Traditional Board Games

D. Parlett: The Oxford History of Board Games

Saturday, 22nd October 2011

This is one of the classic collections of board games, with their history and their play. It stands alongside the classic works of the 1950s and 1960s, Murray's "History of Board Games Other Than Chess" and Bell's "Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations", also listed on Amazon. Like those, it is really a long list of games, organised by game type, rather than historic period. Each game is given a history and, in many cases, brief details of the rules.

The Oxford History of Board Games has the advantage over some other games compendium type books in that it is very readable. Of necessity the narrative is disjointed, since each game is described in turn and many warrant only a paragraph or two. But mostly the book sticks to plain English. Sometimes a notation is used to describe moves of pieces in games with two-dimensional grid boards (chess, draughts and the like). This is easily understood, using symbols such as + for an orthogonal move, x for diagonal moves and * for moves like the king and queen in chess.

The book covers all types of traditional board game: race games, space games (or games of position), chase (hunt) games and displace games (war games and mancala). Sections on these types are further split, with race games for instance split into square or cross-track games, tables (backgammon), single-track games and games without dice. For the last category Parlett has been criticised for promoting his own game Hare & Tortoise, which is the only game in that category, but this criticism is unfair due partly to the brevity of that chapter and partly to the fact that this type of game is rare.

There is a brief look at modern commercial games, but this is not as deep as the other parts of the book - probably due to the huge number of games and the relative compexity of their rules which are not easy to describe fully in this compendium format. In that way it reads like an afterthought, but is still a valuable addition to the book as it provides interesting information on the development of some of the games we play today.

One of the drawbacks of this book, and it is only slight, is that Parlett does not describe fully the rules of many of the games he discusses. Most of the games do have enough information to allow the reader to play. But many of the others seem to succumb to a combination of the author's desire for readability and the necessity for brevity. Some games therefore lack rules altogether, even where the rules are known. Some games (like salta) have some inaccuracies which may suffer for this reason or may perhaps lack depth of research. The book as a whole is well-researched, but with hundreds of games covered it is inevitable that some are examined more deeply than others.

This book can be recommended for its completeness and readability. The only reservation is the lack of complete rules for many of the games. But this book has the advantage over the other "classics" mentioned earlier, of having reasonably up-to-date research, and of covering some of the more recent games which have become popular since the 1950s and 1960s when the other classic works were written.


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