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In this episode of the Dandy Fun House we’re going to unpack the tale of how a college student’s 1960’s class project based on surviving Death Valley on foot was sold for next to nothing to a company who redesigned it into everyone’s favorite surgery game trying to cure a guy named Cavity Sam! You and I have been trying to fix him for over 60 years in the game of… OPERATION! We’re also going to unbox, assemble and play the 2023 version of OPERATION while sharing fun facts and history along the way. Are you ready doctor? Let’s step into the Fun House!

neil dandy holding game box

Here in my hot little hands, I have the 2023 version of everyone’s favorite game of surgical skill… OPERATION, featuring the man with more maladies than Super Dave Osborne, Cavity Sam! Let’s get scrubbed up and head to the operating table where we’ll put him together, pull him apart and tell his story!

neil dandy with picture of john spinello

John Spinello

The game of Operation was originally invented at the University of Illinois in the 1960’s by an industrial design student named John Spinello. John was given an assignment by one of his professors to design a toy or game.

neil dandy with picture of john spinello's original game prototype

John drew his inspiration from a traumatic childhood memory of sticking his finger in an active light socket. So he decided to design a game where the object was to guide a probe through a groove that ran between two metal plates with a small electrical charge running through them. If the probe touched a plate, the circuit would complete and sound a buzzer indicating failure.

neil dandy with picture of marvin glass

Marvin Glass

neil dandy with marvin glass logocorner of death valley game patent showing inventor names

John’s fellow students enjoyed the game so much that they encouraged him to show it to his Godfather, Sam Cottone, a model-maker for the iconic toy company, Marvin Glass and Associates. Mr. Cottone then showed the game to Marvin Glass himself and Mr. Glass so generously offered the student inventor a whopping $500 for the rights, his name on the patent and the promise of a job upon graduation. John took the 500 bucks and didn’t think much of it. In fact, he didn’t join the company at all until 1976.

schematic of death valley game concept

After selling the rights to Marvin Glass, John’s Godfather, Sam Cottone got right to work on coming up with a theme and landed on the idea that the game should take place in a desert setting with players using the probe to pretend to extract water from holes in the ground. The working title was Death Valley.

neil dandy with picture of mel taft

Mel Taft

neil dandy with milton bradley logooriginal game board for OPERATION

front of game box from original 1965 commercial for operationslogan from the original version of the game: "the electric game where you're the doctor!"close up of cavity sam's face from the original 1965 version of operation

That is until Marvin Glass resold the rights to Milton Bradley who had a brilliant designer named Mel Taft who reimagined the game into the surgical silliness we enjoy to this day and OPERATION was admitted into the surgical theaters of the world’s kitchen tables in 1965 with everyone’s favorite patient, Cavity Sam!

FUN FACT: SAM is actually an acronym used by cardiologists which stands for Systolic Anterior Motion which is a condition that occurs in a heart’s ventricular cavity.

neil dandy with picture of OPERATION game showing the addition of brain freezeneil dandy with SCRUBS logo

The game remained largely unchanged during its first 40 years. That is until someone at Milton Bradley came up with the genius idea to ask the public what new condition they would like to inflict on Cavity Sam! The masses spoke loud and clear. They wanted brain freeze! And Cavity Sam’s new ailment was revealed on an episode of SCRUBS where the tv doctors played the new version of the game on the actual show!


Front of OPERATION game boxfront of modern version of OPERATION box

So here we have the 2023 version of OPERATION! The graphics look decently updated from the classic and the playing surface is showing his actual head through the box with a graphic that says PRESS MY NOSE! (It lights up and buzzes).

Right off the bat before even cracking the box open, I’m noticing absolutely no indication of brain freeze. They made such a huge deal about it when it came out that I’m puzzled as to why they wouldn’t keep it as a permanent part of the game!?

Looking at the box’s sides, they just have the logo and the tag line of “Be the Doctor In This Classic Game!”

On the back it shows what the game looks like (he has a little teddy bear with a band aid… awwww…) and tells you the three very simple steps on how to play.

1. Pick a card to see what funny ailment you need to fix.
2. Carefully “operate” to remove the ailment. Watch for the BUZZ!
3. Flip the card over and earn the money on the back. Earn the most money to win!

So basically we’re teaching kids that the field of medicine is all about the Benjamins! Nice!


neil dandy with picture of andrew goldstome md

Andrew Goldstone, MD

neil dandy's nose lighting up next to picture of andrew goldstone md

Did you know that the game of OPERATION also inspired an actual medical procedure? Thyroid surgery used to be a lot more risky than it currently is today, largely because any small slip one way or the other in the patient’s throat could cause damage to the patient’s vocal cords. Thus a surgeon named Andrew Goldstone who played the game of OPERATION as a child (who didn’t?) got a brilliant idea from the game and installed an electrode to the airway tube that gets inserted down the larynx during thyroid surgery so that when and if the doctor gets too close to the vocal cords, a buzzer will sound. This technology has been utilized in thyroid surgeries since the early 90’s and has benefited thousands of patients since. Doctor Goldstone is currently working on a way to make patients’ noses light up.


plastic bag holding game piecesneil dandy opening plastic bag with teethneil dandy pulling game pieces from frame

broken heart game piece

Cavity Sam’s broken heart!

Okay, we have the game board out of the box and we’re ready to operate on poor old Cavity Sam! Batteries are already installed and everything works right out of the box. The only needed is to break the game pieces out of their plastic frame and place them into their openings in Sam’s body.

tearing the game cards from a sheettearing the game cards from a sheetOPERATION instructions sheetthe money side of a game cardthe ailment description side of a game cardtrying to extract the pencil game piece from cavity sam's writer's cramp sectionspare rib game cardneil dandy celebrating success

The object is simple. Use the metal tweezers to remove the game pieces from Cavity Sam without touching the sides of the opening or else his nose lights up and the buzzer sounds and you have failed your turn! Once all the game pieces have been successfully removed, each player adds up their earnings from the cards and whomever made the most money wins! Couldn’t possibly be simpler!


neil dandy with hasbro logopet scan version of operation showing a cartoon dog with a bone being moved through it's digestive system

In 2020, Hasbro released a new version of OPERATION called OPERATION PET SCAN where you get to move objects through a dog’s digestive tract. Ewww.

neil dandy with spider man version of operationneil dandy with hulk version of operationneil dandy with spongebob version of operationneil dandy with homer simpson version of operationneil dandy with chewbacca from star wars version of operation

And there are also other themed versions based around popular characters like Spider Man, The Incredible Hulk, Spongebob Squarepants, Homer Simpson, Star Wars and many others.

And in Deutchland OPERATION is known as DOKTER BIBBER which means Shaky Doctor.

And of course there is the arcade version you can generally find at Chuck E. Cheese which is sort of a variation on the claw machine.

And there are digital versions you can play but in my opinion, the real fun of this game is having something tangible you can physically reach out and play with in the real world. That’s why you generally don’t see me reviewing card games, video games or flat board games. I like three dimensional things you can touch, squeeze, honk and interact with.

And there you go! OPERATION in the year 2023! And you don’t even need a medical degree! But my kid might need one because I plan on him supporting me in my old age which actually isn’t that far off at this point.

neil dandy holding game box with dandy fun house website address showing

SO! If you’d like to help me pay for my kid’s college so HE can go to some righteous frat parties, compete in pizza-eating contests and whatever else they do at institutes of higher learning, please consider becoming a Dandy Fun House Supporter by visiting the patronage page at where you can also watch all the past episodes, subscribe to the podcast and read the blog which is just the episodes in written form if you’re weird and like to read.

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neil dandy holding game box waving goodbyeneil dandy holding game box with neil's nose lighting up



Mental Floss:

IEEE Spectrum:

Toy Tales:


Neil Dandy is the creator of The Dandy Fun House and the alter-ego of Neil Smith, the Big Cheese at Neil Smith Entertainment and Productions, musician, DJ, Emcee and author. Aren’t you impressed?