Brandon Eleuterio

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Risk and Reward: Lessons from Chutes and Ladders

A circa 1980s board game of Chutes and Ladders

One of my all-time favorite games to play as a kid was the classic Hasbro board game Chutes and Ladders. I remember playing with my parents, my grandparents, and possibly my sister. It was fun because a player could catch a ladder and be on the verge of victory, then on the next turn run into a chute and slide suddenly into defeat.

The goal is to be the first player to successfully navigate from square one to one hundred. To play, each person takes a turn spinning an arrow to determine the number of squares to move. Most squares you land on are meaningless, but some squares are special. These unique squares attach to the beginning or end of either a ladder or a chute. Ladders let you skip squares while chutes (or slides) send you descending back to a previous square. I know, slides are fun. Not in this game.

Every square connected with a chute or ladder also has a picture that illustrates a life lesson. For example, one square shows a boy mowing the lawn at the base of the ladder. At the top of that ladder, another picture shows the same boy at the circus. Another square shows a girl eating lots of candy at the top of a chute. At the bottom of that chute, the same girl is pictured with a stomach ache. The idea is to teach kids that actions have consequences, good or bad.

A few of these correlations are questionable such as taking your boots off in the rain makes you sick or riding your bike with no hands leads to a broken arm. But overall, the learning seems sound and you begin to understand that living life is all about taking risks.

Looking back, the game was heavy on chance. As much as I fancied myself a ladder-finding pro, everyone had an equal chance of winning.

Redux

If I were to redesign the game, I would give players a choice about whether to do an activity. Then, roll a dice to see what happens as a result. Some activities would be low-risk and worth the chance while others might be high-risk, high reward. You could choose what risks to take, if any, to safely arrive at the end of the game first. Would it be faster to take no risks or very few safer risks? Could you reliably win gambling on a couple of big risks? Now strategy comes into play.

Let’s say a square gives you the option to rescue a cat from a tree. If you decide to perform the good deed, there’s a chance the cat rewards you with a face lick. There’s also a chance (probably a greater chance) the cat uses your shin as a scratch post. The cat kiss comes with a long ladder climb letting you skip 30 squares. The limb disfigurement means you slide down a chute and lose 10 squares. You decide the rescue is worth the risk and you roll the dice. If you roll one or two, the cat loves you and the ladder is yours. If you roll anything between a three and six, your leg needs a skin graft and you slide down the chute.

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