Let’s face it, no matter what season it is, there are bound to be plenty of rainy showers to keep us indoors – and what better excuse for a board game to pass the time? The Mayor of London has just funded a three-year programme to promote the UK’s game sector and position London as a world-leading place for interactive entertainment, with an annual London Games Festival as well.
To mark the occasion (or give you ideas for the next time you’ve run out of things to watch on Netflix), here are some of the most popular board games in history:
Two Backgammon Players, from the ‘Book of Games, Chess, Dice and Boards’, 1282 (vellum), Spanish School / Biblioteca Monasterio del Escorial, Madrid, Spain / Photo © AISA / Bridgeman Images
Backgammon is one of the oldest known board games, thought to date back about 5,000 years ago to the Byzantine era. The Egyptian game of senet and the Royal Game of Ur that are thought to be its predecessors.
Although backgammon has lost some of its prominence it is still played all over the world and is very popular in Turkey and Greece; Greeks usually tease their opponent to create a lively atmosphere. The game also features heavily in artworks by Dutch and German painters such as Jan Steen, Van Ostade and Bruegel.
From top: Painting of Gyan Bazi, Rajasthan, late 18th century, Indian School / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images; Kismet #2, 2006 (w/c & gouache on paper), Richard Yarde / Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA, USA / Purchase with Wise Fund for Fine Arts
Did you know the phrase ‘back to square one’ came from Snakes and Ladders? Snakes and ladders is an ancient Indian game which is today regarded as a worldwide classic. It is based on sheer luck and has its roots in morality lessons, as the ladders represent life’s virtues and the snakes symbolise vices. It is also associated with the Hindu philosophy that contrasts karma and kama, or destiny and desire. When the game was brought to England, it was adapted to reflect the Victorian doctrines of morality. The US created a commercial ‘Chutes and Ladders’ version without any moral lessons.
China: A group of palace ladies playing ‘Go’ in the Forbidden City, Beijing, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). / Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images
Go is an ancient Chinese abstract strategy board game for two players, whereby the aim is to surround more territory than your opponent. The earliest reference to the game was in 4th century BC and it was considered to be one of the four essential arts of a cultured Chinese scholar in antiquity, along with calligraphy, painting and playing the instrument guqin.
Legend traces the origin of Go to the mythical Chinese emperor Yao who is said to have asked his counsellor to design it for his unruly son, to favourably influence him.
Game of Chess, 1555, Sofonisba Anguissola / Museum Narodowe, Poznan, Poland / Bridgeman Images
Chess involves much more tactical thinking that your average board game; it has even been recognised as a sport of the International Olympic Committee and players have been battling it out for the title of World Chess Champion since the first in 1886.
Chess is thought to have originated in India sometime before the 7th century, with the pieces taking on their current powers in late 15th century Spain. The rules were not standardised until the 19th century.
If only J.K. Rowling’s Wizard Chess from Harry Potter with its alive pieces were real, it would perhaps be the most thrilling and terrifying game ever!
From top: Women Playing Mahjong, California, 1924 / Underwood Archives / UIG; China: Mahjong set at the Bird and Flower Market in the Old Muslim Quarter on Jingxing Road off Zheng Yi Road, Kunming, Yunnan Province / Pictures from History / David Henley
Mahjong began in China and was based on draw-and-discard card games that were popular in the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. Similar to the Western card game of rummy, it requires skill, strategy, calculation and a degree of chance. Mahjong transitioned from cards to its present day form of 144 decorated tiles during the 19th century.
Unexpectedly it was Abercrombie & Fitch that first sold Mahjong sets in America in the 1920s. After it became a success in Washington D.C., Ezra Fitch sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every Mahjong set they could find and they sold a total of 12,000 sets.
Monopoly (acrylic on panel), PJ Crook / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images
Monopoly originated in America in 1903 as a way of demonstrating the benefits of an economy that rewards wealth creation – it is named after the economic concept of monopoly: the domination of a market by a single entity. The game was first commercially sold in the 1930s and has since then become a part of popular culture, now licensed in over 100 countries and printed in more than 37 languages.
Things can definitely get intense in this game and it is a great indicator of the more ruthless or business-savvy people in the family. I once played a game where a guy traded actual cans of Heinz soup for Monopoly money…
AWVS Family Night Scrabble, Fort Baker, California, November 8, 1954 / Underwood Archives / UIG / Bridgeman Images
The renowned board game was created in 1938 by American architect Alfred Mosher Butts, as a variation on an earlier word game he made called Lexiko, and then later adapted by James Brunot. However, Scrabble did not take off until (as legend has it) the president of Macy’s played it whilst on holiday in 1952 and was surprised that his store did not stock it. He placed a large order and within a year ‘everyone had to have one’. It is believed that a third of American and half of British homes currently own a set.
Here you can see members of the American Women’s Voluntary Service enjoying ‘family night’ Scrabble in 1954 at the Fort Baker Service Club.
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