Traditional Board Games

For Animal Lovers: Game Themes from History

A chess knight
A chess knight

Saturday, 31st January 2015

Animal themes can make popular board games, especially for people who are not normally gamers. Modern releases like Takenoko, where players care for a panda, and Hive, an abstract battle between insects, have found many fans. Arimaa, another modern abstract, uses a chess set but all pieces represent animals.

But using animals as a theme for board games isn't a modern idea. Traditional board games, starting thousands of years ago, have used animals as their theme. A number of broad subcategories have come into existence over the intervening years that reflect the natures of animals and their relationship to humans.

The oldest animal themes, like the oldest games, treat animals as racing teams. Egyptian racing games, like dogs & jackals, used animal shapes as an alternative to simply colouring the pieces, and this was often done with some other race games like senet. Later games used horses as race animals, though in teams as opposed to the modern all-against-all nature of the sport. In nyout the pieces are called horses, and an early mediaeval Chinese game (confusingly called xiang qi, but not Chinese chess) had teams of horses racing against one another.

After this came chess, which includes war animals in its armies. The modern knights were originally cavalry, and the bishops of our game were the war elephants of earlier cultures. Some expanded chess games included camels as war mounts, too. Japanese chess variants went further with the animal theme, but these were more abstract and I'll return to those in a moment.

The most obvious animal themes came with hunt games, which seem to have appeared after A.D. 1000 in various parts of the world. Hunting with animals was a sport known from much earlier times, and the leopard games of Asia, where the prey is usually a tiger, show the use of leopards as hunting animals. European games often use hounds as the hunters, as in hare & hounds.

Some hunt games use animals in a decidedly odd manner. In fox & geese, the geese have the ability to trap a fox, and act as the hunters. In tigers & goats the goats are equally fierce, managing to block their prey's movement in a way that no natural tiger would tolerate (zoologists are invited to correct me if I'm wrong).

Ancient Greeks sometimes referred to the pieces in their war games as "dogs", and may have been mimicking the war-like behaviour of pack animals, but it's just as likely that this was simply anthropomorphism. Later Arabs would use dogs in games like seega and tâb, but the Japanese took the idea further. In tori shogi, "bird chess", all the pieces are species of bird, but the way that birds of all species divide into teams does not attempt to mimic any natural or trained animal behaviour. The larger wa shogi treats animals in the same way.

One category notable by its absence is the animal in its natural habitat. Even in the probably modern dou shou qi, animals divide across species into two teams, one elephant and tiger cooperating against another team's elephant and tiger. Abstract game desigers might yet like to tap more natural behaviour, for instance, two warring meerkat tribes, possibly with a burrow to protect, or a hunt game which models typical herd behaviour.

Traditionally animal themes were adopted in stories for political reasons: a story about someone's behaviour could be more safely told if that behaviour was transferred to anonymous animals; in modern times it also helps those stories to appeal to children. In games, using animals in a similar manner has similar effects: behaviours like warfare can be modelled inoffensively, and animals continue to be a draw for children.


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