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What Was the Original Concept for the Board Game “Operation”?

Updated May 17, 2024
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Anyone who has ever picked up the tweezers to remove the "bread basket" or the "wish bone" from the patient in the board game Operation knows the unnerving thrill of accidentally touching the metal edge and setting off the buzzer.

But what if, instead, your goal was to sink a probe into the ground to look for water? Perhaps not quite as suspenseful. Searching for water was the initial aim of the board game created by University of Illinois student John Spinello in 1964. The original version of the game was known as Death Valley and focused on a man lost in the desert, desperately looking for ways to survive by poking holes in things and draining what he could. Spinello sold the rights to Chicago-based toy design firm Marvin Glass and Associates for $500 USD -- and the promise of a job that never materialized.

Death Valley might have remained lost in the sands of time if Mel Taft and his team at Milton Bradley hadn't seen the potential and reimagined it as the game we all know and love to get zapped in. Since its release in 1965, Operation has netted approximately $40 million USD in sales, as generation after generation tries their luck at removing the plastic ailments lodged inside Cavity Sam.

Thinking outside the box:

  • Chutes & Ladders was invented by a schoolteacher who wanted to create a fun activity for children confined to a hospital polio ward.

  • The first non-coffee item sold by Starbucks was the board game Cranium; it later became the first board game sold on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.

  • According to Hasbro, Robert Grebler's 40-story Jenga tower, constructed in 1985, is the tallest ever built.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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