A couple of months ago, I posted about The Avenging Narwhal, which sits in our Keeper of Collections’ office and startles anyone who goes in to see her. This amazing artefact inspired me to do some research into polar-themed games and toys, which I’ll share here over the next few weeks. Today’s post is about games inspired by exploration of the North Pole during the so-called Heroic Age, and how they reflect the intense interest and excitement evoked at home by polar expeditions.
The game above is splendidly-titled To the North Pole by Air-Ship, and was possibly inspired by Salomon August Andree’s doomed attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon in 1897. (Kaddy and Bridget from the Polar Museum recently blogged about this expedition, too!) In fact, it wasn’t until 1926 that the North Pole was successfully crossed by air, when Roald Amundsen’s airship Norge flew from Svalbard to Alaska.
I haven’t been able to find out anything about the rules to this game, but the box from a later edition gives an idea of the content: it shows some intrepid explorers emerging from their tents to fight polar bears single-handed on the ice while their colleagues fly past in an airship bearing a large American flag. The corner of the box proclaims that the game is part of “The American Boy’s Series”, which fits its general air of patriotic and adventurous heroism.
To the North Pole By Air-Ship was followed by Can You Find the North Pole? and, in 1909, The Game of the North Pole. The latter was probably created following American naval officer Robert Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909, especially as the box shows an explorer proudly planting a US flag in the snow. Peary’s claim remains controversial, and the first confirmed overland journeys to the geographic North Pole were made in 1968-9 by Ralph Plaisted (by skidoo) and Wally Herbert (by dogsled).
The instructions give an idea of the manufacturer’s lofty ambitions – this was a game to educate, enlighten and edify as well as entertain:
“Up-to-date and certainly most interesting and instructive is the North Pole Race in which the players are given some appreciation of the excitement and hardship of a journey through the polar snows, some knowledge of the scenery, the geography, and the natural history of those remote parts. The North Pole Game is to the child what a cinematograph lecture by Sir Ernest Shackleton is to a grown-up … This is a really fine game for children which is as exciting as an adventure-story and imparts a deal of useful knowledge at the same time.”
In case that all sounded a bit too worthy to be fun, they also described some of the thrilling adventures that you might meet with:
“To begin with, each player is provided with a model of an arctic explorer, clad in the correct cold-proof garb, snow boots, etc. for the latitude. During the game all the incidents of a voyage of Polar Exploration are met with one after another. Here is the sturdily-built whaler caught in the ice-pack, here is the landing party building a snow-hut, here they are engaging Esquimaux for their journey, here they are shooting walruses and seal, here they are fishing through a hole in the ice, here they are admiring the splendour of the aurora borealis as it stretches athwart the sky, here they are making a sledge-dash for the pole, and here at last they are planting the flag upon the untrod solitudes that surround the axis of the earth.”
Phew, that all sounds exhausting!
The Game of the North Pole is a simple roll-and-move board game, in which you throw a die to determine how many numbered squares you move around the board. However, it was enlivened by random hazards (such as you might meet on a real polar expedition) for players unlucky enough to land on certain squares. For example:
- 6. Ship lingers to look at the midnight sun – lose one throw
- 16. Mixed up in the drift ice – lose two throws
- 18. Encounter several walruses – return to square 15
- 38. Esquimaux village, pay three counters into the pool for a good reception and hospitality
- 48. Frozen feet. Cannot continue the expedition, therefore drop out of the game
- 66. Pursued by polar bears. If you are lucky and throw 5, you escape if not, miss two throws
- 69. Splendid display of northern lights – lose one throw
The games above were produced to celebrate (and cash in on) landmark achievements in Arctic exploration. It’s probably not a coincidence therefore that my last game appeared in 1969, the year after Plaisted reached the North Pole by skidoo:
Race to the North Pole was created long after the Heroic Age had ended, and it is very different in feel from the previous games. It is billed as “the exciting new snowmobile safety game” (surely a contradiction in terms?) and included a booklet called “Play Safe with Snowmobiles For More Winter Fun”. I haven’t been able to find out much about the rules, but it certainly sounds a lot less thrilling than To the North Pole By Air-Ship or The Game of The North Pole!