A children’s game centered around a virtual public execution might not seem the most politically-correct idea, but that hasn’t stopped millions of youngsters from playing Hangman over the years. Much like the game of Battleship, generations of kids only needed paper and a pencil to play, but eventually a board game would follow to enhance the experience.

Although its history is a bit murky, Hangman dates back to Victorian times and appears to be a variation of a game called “Birds, Beasts and Fishes” popular in the 1800s. The premise is simple – a word is chosen by one player who then draws a line for each letter next to a sketch of a gallows. The other person guesses what letters are contained in the word, one at a time. If a letter is guessed correctly, it is written in the corresponding space. If not, things get a little more graphic.

With each incorrect guess, a portion of a man is drawn hanging from the gallows. First, a circle that signifies the head, then a circle or line to represent the torso, followed by a line for each arm and leg. Should the poor guy’s body be completed before the word is guessed, the player (and the stick figure) loses. If the player instead guesses the word correctly, they win the game – thereby granting a reprieve to the ill-accused victim (at least until the next round starts).

By the way, if this all sounds eerily similar to Wheel of Fortune, that’s because the popular television game show is actually just a variation of Hangman, albeit a less sinister version where nobody dies and they have a roulette wheel.

As mentioned above, Hangman started as a simple pencil and paper game, but the folks at Milton Bradley, who already landed a big hit with Battleship years earlier, decided to introduce a board game version of Hangman in 1976. This version bore a striking resemblance to Battleship, as it also used two plastic folding containers, one red and one blue, that sat in opposing directions.

Each container was filled with tiles for all the letters of the alphabet, a big rotating knob and seven slots at the top. With each correct guess, the letter was placed in one of slots facing the other player. With each fail, the knob was turned one click to the right. A small window was visible to the opposing player which showed a picture of an empty gallows when the game began. With each sadistic turn of the knob, another appendage was added. When the body was complete, or the word was guessed correctly, the game ended.

Featuring horror film icon Vincent Price in advertisements and right on the cover of the game, Hangman became a popular Christmas present in the late 70s and sold well throughout the decade that followed. Milton Bradley eventually released an updated version of the game in 2002, but it didn’t quite have the same sinister quality that made the original so much fun.

And let’s face it: A newly-marketed game based on capital punishment would probably be frowned upon by today’s standards. But we do tend to be more forgiving with the old classics, and Hangman does actually have educational value – a simple-to-learn word game that teaches both spelling and problem solving. Suffice to say, Hangman never hurt anyone and parents still teach their kids how to play to this day.

Did you play Hangman as a kid, either the simple version or the nifty Milton Bradley board game? We’d love to hear all of your memories in our comments section below, as we tip our hats to this timeless game.

One Response to “Hangman”

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  1. Paul Scheinast says:

    very good post, today we play things like this on our computers ….

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