Boardgames ancient and modern

After a long search I finally found a research subject that’s fun and exciting enough to pursue in my free time: Board games in Celtic and Old Norse stories. They are mentioned quite often and I want to look at the role they play in the story. When are they introduced, what is said about them, why are they played? I’ve already found quite some source material (ok, not necessarily much on my specific topic, but there’s a lot on board games in general and of course games like Hnefatafl, Alea Evangelii and Tawlbrwdd are at least mentioned).

The most amusing source I found was a recent new series on BBC 4: Games Britannia presented by Benjamin Wooley. The first episode is called “Dicing with Destiny” and is largely about a quite recently found ‘Druid game’ – as it was found in a druid’s grave – the Stanway Game. It was found completely intact and the pieces were placed as if the players were still in the middle of a game. Exciting! It also covers Alea Evangelii, which is a medieval game based on the Viking Hnefatafl, so I was bouncing in front of the tv when we were watching it.

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Games Britannia

Games Britannia @ BBC 4

Episode 1 – Dicing with Destiny

Three-part series presented by historian Benjamin Woolley about popular games in Britain from the Iron Age to the Information Age, in which he unravels how an apparently trivial pursuit is a rich and entertaining source of cultural and social history.
In part one, Woolley investigates how the instinct to play games is both as universal and elemental as language itself and takes us from 1st-century Britain to the Victorian era.

Ancient and medieval games weren’t just fun, they were fundamental, and often imbued with prophetic significance. By the late Middle Ages this spiritual element in games began to be lost as gaming became increasingly associated with gambling. Dice and card games abounded, but a moral backlash in Victorian times transformed games into moral educational tools.

This was also the era in which Britain established the world’s first commercial games industry, with such classics as the Staunton Chess Set, Ludo and Snakes and Ladders leading the way, all adaptations of original games from other countries.

In the case of Snakes and Ladders, what once represented a Hindu journey to enlightenment was transformed into a popular but banal family favourite, and Woolley sees this as the perfect analogy for how the sacred energy which once imbued games had become gradually drained away by commercialisation.

Games Britannia website