Traditional Board Games

Board Games Fit for St. George's Day

An example set-up for leapfrog (Murray's version)
An example set-up for leapfrog (Murray's version)

Wednesday, 23rd April 2014

St. George's Day doesn't really get the same amount of attention here in England as the days of the patron saints in other parts of the British Isles. It's not a public holiday, and I've often had it pass me by unnoticed. But on this site, today, I think I'll mark the day by picking out some games associated with England.

There are few great board games originating here. The most popular traditional board games all came from elsewhere: chess is of course from India, nine men's morris (mentioned by Shakespeare, whose birthday is incidentally today) came late to this country, and even the game sometimes called English draughts, or Anglo-American checkers, was adopted from France.

A number of games are of unknown origin, and could be from England. Fox & geese is often given a Scandinavian heritage, but apart from early mentions of the disputed term "halatafl", the first literary evidence comes from the household records of English king Edward IV. The game of Agon is either English or French, and the game Asalto has been claimed as English by R. C. Bell, but its very name suggests otherwise.

There are some games of disputed origin. Halma is usually thought of as American, the brainchild of Bostonian Dr. George Howard Monks. Apparently this was based on an English game called "Hoppity", though I can find nothing about this game to tell me how similar or otherwise the two games are. Reversi is also the subject of a transatlantic tug-of-war.

There are some peculiarly English versions of wider board games, though. The most well known is a variant of hnefatafl from the court of King Athelstan (r. 924-939) called alea evangelii, "the game of the gospel". Another example is sixpenny maddell, a blend of six and nine men's morris played on an interesting triangular board.

One game appears to be pecularly English. Leapfrog is a game with a resemblance to peg solitaire (which is French) and konane (otherwise known as Hawaiian checkers). Pieces are all of the same colour, and any number can play. This last fact probably makes it most suitable if any group of board gamers should gather together to celebrate St. George's Day!


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