the names of the games, part 2: games children play

It was probably Better Half's and my visit to the Strong National Museum of Play that inspired me to think and write about board games a couple posts ago. Then I promised a follow-up on children's games, but come to think of it, a lot of the games I've blogged about so far are games I played as a child (Parcheesi/Ludo, Clue/Cluedo, checkers/draughts, slapjack/snap). So, while not repeating those, here are some more.

It's not surprising that a lot of playground games (like a lot of nursery rhymes--there's fodder for another post) are different (in name and rules) in the two countries, since they also vary a lot from playground to playground within a country. Those kinds of games are passed on by oral tradition, and traditions get muddled and/or developed from time to time, so that we're left with games with just vague family resemblances. One of these was raised by the mysterious Dearieme on the previous games post: (BrE) British bulldog(s). When I looked up the game on some website, I didn't recogni{s/z}e the rules as those of (AmE) Red Rover, but according to the Canadian Dialect Topography site (skip down to item 73), the two terms are used synonymously in Canada. The games are no doubt related, but the description of British Bulldog on Wikipedia sounds little like the game that we called Red Rover on my old playground. There, there was no breaking through a chain of people or getting tagged, as described on various website descriptions of Red Rover. No, it was a game of social exclusion at my school (that and kickball were the only kinds of games we played)--the person who was 'it' would say "Red Rover, Red Rover let X come over" where X would be a colo(u)r (of clothing) or another physical/clothing attribute (e.g. "let t-shirts come over"). The 'it' would do this until some poor soul they didn't like was the only person left on the other side and they then knew where they stood on the social hierarchy. But apparently that's not how the game was meant to be played. Better Half says "That's not a game. That's bullying with a rhyme!" Perhaps it's explained to him some of my less appealing adult behavio(u)rs. ("Explained, but not forgiven," crowed BH.)

Kickball, while we're at it, does not mean (BrE) football/(AmE) soccer, as it can (BrE can do) in BrE, where, according to the OED, it's spelt kick-ball and started out as a Scotticism. In the US, kickball is much the same as baseball, except that an inflated ball (about the size of a soccer/foot-ball) is rolled on the ground and kicked instead of a smaller ball being thrown and hit with a bat. It was a staple in my (AmE) gym class (=PE [physical education]) and on our playground. (Since I went to a poor (AmE) Catholic school/(BrE) convent (school), our playground was a church parking lot. So none of this new-fangled climbing equipment and such that kids get these days. And I had to walk there, waist deep in snow. Past man-eating earthworms. Yeah, you kids don't know how good you've got it. I tell you, in my day...)

Let's get back to board games, though, as that's where I meant to be. The most shocking discovery at the Strong Museum was that Better Half had never seen, played nor even heard of Candy Land, a game that only three-year-olds could love. It's one of those games where one has to advance around the board to a final goal. To make it easy for tiny tots, the spaces on the board are different colo(u)rs, and on each turn one takes a card with a block or two of a colo(u)r or a picture of a landmark on the board (like the (AmE) Candy Cane Forest). That way, the child can tell where they need to get to without having to count their way there. Parents and (orig. AmE) babysitters/child-care workers (BrE child-minders) soon learn to stack the deck so that the child will pick the Lollypop Woods card early and the game will soon be finished. I pretended that I felt sorry for BH that he'd missed out on this game, but really I was seething with jealousy.

The advancing-up-the-board game that one does find in Britain is Snakes and Ladders (picture left from here), which was marketed in the US as Chutes and Ladders by Milton Bradley (picture right from here)--the same evil geniuses who brought us Candy Land. As the names suggest, in the more traditional British version the board has ladders that one can advance up and snakes that one must slide down, to a less advantageous position. But who in real life goes down snakes? The literal-minded Americans changed them to chutes, and the boards there reflect this.

Another game for playing with very young children is the memory game (AmE)Concentration/(BrE) Memory, which proves that the Americans don't have the patent on literal-mindedness. That's the one where you have a set of cards in which each card has a matching mate. A player turns one over and then gets one chance to turn over the mate. If the two cards match, the player keeps them and has another go. If they don't match, the cards are turned back over and the next player has a try.

One of the toys at the museum that BH was able to wax nostalgic about was the Erector Set--except, of course, that he knows it by the name Meccano. (I've just discovered there's a Meccano web ring. There's a web ring for everything these days.) But as a child in England in the 70s he didn't have Slinky or Mr Potato Head or Silly Putty. And he certainly didn't have Lincoln Logs. Disraeli Log just doesn't have the same ring.

Postscript! I forgot to discuss a children's amusement that I'd promised to M.A. Peel. (Apologies, Mrs Peel.) Remember dot-to-dot puzzles? In AmE, one must connect the dots, while in BrE one joins the dots--and thus the puzzles are sometimes called connect-the-dots or join-the-dots, depending on where you are. The verb difference carries over into metaphorical use of the phrases--i.e. 'to find the connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information' (or something like that).


  1. Ah, Lincoln Logs. I remember those well. It turns out they were invented by John Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect.

  2. It seems as though, interestingly, my childhood gaming experience as a Canadian falls with those of Britons. Though I've often heard of Candyland (mostly from references in American shows) I've never actually seen anyone own the game. (Perhaps another Canadian can chime in on this, as maybe it wasn't available where I live. Often in Quebec, if they don't have a French version, they won't sell the English one either.) I've seen, and possibly even played, with Lincoln Logs before, but I never knew they had a name.

    I'm sad to hear about this abuse of Red Rover. Children can be so cruel. (To which Bart Simpson says, "We can?") Myself, perhaps my fondest memory as a (CdnE/BrE) wolf cub / (AmE) cub scout was the game of British Bulldog we'd play after every meeting.

    Thanks for the insightful series (game-wise, and the blog in general). Keep up the good work.

  3. Concentration is a different game for me. Everyone has a number and stands in a circle. Everyone repeatedly claps 4 beats. Someone starts and says (say if they are number 7) "3 to 7" on the first two beats. Number 7 must say "7 to ..." on the first two beats of the next four. The clapping gradually gets faster and people are eliminated when they make mistakes.

    There are some games that there even seem to be multiple local varients of - we have both relivio and stuck in the mud, which are both chacing games, but in one people are "freed" by running under their arms and in the other they are freed by crawling between their legs.

    We also had a game that was a cross between hide-and-seek and chacing that was called tip-the-can. I seem to remember the full rules being almost arcane.

  4. The Toad was given a wooden boxed-set of board games for Christmas ('Game House with 10 classic games'). Being summer down here we've not actually got around to playing board games yet, so I'd not really looked at the set. However, I had a squizz (Aus & NZ Eng = to look) at it last night, to find that it has Pachisi, Checkers, Chineses checkers and tic-tac-toe. I muttered "It's american!" at my hubby and he wanted to know how I could tell.

    Interestingly, despite it's american origins, the set has 'snakes and ladders' rather than 'shutes and ladders'. I grew up with snakes and ladders, so I'd no idea there might be a different name for the game.

    Also there is a game called 'Manicala' which looks familiar to me, but not by that name. Having looked online, it appears that it should perhaps be spelt Mancala, without the 'i'? I'm sure we played it at school, but I don't recall the name given to it.

    I always wondered what 'candyland' was. Glad to have that cleared up! I suppose since 'candy' is not called candy in the UK, that candyland with it's near rhyme doesn't make any sense. Not to mention, 'sweets-land' really doesn't sound entertaining. (A wonder it didn't make an appearance in Australia and NZ, though, under the name 'lolly-land'.)

    Have you looked at the different names on Monopoly boards around the world, and whether they have ordinary playing pieces or those little boots etc? (We just have plain playing pieces, no shaped boot or the like).


  5. There's info on international Monopoly forms here.

    You can get Snakes & Ladders in the US too, but that's not the version that's sold by a massive corporation, so it's not as common. I never saw it as a child.

    In the last in this series, I tried to find out what Chinese checkers is called in the UK, but it doesn't seem to be known here. I have found Chinese draughts on the web, but only really from Chinese sources where I assume they were working from a dictionary.

  6. Oh, and I forgot to mention AmE tic-tac-toe = BrE noughts and crosses.

    But the (AmE) candies/(BrE) sweets are called Tic Tacs in both countries, though I was (AmE) weirded out to find that the orange ones in the UK are white 'mints' in a clear orange plastic box. (So that you can't tell that they're white when you're buying them.) Or at least they were the only time I bought them. It's probably better for you (perhaps the orange dye is really horrid), but I still found it unsettling. God knows what that says about me that that's the thing that I found unsettling in a new country.

  7. I'm American, and the version of Red Rover I played in primary school fits the description of British Bulldog, where two teams line up facing each other with arms linked, call one member of the other team with the rhyme, who then attempts to break the chain of arms.

  8. English "PE" was "PT" in Scotland for me => Physical Training. The Scots and English have aye had different attitudes to education.

  9. Oh, and we did it in sand-shoes = English plimsolls. In South Australia they call them sand-shoes too. Or did when I lived there.

  10. What a gentle game of British Bulldog!

    Our version was much more fun. It started off with all the boys (but one) at on e end of a hall. The one lad stood alone in the middle and on his shout all the others had to run past him to the other end of the hall. As they did, the ‘Bull Dog’ had to physically catch one of the other boys and lift him clear of the ground. Then there were two in the middle. Together they had to catch a third, and so on, until there was only one boy left. He was the winner and got the honour of starting off in the middle for the next game.

  11. i never called that card matching game 'memory' we always called it 'pairs' (BrE). i also feel compelled to mention to dearieme that the distribution of names for the flat shoes typically worn for school PE classes can tell you exactly where an english person was brought up in the country. plimsolls, daps, sandshoes, pumps etc. all these can betray your childhood home.

  12. They probably also betray your age!

  13. haha! yes that's probably true. for the record, i call them daps. can you guess my regional roots and age?
    on your note re. Chinese Checkers, you can get a game called that here, my parents have a version in which the aim is to move your pieces to the opposing corner of the board (four courners, four colours). perhaps it didn't originate from england though.

  14. That game is or was apparently called pairs in the USA - in my part of Britain it was always pelmanism.
    The comment about 'betraying your age' sounds like a criticism, but I don't think one age is more valid than another, is it? We can't all be young.

  15. dearieme - yes, South Aust. still says 'sandshoes'; nobody wears them now of course, they're all AmE/sneakers.

    johnb - ditto for British Bulldog. I went to a BrE Public/AmE (?) private school in Australia during the late fifties/early sixties. We played it outside on the grass. It could get quite 'energetic' (read 'violent') with forty or fifty boarders taking part. Oddly, if I remember correctly, despite calling it British Bulldog, the chant to start a run was 'Red Rover all over'.

  16. I think Chinese Chequers is the American equivalent of British Halma.

  17. I always felt sort of left out because I never once played Candyland. Also, I was such an outcast in elementary school that I wasn't even included in games of exclusion like Red Rover :P I loved Lincoln logs, Legos, and other building toys, though.

    And I had no idea that the card matching game had a name.

  18. On the relation between Halma and Chinese Che{ck/qu}ers, see here.

  19. My (Indiana) version of Red Rover seems to be the same as Michael's. Two groups line up, hand in hand. One team calls a person from the other team: "Red Rover, red rover, let X come over", where X is a person's name (or more often in my experience, an insulting nickname).

    That person had to run at the other team, trying to break between two people's held hands. If they succeeded, they took one of those two people back to their own team. If they did not succeed, they had to join the other team. The game ended when the last person was absorbed into the other team (or quite often, when someone's shoulder was dislocated).

    This was one game where I was very jealous of my nerdy friends who were on the chunky side. As a sterotypical skinny, unathletic nerd, I got called to run just about every time (being so unlikely to break the chain). And I was also the usual target of any runner headed in my team's direction.

    This was still more fun than our other playground mainstay, called, errrr, "smear the queer" (also known as "kill the guy with the ball" and numerous other names). A (US) football is thrown or kicked to someone (usually the most non-athletic person around) who runs like mad until being tackled by everyone nearby. Or who throws/kicks the ball away and is tackled anyway for being a bad sport.

  20. PE/Gym: IME, "PE" is also very common in the US, though my experience is mostly from west of the Mississippi.

    Snakes/Chutes & Ladders: The "Snakes" part of the name is a reference to the tempting serpent in the biblical Garden of Eden. This was originally a game intended to inculcate a religious message.

    If you take a look at the boards from a century ago, the ladder squares each list a virtue or virtuous act of some sort and the chute/snake squares each list a sin or vice. The object was to ascend to paradise by cultivating virtues and avoiding vices. Over time, the explicitly religious elements have largely been abstracted from the game, which makes the "Snakes" reference a bit opaque.

  21. Thanks, Doug. I didn't mark PE as BrE in the text--because it's used in both countries. But gym class is definitely AmE.

  22. Dunce's description of Red Rover sounds like the one I played on Illinois playground about 15 years ago.

    At my grade school we also played a variation of kickball that involved any number of children standing in two parallel lines in an open field. We would then proceed to kick all available kickballs back and forth at random. If a ball was caught, your team assigned points for that catch, based on who kicked it (if they were a "good kicker" or not) and what level of skill was required to catch the ball (Did you have to dive? That was worth at least 5 points). At the end of the recess period, the game would be put on pause, only to resume the next day. At the end of the school year, the tallied scores revealed the winning team (Though team was a loose description, as players came and went, changed teams, and were traded...It was really more of a game of social hierarchy really.)

    I have no idea how such an informal and rule-less game was a staple on our playground for so many years, but I know that they still play it at that school. Perhaps there were actual rules at one time, and we just discarded them for a sort of kickball war. Who knows? In any case, I broke my nose for the first time playing that game, so it holds a special place in my heart.

  23. "But as a child in England in the 70s he didn't have Slinky or Mr Potato Head or Silly Putty."

    Well, that's something for him to take up with his parents, who obviously deprived him. All three of those were in the shops in the UK in the 70s. I know my siblings and I had several of each over the years (a Slinky in our house had an average life-span of 2.5 days).

  24. It's only because he's had a deprived childhood that he thinks I'm so special and wonderful. So let's keep that slinky thing quiet.

  25. I'm interested by the use of "chute" to describe what I (an American) would have called a "slide". I would use "chute" to describe a slide for objects, but not normally for people.

  26. Chiming in on "Red Rover." I grew up in Texas, and our version also involved called out one person at a time to try to break the line. There was no sense of social exclusion about it. I played Red Rover in elementary school in the early 1980's.

  27. PE is called Phys. Ed. here in Alberta (said like fizz-ed).

    This is one of those areas where Canadians get a bit of each side on American/British things. I've never seen Candyland or Lincoln Logs, although I know what they are from US media. Red Rover and British Bulldog are the same game, and I played both in Girl Guides (Girl Scouts in AmE).

    I've heard connect/join-the-dots called dot-to-dot here (although we use connect the dots to describe making mental connections).

  28. We called the matching-card-game Memory, so I don't think that use is BrE-only.

  29. I moved to the US only when I was 11, but we didn't have any of these games in Russia, so my experience is probably indicative of the US.

    I only recall "snakes and ladders" back when I actually played it. I've heard "chutes" later and thought it was a euphemism or something (though I didn't know about the Christian thing).

    PE/Phys. Ed. was the official name for gym class where I went to school, but nobody (not even the teachers if I recall) would call it anything other than "gym". You'd find the official names on schedules, syllabi, or whatever.

  30. We played a game called Bull Rush in New Zealand, which sounds very similar to the version of British Bulldog described by JohnB.
    That is, everyone starts on the edge of a large marked off area, except one person standing in the middle. The person in the middle yells "Bull Rush!" and everyone runs to the other side. The person in the middle has to tackle one of the runners, and pin them to the ground, the pinned runner then joins the person in the middle, and "Bull Rush!" is called again.... This continues until all the runners have been caught.

    Regarding Doug Sundseths comment about the origin of the game Snakes and Ladders. Most sources I have read indicate that the game originates from India, where it was intended as a moral metaphor for life. The biblical references he mentions were most likely added after the game was imported to Victorian England.

  31. Coming at this one VERY late...

    Snakes and Ladders originated in India as a Hindu educational game, teaching morality and the concepts of karma and reincarnation. The ladder bases represented various virtues that elevated you nearer Nirvana. The heads of the snakes represented vices that sank you into lower incarnations, making your path to heaven longer and harder. Each virtue and vice was named on the board, and their outcomes were often illustrated in the "result" square.

    The Victorian English loved games that included moral education, so they took to Snakes and Ladders in a big way. Most Victorian boards include names and illustrations of virtues, vices, and their outcomes.

    By the time Hasbro decided to produce the game in the USA, its popularity had declined somewhat. As a game of pure luck, it appeals mainly to very young children. Hasbro deemed that snakes were too frightening, and substituted slides (chutes) instead. This also meant that they could trademark the name "Chutes and Ladders", and use a playground theme as a board design.

    The morality idea persisted, and most of Hasbro's designs for Chutes and Ladders boards over the years include pictures of children doing nice things to climb the ladders and nasty things to descend the chutes.

  32. Growing up in the western most province of Canada I had Candyland, snakes & ladders (never heard of chutes), and Memory (in an official box naming it such, as a wee one I called it 'the remembory game').
    I also had silly putty and a slinky, no mr. potato head but some friends did.
    At school we played red rover of the chain breaking variety (never heard of British Buldog), and went to PE in which I wore runners (running shoes).
    We also played a lot of California Kickball, played an Lynn has described.
    No lincon logs or anything similar, but lots of other building toys (construx, lego, capsela).
    Clapping with singing games were really popular in the lower grades as well, especially for the girls, most often in pairs or a big circle. (I might now describe them as patty-cake games but we would NEVER call them that at school, [only babies do patty-cake!])

  33. How did I find this so late?

    It makes sense Lincoln Logs would be called something else, or not be marketed at all, since (I think) they are called that because of Abraham Lincoln being born in a log cabin, and that would have no relevance to anyone outside the US. A log cabin might in Australia and certainly in Canada, but I for one would name it after someone else -- though you do have to admit there's something to be said for the alliteration.

    I think you missed Tinkertoys. Are those marketed anywhere outside the US?

    Someone, probably Milton Bradley or Parker Bros., put out Pachisi as Parchisi in the 1960's because I had it. It was possibly my favorite game, which isn't to say I was necessarily good at it.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)