win.

Damn, but she's annoying. Big sisters always are. As if it wasn't bad enough that she always gets to stay up later, as if it's not bad enough she gets more pocket money, as if it's not bad enough she eats all the biscuits first, she also wins all the games. I played Connect Four with her ten times yesterday, and she won 9, and I only won 1 (though that was great!). She beat me at Downspin five times in a row, and I couldn't even beat her at Snap. But I love snakes and ladders. Oh, how good it is to have a chance to win! 100% luck means 100% even playing field. And when you lose as many games as I do, you need a level playing field. Yeah, ok, it can't be level otherwise where would the ladders go up to, but you know what I mean.

2) Mum: Because Claire doesn't always win.

She does get a little big for her boots sometimes, always beating Billy at games. It's good for her sometimes to see what it's like to lose, especially to little Billy.

3) Claire: Because Billy can't gloat.

He won at Connect 4 once yesterday. Even though I beat him nine times, he's still gloating that he won that one game, and he'll still probably be gloating tomorrow. Just because I made a couple of bad moves. I hate the way he gloats when he wins, and does that monkey dance he copied off the football on TV. At least with Snakes and Ladders he can't do that. If he wins, he knows it's just down to luck, so he's happy he won but he knows it doesn't mean he's better than me. At least, I hope he does.

4) Billy: Because I could play it with Tom when he came round for tea.

It was easy to teach him, so while Mum made tea and Claire played with Emily, I taught Tom how to play and we had some good games. Sometimes I play with Grandma too, or I just play against myself and see how quickly I can win.

5) Mum: Because it's free.

Credit crunch and all that, I don't really have money to spend on games. Not when Billy's put ruined his trousers playing at school again and I'm going to have to buy new ones again. So the fact we can play this on a board I drew out on the back of a cereal packet is great.

6) Mum: Because it's fun!

We all have a laugh when poor old Claire falls down her third snake in a row, or I bounce off the last square and down a snake and go back to last place. Or Billy jumps up the longest ladder two games in a row - well, Billy laughs at that bit anyway. We don't really care who wins, really, it's just good to have something to do that keeps them interacting and away from the TV. And it's simple enough that we can all play even though Billy's so little. Claire gets bored after a while, but we have other more difficult games we play later.

We play other games that are 100% luck as well - just having them keeping the game flowing without me having to prompt or remind them of rules is good - Beggar my Neighbour, Clock Patience and, well, I play the Lottery if that counts. May be totally luck, but it gives me an excuse to watch Dale Winton on the Lottery Draw program - great fun! Think of the fun you could be having on...

7) Claire: And the one with the spaceships is better.

We have this other game, it came in a game book, and it's even better. You still roll the dice and move, but this time it's got planets and spaceships instead of snakes and ladders and you have to get to the other end of the universe. And there's this special square where you get stuck until you must roll a 6 to move. And last week, Mum let us play her old game of Peter Rabbit's Race Game. That's the same sort of thing again, so it was easy to learn, and there are even more different things. Things that act like snakes or ladders or the spaceship roll-a-six-to-move square, but also shortcuts, longcuts, stepping stones, all sorts! Once we learned snakes and ladders, there are so many other games like that that we can play.

8) Mum: And so many that you can go and make yourself, Claire.

You've seen the snakes, ladders, and all those ideas from the other similar roll-and-move games that followed on from it. But I bet you could make your own that was even better. And I bet if I gave you twenty pieces of paper, a pack of crayons, and the entire weekend, you'd be able to make twenty really good ones with Billy, and I could actually get something done without the two of you pestering me. And yes, you could try making a dice too - perhaps Billy could make a spinner instead as they're a bit easi-- more colourful, Billy.

9) Billy: And because yesterday we played it with two counters each!

Mum had two red counters, I had two blue ones, and Claire had two green ones. Each time we rolled the dice, we could choose which one to move. It was really hard to choose which one! But I liked it because you could make sure you moved the one which went up the ladder, or keep them away from the snakes. We played about ten times, and Mum and Claire won more than me but I still beat them sometimes. Claire said she won more because of something to do with keeping her options open but I don't know what she means. It was good fun anyway and even though I didn't win as much, it was good to have more decisions to make as well as just what colour to be (that's not a decision anyway, I always go for blue!).

10) Claire: And because now perhaps we can play Ludo with Billy, Mum?

Why not, Claire. Billy dear, you remember how we played Snakes and Ladders with two counters last time? Well, Ludo (Pachisi) is a bit like that, only you have four counters! And you have to throw a six to start, yep, like the middle of the spaceship game. There are a couple of extra rules though, are you ready for those? Listen carefully, then...


So - Snakes and Ladders, played as a game for young siblings and their parents, offers scope for:

understanding of taking turns, rolling dice, moving counters, winning conditions and all those sorts of things that many boardgames use
learning what it's like to win and lose
playing a game where the eldest sibling doesn't always win
learning that dice are just luck
being able to 'lead' a game when you're only little because it's simple enough you can follow what's going on all the way
a stepping stone to the next level of games
the concept of house rules
game design

Snakes and Ladders is such a very simple game that it is an ideal stepping stone to all sorts of other game-playing experiences, as well as being a perfectly acceptable, interactive and friendly way to spend some parent-child-sibling time. And when I and my siblings were young, this (and its many variants) was probably the most played game for a few years in a row, yet rarely if ever caused any arguments or tears. And it did nothing to reduce my ability in later life to enjoy games or make decisions.

Given the game can be made on a piece of paper/card for free and with minimal artistic talents, can come (or be made) in a variety of different forms with snakes and ladders in different positions and quantities, and can incorporate a number of different variations-on-a-theme including new house rules and good links to the next level of boardgames-with-decision-making, I would say it is one of the very best value games we have. And sliding down snakes is fun really. (Just not in real life.)

Yes, if you spend money buying it, only ever play it by the rules in the box, and play it with people old enough and board-game-experienced enough to want decisions to make, it rates very low. But with the right atmosphere, some parental guidance, and some variations, it's so much more than that.

[Edited to add in the game-hyperlinks.]
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