History of Games

There’s a project that may or may not happen, that I can’t talk about in detail at the moment, that has an odd requirement: We need to take the development of board games and split it into four “ages” each of which contains games that modern gamers would recognise and at least have some inkling of the rules of. Let’s give it a go!

The Oldest Game

For a long time I had it in my head that the oldest game is Go. Board game geek lists it as being invented in -2200, Wikipedia says the earliest written record of it is -400, I’m not sure what the definitively pinned down date is, but that game is old!

It’s not the oldest though, at some point in the past I was misinformed and never challenged my assumptions. I’m confidently informed that Senet is older and we’ve found some wicked neat sets in old tombs. That game is looking at -3500.

It’s probably not the oldest game was, because we found these beauties. Those are from 1500 years before our oldest copy of Senet so, the oldest game was, uh…whatever that is. Maybe. Or they really are some sort of counting stone and not a game at all. Or “ritual purposes” 😉

Chess and Cards

When Western non gamers talk about old games they’re usually thinking about chess and a variety of games played with a 54 card deck. Chess is 1450, thousands of years after the really old games and cards got started around 850 but they didn’t mutate into what we’d recognise as a pack of playing cards until they came to Europe and went through various mutations over the 14th to 19th centuries.

Classic Board Games

I tried asking a few people a generation older than me what they thought classic modern board games were – as in stuff that wasn’t ancient and part of anything they’d think of as “history” – but that has been around forever. The answers I got were Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders and Risk. Huh, there’s no BGG article for Snakes and Ladders, a few specific variations are mentioned, but the main one is missing. Does that seem like a weird gap to anyone else?

In any event as I’m sure most of your know S&L technically fits in with the ancient games, being derived from an Indian game that’s at least a thousand years older than chess. But they’re probably thinking of the Milton Bradley thing that got ported over in 1943 – which would fit with the dates of the other two (1933 and 1959 respectively). Basically they’re naming things that were already in the house when they were kids.

Games that were already in the house when I was a kid

I remember growing up with the 80s bookcase games. Technically I they might have entered the house after me (I was born 1984) but they predated my ability to form memories which amounted to the same thing. Also the sort of boxes that people manufactured back then were weak – after a couple of years of regular play they looked like some artefact from the before times and my parents liked games.

So mentally, on some level, old games to me means gems like Titan and atrocities against gaming like Outdoor Survival. Some of these games would be recognised by folks who didn’t grow up with them on account of Fantasy Flight deciding to publish a bunch of old games in shiny new formats.

Modern Games

Getting into things that people would talk about as actually modern games I can observe the development of that over my lifetime. Catan rocking up in the mid 90s and people wondering if maybe it wouldn’t be terrible forever if Euros had some randomness, or Ameritrash games had some theme. Dominion swaggering up in 2008 saying “Maybe we haven’t found *all* of the genres yet followed shortly by everyone losing their shit and making a million clone babies. Pandemic jump onto the stage around the same time and raising “Cooperative games are a thing” to volume that eclipsed some muffled cries of “But we’ve had those for years”. Followed by Risk Legacy announcing “I’m too much game to only appear in a potted history of game development the one time!”

Alongside all of this Kickstarter waggled its eyebrows suggestively and whispered “What if you could support games you wanted, even if they were too niche for a publisher to pick up? What if you got to talk with the designer before it was printed and could make sure it’d grow in the way you wanted? What if you got more components per pound because the distributor doesn’t get a cut? All of this could be yours!” and people saying “Yaaaay” but suddenly sometimes money disappears with no game showing up and also minis everywhere whether you like them or not. So some of the people were sad and swore never to do it again. But enough people loved the promise of a million minis and kept Cool Mini or Not printing as much money as they wanted.

Parallel Developments

As all of this happened alongside board gaming, war gaming and roleplaying were also growing up. Wargames asking questions like “What if we had models instead of counters?” and then “This is a lot of painting, can we use fewer models?” While roleplaying asked questions like “What if as well as killing everything we did some role playing?” and then “Do we need to kill anything at all?” (With a side order of “Yes you have to kill everything and also what if there were a million supplements to help you do more of that”)

The project I’m looking at doesn’t need to deal with either of those things in detail, but it might be worth leaning out of the window on the drive past and grabbing an idea or two from each.

Putting it All Together

History is messy and things overlap. It’s also really big, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, you could fill tomes and tomes with a full history of board games developing over the years. Though I’d like to see a board games history presented in the manner of this history of the world.

What I need is four distinct “ages” of board games that are nice and neat and that each one contains at least a few games that’d be iconic and recognised by the average gamer who doesn’t care at all deeply about the history of things.

What I’m considering at the moment is this:

Ancient Games
This covers almost all of human history, right up to -5000 to 1900. I’m aware this is misuse of the term “ancient”. While historically there are thousands of years between things like Chess and Go I think that a lot of players mentally dump them into the same category. Despite its absurdly broad time catchment I suspect this grouping will feel natural to most gamers.

Classic Games
This covers 1900-1945, pulling in the classic Milton Bradley stuff like Monpoly and (modern) Snakes and Ladders. Things that people will perceive as “too recent to be history” but also “too dated for most people to remember them being invented”. There’s a possibility of doing something a bit messy here and treating the dates like guidelines and assigning games based on the sort of school of design it feels like they’re from – by date Risk doesn’t belong in this category but people may feel it fits here more naturally.

The Divide
The Ameritrash / Eurogame thing feels less clear cut these days than it used to, but having an explicit age in which we’ve got those streams of development happening in parallel seems like an important note not to miss. Also while it’s not really how game development is today (partially thanks to the internet) the consequences of it are still echoing. So having an age that goes 1945-1995 to capture how that is before global communications really get going seems like a neat thing to do.

Modern Games
And finally 1995-present covers everything in boxes that still look nicer after a decade than the bookcase games did after a year (Though I suppose I should acknowledge that as a child I looked after games less well). This age has a dual problem of being too narrow (in that it covers the smallest number of years) and too broad (in that it covers the largest number of games people will recognise if I name them). I suppose its inevitable that whichever age that includes “present” will wind up that way.

I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with this way of looking at things, but as a guideline to do a first draft of something it’ll do. Like most of the things I do as a game designer having a starting point is the most important thing because the main process of the work is endless testing and improvement 😉

One thought on “History of Games

  1. “Those beauties” look amazing. Probably an after-market player component upgrade.

    I’m struck by how the timeline of your four ages follows the history of life. Things seem to have started off practically as soon as they possibly could, although we don’t know much about it. Then, for a ridiculously long period everything seems to have been pretty samey (prokaryotic world/ancient games). Then things eventually build to a head (oxygen crisis/printing technology), and new forms come into being (eukaryotes/classic games). There is another period of gradual entrenched development, and then a relatively sudden massive increase in diversity (Cambrian explosion/modern games)

    Snakes and Ladders is the crocodile of games. It’s been around since ancient times in pretty much the same form. Although some people object to calling snakes and ladders a game (I’m actually working on a prototype, with the aim of rehabilitating it into society).

    I’m ambivalent about the term “classic games”. There’s an equivalence in that Snakes and Ladders is a game in the same way that a Classical Labyrinth (with one long unbranching route) is a maze. I’m uncomfortable with calling Monopoly a classic game though, since it’s really an object lesson in the perils of concentrated land ownership.

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