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.

The second episode ‘Monopolies and Mergers’ covers the Victorian era and works it’s way up to roleplaying games. It talks about Monopoly (of course), I was surprised that this game originated in 1904. A Quaker woman named Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips created ‘The Landlord’s Game’ through which she hoped to explain the single tax theory of Henry George (it was intended to illustrate the negative effects of concentrating land in private monopolies). Her game was published, other people got interested and adapted it until it in 1933 became more or less the game we still play.

I was amazed to learn that The ‘Game of Life’ (Levensweg) originated in 1860 (!!) and was a true Victorian game: it was very moralistic and intended to show children a ‘good’ way of life (with trials and tribulations). I was deceived by the very modern appearance it now has.

To my delight Benjamin Woolley also talks about Cluedo from 1949. The name Cluedo actually is a reference to the game Ludo (Mens erger je niet) – which actually is Latin for ‘I Play’ – but since the game Ludo was less well known in the US, Cluedo there got renamed to Clue. (Benjamin Woolley failed to mention that until next year Cluedo is the first game ever to be made into a movie. And a very entertaining movie with Tim Curry at that!) The game Ludo is based on an old Indian game which originated in the 6th century: Pachisi. Variations of this game made it to England during the British Raj, one appeared under the name Ludo in 1896.

Snakes and Ladders
Victorian Snakes and Ladders

Another well known game also originated in India: Snakes and Ladders. This was a very interesting part as I remember playing it with my brother and not getting the point of it at all. It was based on an Indian game of morality which was called Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam ‘The Ladder to Salvation’ and reflected the Hinduism consciousness around everyday life. The game was played widely in ancient India by the name of Moksha Patamu and perhaps invented by Hindu spiritual teachers to teach children about the effects of good deeds as opposed to bad deeds. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, humility, etc., and the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, theft, etc. The moral of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through performing good deeds whereas by doing evil one takes rebirth in lower forms of life (Patamu). The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that treading the path of good is very difficult compared to committing sins. Presumably the number “100” represented Moksha (Salvation). Impressed by the ideals behind the game, a newer version was introduced in Victorian England in 1892. Snakes and Ladders was eventually published in the USA 1943 by game pioneer Milton Bradley. So now we finally know what the snakes and ladders stand for!

As you can see I learned a lot the last few weeks…

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