Your favorite board games have some pretty wacky origin stories
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Your favorite board games have some pretty wacky origin stories


Piles of history, lots of mystery: Boardgames on display in the Museum of London.
Piles of history, lots of mystery: Boardgames on display in the Museum of London.

Image: Evening Standar/REX/Shutterstock

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Humans evolve. So do the games they play. But they’ve always played them, even back in an age when, the evidence suggests, our ancestors actually worshipped with boardgames.

That’s just one of the startling insights to be found in It’s All A Game, a splendid new book by British journalist Tristan Donovan. A quick and breezy read, it doesn’t just tell the fascinating stories of the (often struggling) individuals who created our favorite games. 

It also manages to convey the entire sweep of boardgame history, from the earliest forms of Checkers to modern-day surprise hits like Settlers of Catan. Bottom line: we haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to inventing new ways to play.

Donovan, who penned a well-received history of videogames called Replay back in 2010, takes us all the way back to the earliest games ever discovered. They would be the 6,000-year old Royal Game of Ur and Ancient Egypt’s senet, and the search for a Rosetta Stone that would explain the rules is a fascinating tale on its own. 

You’d probably bore yourself to tears playing the Royal Game of Ur or senet. Players raced each other around a board of squares using the equivalent of dice. But the religious meanings we’ve often found on those squares suggest it wasn’t so much a game as a ritual that would help you find your way to the next world — The Game of Afterlife, basically. 

Our modern games tend toward a different kind of religion: dollar bills. The Game of Life had its origins in a wholesome 19th century game about doing good deeds and getting into heaven, but it only really took off with a 1960s reboot that measured your life’s worth through money. 

Even a 21st century version’s attempt to reward you with points for life experiences still converts those points to cash at the end of the game.

10-year-old Monopoly prodigy Ian Smith on his way to the finals of the British Monopoly Championships in 1978.

10-year-old Monopoly prodigy Ian Smith on his way to the finals of the British Monopoly Championships in 1978.

Image: Ken Towner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Monopoly, similarly, started off as the anti-capitalist Landlord’s Game. It was designed to promote a now-forgotten political party that wanted to tax all landowners 100% and redistribute the wealth to their renters. But it simulated capitalism too well, and after it was passed from hand to hand for decades, it morphed into the Mr. Moneybags version we know and lose friends over today. 

Almost any long-lasting game you can mention has gone through this kind of evolution. Chess has to be the most beta-tested game in the world; in ancient India it was played with dice so that each move was random. But the Arabic and European worlds didn’t like anything that could be used for gambling, so chess became a game of skill instead. 

Even then it didn’t really fly until unknown European players changed the pieces and added the game’s most essential element: the all-powerful queen. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that chess was one of the first games where international tournaments erased the barrier between male and female players.

For a while, it seems, every decade had a game that defined it. For the 1960s there was Twister — first called King’s Footsie, then Pretzel — which introduced a then-risque element of closeness between the sexes. In the 1970s, backgammon tournaments gave the old game a new international allure as the jet-set began gambling with the doubling dice. In the 1980s, aging boomers wanted to prove their pop culture knowledge was worth something, so they snapped up pricey Trivial Pursuit sets. 

And now? With the sudden global rise of games cafes, and with smart co-operative games like Pandemic or intense trading games like Settlers of Catan, the world seems to be following the strategy game-obsessed Germans into a new age where we’re just as likely to get social around a board in the evening as watch TV or browse Facebook. 

In each case, the rags-to-riches stories of the games’ inventors are inspiring. Donavan’s sketches make you realize that there are bound to be hundreds more hella fun concepts that haven’t been invented yet. If you’re into it, maybe thousands of people will pay for it.  

And it’s a level playing field: world-conquering boardgame (metaphorically, that is, not like Risk) is something anyone can come up with at their kitchen table, no training required. All you need is an idea, a bit of cardboard, a few friends, and a willingness to beta-test like crazy. 

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June 8, 2017
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