Traditional Board Games

Games Throughout History

Wei qi player.
Wei qi player.

It's difficult to classify games by era from a worldwide perspective. So the classifications here are Euro-centric: antiquity or the ancient world referring to the period before about A.D. 500, the middle ages being about 500-1500, and the modern area being the years since 1500. This site deals with games before about 1900, although a few games of later date might creep in if they're in the traditional style.

Some games from the ancient world have survived through to modern times. Backgammon is based on a game of the Romans and is the best-known example in the west, though the game of go, or wei-qi, is also ancient. Some games, such as mancala or nine men's morris, are so ancient that we don't know exactly when or where they first appeared.

But a large number of ancient games have disappeared, and although some of them can be easily reconstructed, they are not well known today. Sometimes this is because our reconstructions are entirely fanciful; sometimes the games were superseded by a more modern form.

The medieval world gave us chess and draughts. Some other games from this time are still remembered, such as fox & geese. But there are a number of other games which have been almost forgotten, such as hnefatafl, which almost died out but is now enjoying a minor revival.

Some games which have died out almost completely are the large number of chess variants which flourished before the game was standardised. There were many four-player variants, even some three-player variants, and a great number of expanded boards with novel pieces. Some national variants to survive, particularly in east Asia.

There were many good board games in the traditional style invented between the Renaissance and the end of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century was a particularly good time for game inventiveness, with halma and reversi flourishing and still with us today.

Industrialisation brought another kind of board game, the proprietary board game. These often had complicated boards printed on cardboard or linen-backed paper, like modern board games today. An early example was the Game of the Goose. These games were published in such quantity and variety that this site can't attempt to cover them.

Industrialisation also brought about an explosion in the numbers of board games in the traditional style, and with the coming of the world wide web, anyone can invent a game and circulate the rules widely. This has resulted in literally thousands of traditional-style board games, some of which may not have been played beyond the inventor's own circle. Again, because of their vast quantity and variety, the site can't attempt to cover them. An arbitrary cut-off date of about 1900 has been applied, though a few games of later (sometimes much later) date have been included, where they are developed from older games.

Ancient Games


One thing that marks games which have survived from the ancient world is their widespread popularity. While any craze can spread worldwide, these games have had more than a thousand years to bed in and become part of the culture in diverse nations. Of the games that don't survive, there is a different story. Some of them are nameless, just etchings in a pavement. Others have been restored piecemeal from occasional mentions in literature. Others have had to be ... (read more...)

Mediaeval Games


Games from this period share much of the character of the ancient games. The main difference is that many more of them have survived intact - particularly those which survived till the coming of the printing press. (read more...)

Early Modern Games


Games in early modern times have benefitted from industrial production techniques and worldwide distribution. The sheer number of them mean that the majority have disappeared without trace, but the few that are still played today have travelled the world virtually unchanged. Some of the games, even those that survive, have remained a local phenomenon, particularly those invented in non-industrial parts of the world or in isolated cultures. It is only with the internet that they are becoming more widely ... (read more...)


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