Sometimes we can benefit from looking back at our roots; board games are no exception. Serious board gamers today focus more on the latest Euro- or German-style games, “battle games” with nice boards, cards, and pieces, designer games, and family strategy games, all of which fall under what I’d call high-end board games (those with high-quality components often retailing above the $20 mark). Yet we don’t always take a moment to look back and examine some of our hobby’s ancient roots in “abstract” board games. Two books highlight for me what are several resources about board games that demonstrate how they can prove just as challenging as the most recent high-end Euro-game.
When I was just getting into roleplaying games a distant relative bought me The Big Book of Board Games: 14 Classic Games To Color & Play as a gift. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and they probably thought it was a good way to engage my interest in “games,” even if they didn’t really understand the concept of roleplaying games. Yes, it was an oversized softcover book with nice cardstock pages containing the rules for 14 games with boards one could color and use to play. (The same relatives also gave me an oversized science fiction coloring book with summaries of classic sci-fi novels with huge line art to color, so they were at least pretty spot-on with their assessment of my interests at the time.) While I might have been a bit old for coloring books, the information inside engaged my interests and further inspired me in both those fields.
The board game book offers an entertaining introduction to the history and rules of board games from the past, with the invitation to sit down and play them. These include perhaps the two earliest board games, the royal game of Ur and senet (of which I later acquired more substantial versions); those that later evolved into more abstracted, modern forms like nine men’s morris, asalto, and alquerque; and games that still persist in some popular form today, like snakes and ladders, pachisi, go, and backgammon. A few others (Glückshaus and shove ha’ penny) I found uninspiring, usually because they relied either purely on luck or manual dexterity.
The book’s format worked particularly well. Each two-page spread offered the rules -- including an introduction with some historical context, a list of pieces needed, and any set-up diagrams -- and a sizeable board for practical play. I regret the book isn’t easily found for purchase (it was published in 1979) since it might provide some inspiration for today’s youth to engage in analog games instead of the ubiquitous electronic ones.
R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (1969) serves as a more comprehensive if less-playable reference on board games. It offers overviews of numerous board games throughout history and across cultures, including diagrams and photographs of game components, historical notes, rules (some extrapolated from sketchy sources, but still playable), and numerous variants in painstaking detail.
Bell’s work represents an exhaustive study and catalog of games. One is struck by the vast range of game concepts and mechanics from civilizations we might consider “primitive” by our modern, personal-electronics-addicted society. Its broad coverage includes American Indian games, numerous iterations of mancala, variations of draughts, chess-like games, dice games, backgammon-based games; and I’m only almost halfway through the tome, which combines two previously published volumes. Reading the comprehensive table of contents provides some insight into exactly how much the book covers and how Bell categorizes games into particular groups based on play mechanics and origins.
I keep both these books on my office shelf reserved for more “academic” references on gaming, including H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, Medieval Games by Salaamallah the Corpulent, a.k.a. Jeffrey A. DeLuca, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, and Dr. Stuart Brown’s Play. Bell’s compendium seems perhaps among the most scholarly of these works. Schick’s Heroic Worlds serves as a good catalog for roleplaying games up to its publication date (1991), though it focuses more on publication and content information than describing gameplay. Given the proliferation of high-end board and card games today, I’d love to see a similar record of such games for future reference; old fogeys like myself would prefer such a descriptive catalog in print, but children of the Internet Age, however, can settle on the impermanent, mutable, and highly useful BoardGameGeek website.