COLONIAL GAMING: The Game of Goose

One of the most popular boardgames in Colonial Amerca was The Royall & Pleasant Game of Y Goose.” Commonly known as “The Game of Goose,” it uses a custom board depicting a circular track divided into 63 spaces. Two or more people roll dice and move markers along the track in a race to the finish. If they hit space illustrated with a goose, they move the same number of spaces again. Landing on illustrations, such as a maze, prison, or death, sends a player backwards to a certain space.

And, yes, I basically just described Candyland.

This was not a kid’s game, however. It was played and enjoyed adults, and was a very popular gambling game. As I’ve written in earlier entries in this series, most Colonials outside of certain regions in New England were compulsive gamblers, much like their British cousins. It would probably shock modern Americans to know just how common and widespread gambling was in the original colonies. George Washington himself lost large sums at the Loo table.

Just imagine people sitting down after an evening meal to hustle games of Candyland for wagers equal to hundreds of dollars in today’s money, and you can get idea of what The Game of Goose was like in 18th century American.

The Game of Goose first enters the scene during the reign of Francesco de Medici in Florence, 1574-1587. Francesco sent a copy to the court of Spain’s King Philip II, where its rapid pace and sudden changes of fortune made it a huge success. On June 16th, 1597, the game was entered in the Register of the Stationer’s Hall in London as “the newe and most pleasant game of the Goose.”

The first Goose boards were a cardboard base with a drawn or painted spiral course. The squares were illustrated with various ornaments, such as dice, an inn, a bridge, a maze, and multiple geese.

After the game caught on in England during the 17th century, boards became increasingly more elaborate. The game track was seen as a progression through life itself, with some boards depicting the first space as an infant and the last as a man entering the gates of heaven at square 63. Each space in between showed the baby aging through different stages, such as the Thoughtless Boy, the Negligent Boy, the Youth, the Indolent Youth, the Obstinate Youth, and so on.

Some believe the 63 squares are meant to represent the 63 years of the average lifespan at the time. It’s a nice idea, but the average lifespan in 16th century Italy—when the game was invented—was about 47 years.

Goose was also an early example of theming. Years before Spongebob Monopoly and Shrek Concentration, there were versions of Goose based upon the news of the day, such as the French Revolution, the Dreyfus Affair, political campaigns, romantic entanglements of the upper classes, and even World War I.

Parents adapted the game for children’s use as teaching tool. There were versions that illustrated various travels in order to teach geography, virtues and vices, the stages of life, Aesop’s Fables, and the entire plot of Don Quixote. Yes, 300 years before Harry Potter Clue there was Don Quixote Goose. The various traps and bonuses could be tied to any kind of failure/advancement, wrong/right theme.

By 1819, Lord Byron would reference the game in his epic poem, Don Juan: 

For good society is but a game,

‘The royal game of Goose,’ as I may say, 

Where every body has some separate aim,

An end to answer, or a plan to lay

Like other British amusements, the game migrated to American during the Colonial period, and was still very popular as the Colonies headed towards Revolution. By 1895, the University of Pennsylvania listed 146 different editions in its collection, some of them from China and Japan.

Dietz Press produces a handsome reproduction print of a typical Colonial Goose board. It sells for abut $8, but is only available in 2 stores at Williamsburg itself, or through their Teaching Resources catalog for $9.50

Sources: Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play. Frederic V. Grunfeld, Games of the World. H. Peter Aleff,