Was Waddingtons’ Milk Tray Man board game ahead of its time?
If ever a headline deserved a one-word answer, it’s that one. But bear with me!
Last weekend, I discovered that Waddingtons once created a Milk Tray board game… It seemed too curious a creation to let slip – and while it was secondhand, it was in great condition… So £3 later it was mine.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, Milk Tray is a Cadbury’s chocolate brand – and the Milk Tray Man was its popular advertising campaign, running between 1968 and 2003. The TV ads would see a James Bond-type figure go through daring feats – like diving off cliffs and out-skiing an avalanche – to leave a box of Milk Tray for a woman to discover. Seemingly unconcerned about this obsessive behaviour, the woman would invariably look wistfully impressed as the voiceover intoned the tagline: “And all because the lady loves Milk Tray…”
Appropriately, then, the board game – official title: ‘Cadbury’s Milk Tray Man in Black Game’ – is described as ‘an exciting and sophisticated game of skill, nerve and strategy for two to four players’. To win, you have to race across the board and be first to deliver a box of Milk Tray to ‘the Lady’. The wrinkle being that you and the other players are building the board as you play; laying down tiles containing twisting routes fraught with dead ends and danger.
On your turn, you can do one of two things… You can choose to place a tile anywhere on the board, either building a useful route for yourself or scuppering the path of another player. Alternatively, you can roll the dice to move your Man in Black along the path. Naturally, you can also use helicopters and getaway cars on certain tiles to help boost you to victory.
Board Game Geek tells us that the game came out in 1970 as a promotional item for Milk Tray. Meanwhile, the rules state it was ‘Exclusively produced and devised by Waddingtons for Cadbury.’ But is it any good?
To answer that, we should probably first look at all the ways in which this game – and brand – is very much of its time. Despite a brief revival back in 2016, the idea of the Milk Tray Man is not without controversy.
As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote in 2017: ‘Each Milk Tray ad was basically a psychological horror film, and the idea of any modern young woman being simperingly grateful for a box of chocolates feels like something that went out with the first episodes of Coronation Street.’ He continues: ‘We need to see Milk Tray Woman breaking into the Milk Tray Man’s apartment, leaving an injunction on his bedside table, cutting up his black polo-neck and finally giving the chocolates to the woman he lives with – his mum.’
Back to the game, and the first few lines of its ‘How to Play’ firmly position it as a bit of a relic. It begins with a doozy: ‘Each player must throw a six to start’. There may well be people that bought the game in 1970 who are still waiting for their Milk Tray Man to get off the mark.
The second line is also indicative of a game that’s showing its age: ‘He then has the choice of placing…’ Gendered pronouns in game rules are quickly becoming a thing of the past, with inclusivity often being non-negotiable for publishers in today’s market.
While ‘get to the end’ games are still very much around, the ‘obstacle’ spaces in Cadbury’s Milk Tray Man in Black Game are a little uninspired. ‘Crash – miss a turn’… ‘Need local guide – throw a three to move’… ‘Sabotaged cable car – wait one turn’.
All that being said, I really enjoyed playing the game… And there are even a few areas in which it feels ahead of its time.
First, a point about the board… Earlier this year, Plan B Games announced it’s launching a new edition of the popular Hey, That’s My Fish! The game is brilliant – but has always been a little fiddly. With a ‘board’ made up of 60 hexagonal ice floe tiles, it was easy to knock the map out of shape as you play. The upcoming new version boasts an ocean board to hold the tiles in place, helping to make set-up faster and keep the map better organised.
The Milk Tray Man game is similarly made up of 76 hexagonal tiles, only it comes with a board that neatly houses them all. It’s interesting how a promotional game from 1970 boasted a solution to an issue that affected a popular title from 2003.
It also boasts genuinely exciting moments and interesting decisions. Do you advance the map to help your own path, but risk giving other players a decent route to the finish? Do you roll the dice and move, when playing tiles might shore up your road to victory? Or do you choose chaos, wrecking others’ paths – and your own – to stay in the game?
It plays like a racing riff of the Calliope Games’ popular Tsuro, a tile-laying, path-creating game first published in 2005. Interestingly, Tsuro is said to share some similarities with Spaghetti Junction, a road-laying tile game from 1975. Cadbury’s Milk Tray Man in Black Game launched five years earlier… Could it have been an inspiration?
Perhaps the biggest way in which the game feels current is in how it authentically takes an unlikely brand to the tabletop. By 1970, plenty of films and TV shows were getting the board game treatment, from Perry Mason and The Banana Splits to Batman and The Man from UNCLE.
What the Milk Tray game nodded at 52 years ago – even as a humble promotional item – is the potential to build interesting tabletop experiences from IP outside the film and TV space. Recent launches have seen numerous unlikely candidates get the mass market board game treatment. These include a defunct airline in Funko Games’s Pan Am, popular condiments in Big G’s Kraft Heinz games, and an Australian public safety campaign item – courtesy of Spin Master’s Dumb Ways to Die.
So, somewhat surprisingly, Cadbury’s Milk Tray Man in Black Game is worth a look. It’s an interesting example of a licensed board game – and a really fun, engaging experience… Providing you can roll a six.
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