Were the Rights to the Board Game Operation Sold for Just $500?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to board games and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all board game urban legends so far.

BOARD GAME URBAN LEGEND: The board game Operation was sold for just $500.

For over fifty years, fans of all ages have enjoyed the board game Operation, in which players have to test their precision skills by trying to lift items from small holes in a board (the board is of a man and the items are in parts of his body, like removing an apple from where his Adam’s apple would be – stuff like that) using a metal tweezers. If the tweezers hit the metal sides of the holes, then an electrical current is connected and a buzzer goes off and the patient’s nose lights up.


As the story goes, the whole rights to the game were sold for $500 and a job – and only one of those two things ever actually happened!

Is it true?

As it turns out, yes. John Spinelli was in his early 20s in the early 1960s and attending the University of Illinois and studying industrial design. He was given a class assignment where he had to design a game that involved inserting a metal wand into metal holes. He got an A on the project. A family member (or a friend of the family, that part has been a bit obscured in the various versions of the story) thought Spinelli had something here, so he brought the game he designed to Milton Glass, who ran a famous game design company.

Spinelli recalled to David Moye:

“I walked into his office and I put it on his desk. I said, ‘You have to take this probe and go through the maze and see if you can complete it,’” Spinello explains in a video about the campaign.

Glass didn’t seem impressed until he touched the wand to the metal plate.

“It went ‘BLATTT’ and a spark jumped out of the stylus,” Spinello said. “He threw [the stylus] up in the air and says, ‘I love it! I love it!’”

Here’s that prototype…


Glass offered Spinelli $500 for the rights the device, plus he promised him a job after Spinelli graduated.

Spinelli agreed, but the job never materialized. He told Moye:

“I did get the two checks — eventually,” Spinello said. “I had to call for them.”

Glass sold the game to Milton Bradley, now with the basic “metal hitting sides of hole completing current to make thing happen” approach adapted into the specific Operation design, and the game became a hit.

Spinelli opened a warehouse business that he ran for decades until it went under back in 2008.

When Spinelli needed some money for some medical expenses a couple of years ago, the great board game historian Tim Brown helped to raise money for Spinelli. Hasbro, which bought Milton Bradley years ago, purchased the prototype from Spinelli as a kind gesture.

There’s now an awesome website devoted to fans of the game paying tribute to Spinelli called iloveoperation.com

What a fun ending to the story.

The legend is…

STATUS: Basically True (“basically” only since it was not “Operation” yet when Spinelli sold the rights to the game)

Thanks to John Spinelli and David Moye for the quotes!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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