The Royal Geographical Pastime: A Game from 1770 – Holly Brewer

For several years now I have had students in my U.S. history classes play The Royal Geographical Pastime: Exhibiting a Complete Tour Round The World. In which are delineated the North East and North West Passages into the South Sea, and other modern Discoveries.  Thomas Jeffreys, “geographer to the King,” who created and published it in London in 1770 at a moment when the British empire was very powerful, intended to teach aristocratic young men about the empire’s reach and scope, how to travel, and why each colony mattered. My students learn some of the same things from it—though from a different perspective—including what the world looked like then; the products produced by different colonies and nations around the world; and major historical events—from earthquakes to rebellions—during the eighteenth century (which are chronicled in the game). In addition, it also teaches how people traveled, as it tracks actual sailing routes around the world, and perhaps most importantly, it shows the power and arrogance of the elite within the British empire. When I am teaching in person, I have made reproductions of it, complete with eight-sided dice and tiny people as tokens. More recently, I put it online (with help from others!), and students can find it and play virtually. 

Figure 1. This stereographic projection, used as a board game in the 18th century, is centered on London and the North East and North West Passages into the South Sea are delineated. The route of a circumnavigation, outlined in blue, passes through 103 points numbered in order. Jefferys, Thomas, Geographer to the King, “The Royal Geographical Pastime: Exhibiting A Complete Tour Round the World,” (1770). Board game. British Museum. Catalogue of Maps, World, p. 87/950 (22). Public Domain.

The Geographical Pastime is a forerunner of Chutes and Ladders, a game most students know. In the 1770 game, players travel not across a set of abstract numbers, but around the world, with each country or place assigned a number, and with each site containing information. If you land on a part of the world that Britain had recently lost control over (during the Seven Years’ War, for example) you are likely to lose a turn. If you find the elusive Northwest Passage that European explorers had long searched for, you are rewarded by getting to skip over many numbers. This part is especially interesting because it is inaccurate. Despite the game’s assertion that this passage had been  recently “discovered,” the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean was not a reality, as there was too much ice. It was not discovered until the twenty-first century, when enough ice around the north pole had melted (due to global warming) that ships began to travel through it in the summer of 2007.

The Royal Geographical Pastime is darker than Chutes and Ladders, however, (students are always shocked) because there is more at stake. Players die in this game, or lose, or are forced to go back to the beginning and lose four turns. So, if you land on space #88 “Oroonoko,” the title of a famous novel about slavery and injustice first written by Aphra Behn nearly a century earlier, you have to go back to #18, “Palmyra,” losing seventy spaces, and then lose four turns. Or, if you land on space #99, “the Bahamas,” you get shipwrecked and die. Your chances of suffering either of these fates is high because you have to land on the last space (#103) exactly, or you have to go back to space #79 and move forward again. In one class recently, all three students playing at one table were all separately shipwrecked. I tell them it is because the game really was meant to teach harsh lessons. It is also all about luck: there is no strategy. In a way, I think that is a lesson too.

Figure 2. This image is a satirical piece on the jockeying of the European powers during the 1730s. Charles Mosley, “The European Race Heat IId Anno Dom MDCCXXXVIII,” (1738). Print. BM Satires / Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (2415), The British Museum. Public Domain.

Students who play the game gain a sense of how deep and wide Britain’s interests were then and new appreciation for the diversity of the eighteenth-century world. They always come away asking many questions about all those other countries and colonies the game portrays, and when I then teach the American Revolution as part of a world war, they understand that conflict on a deeper level. By 1778, Britain was fighting for its colonies in India and the Far East, in Africa, and in South America and the Caribbean, not merely in North America. It completely shifts my students’ perceptions of the Revolution.

It is also interesting for them to think about networks of trade and cultural assumptions, as well as what the game does not emphasize: the Atlantic slave trade. For while the game lists English forts or castles that enabled the slave trade as English possessions, the slave trade itself is not mentioned, even though by 1770 England was bringing more enslaved people to the Americas than any other country. Put together with the Oroonoko stop (and the punishment there) it indicates some willful denial of Britain’s role in slavery and the slave trade. Students also learn the importance of trade goods from around the world and much about Britons’ cultural attitudes. They respond to questions about the “most interesting thing they learned” with answers like: “I thought it was interesting how the British wanted the next generation to think highly of the empire and all the trading and conquering that was done. It was a little off-putting how casual some of the facts were when you landed on certain spaces, such as burning down cities,” or “learning about essentially how Europe had so much intelligence about the world. Because in a way, it was like they were sizing up parts of the world to see who they could find weaknesses in so that they could take over and profit by annexing countries into their domains.” Many comment on its ethnocentrism. 

Figure 3. A two-masted galley sails into a huge wave during a storm. Wenceslaus Hollar, “Sea storms,” (1665). Etching. The British Museum. Public Domain.

I have used this game in two of my classes, the first half of the U.S. history survey and my class on the American Revolution. Without exception, all students enjoy the day we play it, and they learn a lot. What a game like this contributes is that it makes learning just plain fun. Students get to know each other in different ways, and especially in a survey class, the game gets students involved who might otherwise be apathetic. It kind of seduces them into learning, despite themselves. For students who are already engaged, it shifts their perspective, gets them to read primary sources, and think about how differently people saw the world then. 

Here’s a link to the game:

To play the game:

If you hover over “Instructions” at top left, you will see the original game instructions. Clicking the pointing finger to the right of “Instructions” rolls an eight-sided die. In the upper-right, clicking the pointing finger will highlight the locations in the game, and hovering over each of those will call up a description. 


Holly Brewer is Burke Chair of American History at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is interested in early modern debates about justice; she primarily teaches classes in early American History.


Twitter: @earlymodjustice

Editing Project:

Links to Other Teaching with Games Roundtable Posts:

Indigenous Perspectives and Historical Empathy – Maeve Kane

Gaming the Framing: To Teach the Convention, the Constitution, and the Founding – John Patrick Coby

Reacting to the Past for Early Americanists – Elizabeth George

Building Student Engagement with Reacting to the Past – Christopher E. Hendricks

Controlled Chaos: Roleplaying Revolution in Southeast Texas – Brendan Gillis

Harnessing Competitiveness for Good in RTTP Games – Brett Palfreyman

Challenging Myths through Gameplay: Reacting to the Past and Popular Ideology in the Classroom – Joshua J. Jeffers

See the Q&A feature for a summary of the roundtable’s key ideas.