Traditional Board Games

In Search of the Lost Games

Two figures playing liubo.
Two figures playing liubo.

Saturday, 21st March 2015

The traditional board games that have survived from historic times serve as a treasure trove of entertainment for the modern gamer. But not all of them have come down to us intact. The boards that archaeology has yielded up bereft of rules of play are in some cases very beautiful, their mute pleas to be played beyond our ability to answer. In literature the allusions to characters playing lost games make us feel that we're missing out on something special.

It's only natural that players today are attracted by the allure of these mysterious games, that we have a desire to bring them back to life and enjoy them as our ancestors did. And over the past century or so there have been many games that have been reconstructed; some of the reconstructions are of better quality than others.

It is tempting, in the absence of hard facts about how these games were really played, to supply the deficit of information from our own imaginations. And there's nothing wrong with this: people have always invented new games based upon the old, tweaking and adding rules to try to improve an existing formula of play. But it's very easy to fall into the trap of passing off these new modifications as if they were the exact games played by people of times past. In the age of the world wide web, much misinformation has been spread this way. I've been guilty of it myself.

Sometimes this spread of misinformation is entirely avoidable. In researching an old game one is rarely treading new ground. There's a lot of information out there, not just on the world wide web, but in books too. The information in books isn't guaranteed to be correct, but in my experience they are generally better researched than many web pages. Some of the better ones give their sources, allowing later researches to verify the reconstructions or to form alternative interpretations.

It's important to realise that some very valuable information about games is given in books that are on other subjects, particularly anthropology. Some of the most interesting games that have been brought back to life are found in books on travel or social history. Academic papers on archaeology and literature are also good sources of well-thought-out reconstructions.

To help researchers I've prepared a bibliography of ancient board games. In it are listed all of the sources that I have had access to. All of the games in all of those sources are then given in an alphabetical list, each accompanied by references to the sources in which they are found. I have used it for my own research, and update it every time I gain access to another source.

In the case of the lost games, however, no amount of reading will bring forth a complete set of contemporary rules. For games like liubo and senet, we are left with some gaming equipment and a lot of clues. For fidchell, not even the equipment survives. This is where many people resort to "making stuff up".

There is an alternative, though. Few games are created in isolation, and there are often visible relationships between unknown games and their surviving relatives. In these cases, there is the possibility of borrowing rules from a known game to supply the defects of one that is unknown. The rules of modern seega have sometimes been used to complete the ancient Greek game of petteia, for example.

Many of the academic papers referred to above, and probably most of the books, are guilty of a major omission: play-testing. In the case of people like Murray, Bell and Parlett this is a forgiveable one: a book containing hundreds of games would be the work of a lifetime (and a great fortune) if every reconstructed game were to be exhaustively tested.

But testing with a friend, or against a hastily-created computer opponent, is rarely enough to verify that a reconstructed game is truly playable. My own reconstruction of alea evangelii suffered from this: when the eager players at put some effort into the game they found it to be hopelessly one-sided.

It is exactly that kind of test that is needed to put a reconstruction through its paces. After an initial play-test between a couple of players, at least half a dozen willing participants should then be gathered and a proper tournament staged. A games club would be an excellent opportunity. Only by this kind of thorough examination will the defects of a reconstruction be made apparent.

Elsewhere on this page I've included links to some of the resources I have mentioned: reviews of some of the good books, and my own bibliography which can be downloaded for free. I am very interested to hear about other people's researches, so if you are trying to put old games back together then please get in touch!


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