Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 03: The Genealogy of the Game

Early in this process my husband volunteered to create the visual element of the game for me. Working with my partner suits this project with its focus on family relations. It is his family name that I wear as a researcher.

The offer to design the game is a generous one. Shane is a trained and experienced graphic designer and art teacher. He is busy with his own work and creative projects, including music as well as design projects.

There is a tradition of adapting Snakes and Ladders to fit the designs of the makers and we look to follow in this genealogy. On a trip to Oxford we study a 19th century version in the Ashmolean Museum. We look at the versions reproduced in Andrew Topsfield’s two articles on the game and examine the V&A’s archive online.

Snakes and Ladders is devised as a game of morals and increasing knowledge. In its earliest known forms it provided a spiritual educational tool in India. Boards were hand drawn on fabric and could be adapted according to local interests. These boards were fragile and the earliest versions seen by Topsfield are from the 19th century, however he conjectures that it based on Buddhist games from the 12th century.

In the game players traverse the board to spiritual enlightenment; the snakes that they encounter are moral shortcomings. When this game is adapted by European and American game manufacturers at the turn of the twentieth century, this moral game play is part of its appeal.

There is so much more to be said about this game’s heritage and I hope to expand on this in a future blog, but for now I wish to focus on how Lines And Ladders developed.

There is no skill in Snakes and Ladders. The winner is determined by the chance of the dice rolls, cowrie shell throws or whatever device is used to randomly allocate forward movement.

For my game, I am keen to embrace this element of chance. This emphasizes the notion that any family history could belong to anyone else. We do not choose our genealogy, but are born into it. However, I am not so happy about the snakes with their moral role. The image of the evil snake carries so much symbolic baggage that it casts a long shadow.

I struggle to find an alternative. The American version Chutes and Ladders has a children’s slide instead of snakes; this seems much more joyful than the threatening snake. However, despite this element of fun, it is difficult to connect to the genealogical focus of the game. I become intrigued by some versions mentioned in Topsfield’s articles, which include no ladders. Instead snakes are colour coded and players can climb using snakes, as well as descend via them.  

As I vacillate between different options, 2018 marches on. The time that Shane has to develop the game before it must be sent to print ready for the August performances grows ever shorter. Finally, I share two examples with Shane from the V&A archive, both are highly illustrative. The detail on each square dictates the direction of play. This style is now too complex in the time that is left, but this idea that the same structure can point in either direction is something that might work…

To read more about the history of Snakes and Ladders:

Topsfield, Andrew, ‘The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders’, Artibus Asiae, 46:3 (1985) 203-26

Topsfield, Andrew, ‘Snakes and Ladders in India: Some further discoveries’, Artibus Asiae, 66:1 (2006) 143-79  

Gyanbazi © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For more information on the game pictured here visit:



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