University of Oregon

An Introduction

Many public-school children seem to know only two dates—1492 and the 4th of July; and as a rule they don’t know what happened on either occasion. It is because they have not had a chance to play this game.
– Mark Twain

In the summer of 1883, Mark Twain was putting the finishing touches on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a task to which he devoted himself from breakfast to supper five days a week. But Twain’s evenings were consumed by a different project: he was designing a board game.

Twain was a great writer, and he wasn’t a half-bad inventor either. The self-pasting scrapbook he patented in 1873 went on to sell 25,000 copies, earning Twain more money than any other single book.

Designing a game turned out to be a bigger challenge. Twain finished Huckleberry Finn in 1883, but he spent another year working on a patent for his “game apparatus,” and another seven years tinkering before he published Mark Twain’s Memory Builder, a game of historical trivia, in 1892.

Was it a good game? Maybe—if you happen to know a lot of historical facts. Most of us don’t, and Twain’s game didn’t sell well.

Yet Mark Twain’s Memory Builder is of great interest because it shows us a different side
to a writer we think we know so well. It highlights Twain’s fascination with history. It illustrates how central memorization was to nineteenth-century education. And it shows us the length to which Twain would go to breathe life into the humdrum. In its limitations, Twain’s game also shows how difficult it was to teach history in the nineteenth-century mode, even if you had the gifts of Mark Twain.

Twain’s game may not be his greatest creation, but can still be good fun if you approach it with a sense of humor and exploration.

Here, we present Mark Twain’s Memory Builder with three different play options for 1-4 “combatants.”

  • Play with Twain’s rules. Twain’s rules were printed on the back of the original game board. Flip our board, puzzle through Twain’s rules, and try to play the game the way Twain imagined it—or else just chuckle along with his description.
  • Play with Twain’s facts. Twain knew that not everyone’s heads were pre-stuffed with dates, so he included a pamphlet with the game board, “Facts for Mark Twain’s Memory Builder.“ Players could use facts from the pamphlet to challenge one another. Choose this option and let our computer challenge you.
  • Play with Twain’s life. If you’re visiting this website because you love Mark Twain, the writer, play this game to test your knowledge of his life.

Twain’s original rules leave a lot of room for innovation and interpretation: play to a point limit, play for speed; choose a subject, or keep the game open; use the game board to represent one century, or use it to represent all centuries. Invent. Improvise. Challenge yourself the way Twain challenged himself: how would you make memorizing fun??

Welcome to Mark Twain’s Memory Builder 2.0.