Traditional Board Games

R. C. Bell: Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations

Saturday, 22nd October 2011

I'm looking at this book from a board gamer's perspective, though this book also covers games with dice and dominoes. But board games are by far the dominant type, making this a plentiful source of information for other board gamers like me.

The book is actually two volumes bound as one. The original book, "Board and Table Games", was published by the Oxford University Press in 1960. The second volume, "Board and Table Games 2" was published in 1969, the original being renamed "Board and Table Games 1". In 1979, Dover Publications published a paperback edition which combined the two volumes, retaining everything from the original, including separate page numbering, tables of contents and indexes. It's a reprint of that book that's being covered here.

Bell's book, in contrast to others I have read, seems to be aimed more at those who want to play the games than those who want to research them. While Bell does give sources for his information, some of his reconstructions go further than some historical purists would like. Senet for instance, spelt Senat in the first volume, has "suggested" rules which are complete and perfectly playable, something which more historically-oriented authors shied away from. But Bell's rules seem to owe nothing to his sources and are entirely of his own construction. In this and many other cases, more recent books might give more plausible rules.

This player-oriented format of the book is obviously an advantage to those wanting to try out the games. Rules for almost every game are given in the kind of format you would see on a leaflet enclosed with a manufactured game. Some rules forget to mention who goes first, a problem for asymmetrical games, but on the whole the rules are complete, well-presented and easy to follow.

The range of games given is very good. Between the two volumes there are over 100 board games. These are of all types: race games, war games, hunt games, games of position and mancala games. Some of the categorisation seems arbitrary, but this matters little as the table of contents and the index are comprehensive. There may not be as many games as in other books, but the complete presentation of the games makes up for this.

Both volumes include some interesting additional miscellany. The first volume has biographies of many of Bell's sources, including the famous Edmond Hoyle whose name is still used on game books much in the same manner as Mrs. Beeton's name is invoked for cookery, or Fred Jane for warships. Volume 2 has information about gaming counters, and instructions on making a board for Agon.

One good reason to recommend this book is that it is still in print and widely available at a reasonable price. Even the original hardback editions are still relatively easily obtained, though these are more expensive than the modern paperback. I would therefore suggest this as a good first purchase for anyone wanting to look further into traditional board games.


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