Traditional Board Games

On Old Board Games That Aren't Old

Horseshoe and Madelinette leaflet
Horseshoe and Madelinette leaflet

Sunday, 14th September 2014

It's usually easy to tell a traditional board game from a modern one. Traditional board games usually have little or no theme. The rules are usually simple, or based on very simple premises, like movement to adjacent squares or in a particular direction, or capture by landing on or jumping over an enemy, or moving by the distance shown by dice. The board tends to be a simple grid based on squares, or a set of linked points generally arranged on some kind of grid. A player usually moves just a single piece at a time.

Modern games tend to make more effort to make a theme fit the game mechanism, and employ a wider variety of mechanisms like trade or building up the board from tiles. The more dry modern abstracts tend to have convoluted mechanisms, like those where a piece's power of movement varies depending on where it, its colleagues, or even an opponent piece, is sitting. And movement of any number of pieces in a turn is far from unusual.

There are always exceptions, though. Hexagonal games existed before 1900, like Agon. Convoluted mechanisms in mediaeval times are covered by Rithmomachy. These games could be mistaken for modern ones. And the exceptions work both ways. There are many games which could fool a viewer into thinking that they are centuries old, deliberately or otherwise. Some have taken me in.

Take madelinette, for instance. It's a slightly more complex version of the traditional Far Eastern game horse-shoe. With only the addition of two playing spaces and two pieces, madelinette looks every bit as traditional as horse-shoe. Some web pages report it being played in 18th-century France, and a mediaeval board from East Yorkshire looks more like madelinette than three men's morris. But in reality, it was probably invented in 1993, by J. & J. Loader for their book "Making Board, Peg & Dice Games".

Surakarta has also come under scrutiny. Not documented before the 20th century, it appeared in R. C. Bell's book Board and Table Games. Its unusual method of capture might alert some to its modernity, though this wouldn't be enough to mark it out as a modern game: take a look at Fanorona, dated to about 1680, for a counterexample. But there is an increasing body of opinion that Surakarta is a modern game.

Some also think Dou Shou Qi, the Jungle Game, is old. But there's no evidence of it being played before the middle of the 20th century. It was first mentioned in print in the West in 1969. While some say that Stratego was developed from the Jungle Game, it seems just as likely that the Jungle Game was developed in the 20th century with inspiration from Stratego.

These are examples of why one should not always believe what one reads on the world wide web (or in books, for that matter). Nowadays, even more so than when writing the Traditional Board Games series of leaflets, I look for proper documentary evidence of a game's antiquity before asserting that it really is traditional.


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