Traditional Board Games

A History of Board Games: Is It Possible?

The japanese games of (from left to right) shogi, go and sugoroku, c.1780.
The japanese games of (from left to right) shogi, go and sugoroku, c.1780.

Friday, 5th September 2014

I have a couple of books that claim to be a history of board games. But is it possible to write such a thing? Board games are diverse, and seem to have come into being independently in more than one place. As with histories of the world, it seems that a history of board games might be a complicated thread of separate narratives that don't always have a connection to each other. Having once entertained the idea of writing such a history myself, I want to look at whether it's possible to do so, and how such a history might be constructed.

Two of my books that claim to be a history of board games are H. J. R. Murray's "A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess" and D. Parlett's "History of Board Games". Both are excellent books, now sadly out of print. But having read both of them through, I noticed that don't read like histories. Instead they resemble collections of board games, organised by type, geography and family. A particular game or family might have its own history that runs on for a number of pages, but neither book is a single complete and continuous history.

Looking at their content, much of which is reflected in this site, it seems that it would be impossible to write a single history covering board games in general. They were invented separately in at least three different places: New Zealand (mu torere), the Americas (totolospi, puluc, zohn ahl and many native games), and the "Old World". To this might be added Hawaii (konane); it's unlikely that the earliest board games in any of these places owe their existence to one another due to their differences and the evidence of their earliest play.

Later on, the histories of these areas of gaming converge, with travel between the Old World and the New, though interaction between these separate families of games is scarce. Mainly this involves adoption by New World natives of board games coming from Europe, Africa and Asia, with frequent modifications in their new home (for instance, the way in which alquerque was modified into awithlaknannai in North America).

So it seems to me that a single history of board games could only be a very complicated tapestry of different threads, starting in different places, which occasionally interact. While it's possible to write such a history of board games, I think it would be very disjointed.

It would be more practical to have a history of a single board game (like Murray's monumental History of Chess), or a history of a family of board games (like the history in my own Introduction to Hnefatafl, which charts the development from the Greek petteia, through hnefatafl, to some modern descendants). Or perhaps the history of board games played in a given region might have some coherence.

In the future, I'd like to try to write a comprehensive history of board games. Most likely, it would turn out to be a collection of histories: each chapter would deal with a family of games, or families that were interrelated; games not influencing each other would be in separate chapters. Unique games would have to be left out, or collected into one chapter that would indeed become a mere collection. Forming the plan of such a book is a happy exercise that I hope to have time for one day!


New Comment

Yes No