Twain’s Game

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“Many public-school children seem to know only two dates—1492 and 4th of July; and as a rule they don’t know what happened on either occasion,” lamented American writer and wit Samuel L. Clemens (alias Mark Twain), whose star went out 100 years ago this April. Perennially short on cash and obstinately fascinated by inventions without promise, Twain hatched a scheme for a children’s history game in 1883 that he hoped would net millions. Beginning that year, Twain began to routinely push aside his nearly complete manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to labor over the game, which he patented in 1885 as “Mark Twain’s Memory-Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of FACTS and DATES.”

The instructions for the one- to four-player game indicated that players should stick colored pins into a 9-by-13½-inch board, one for each important date memorized. It’s remarkable how Anglocentric Twain’s world remained a little more than a century after the American Revolution: 10 points went to the player who had memorized the year of a monarch’s accession (e.g., James I, 1603); five points for battles (e.g., Waterloo, 1815); and one point for minor events, which in Twain’s own words included the Declaration of Independence.

Test marketing in 1891 yielded disappointing results. Few if any found the game fun to play. The board itself, which resembled a tax form, “required too much preparation” to set up. “In your daily reading seize valuable dates for use in the game at night,” wrote Twain optimistically in his instructions.

His enthusiasm for the Memory-Builder soon cooled (fortunately for us all), and he finished Huckleberry Finn, which his publishing company released in 1885 to great acclaim. (How Twain could so colorfully and adroitly describe adolescent characters such as Tom and Huck and ever imagine that they might play the Memory-Builder is a bit hard to fathom.)