Snakes and Ladders–sometimes known as Chutes and Ladders in America–is based on an ancient Hindu game called Moksha Patam. It teaches that life is rooted in karma, or destiny. In the game, the progression of one’s token along the numbered spaces on the board represents Life, the Ladders symbolize Virtues (or advancement), and the Snakes stand for Vices (or failure). Many versions of the game actually specify the vices and virtues, associating them with certain numbered spaces located at the heads and tails of the snakes and the ladders.
The game is extremely simple: all players put their tokens on the starting space (in this case containing the number “1”), and each player takes a turn rolling a die (one of a pair of dice) to determine how many spaces to move his or her token.
If the token reaches the bottom of a ladder (the lower-numbered space the ladder’s base sits on), the token immediately advances to the higher-numbered space at the top of the ladder, and at the player’s next turn continues the game from that higher-numbered space.
On the other hand, if the token reaches a space occupied by a snake’s head, the token immediately descends to the lower-numbered space where the snake’s tail rests; at the player’s next turn, the token continues the game from that lower-numbered space. The first player to reach the hundredth space (shown here as a star) wins the game.
Snakes and Ladders came to England from India in Victorian times, and became very popular. Most of the board layouts for the game are square grids of eight-by-eight, ten-by-ten, or twelve-by-twelve spaces; however, the present artwork was inspired by a late nineteenth-century spiral game-board layout for Snakes and Ladders.
The spiral arrangement of numbered spaces reinforces the sense felt by many that the chain of life’s incidents seems to turn around on itself, like the coils of a snake: no outcome ever perfectly duplicates a past occurrence, but merely leaves a whiff of reminiscence behind before giving way to the next event.
The use of Snakes and Ladders to teach morality conveys a disturbing sense of futility: one normally learns to embrace virtue and avoid vice, but the chance element of the game removes all ability to act or choose. Without free will, are not virtue and vice equally meaningless?