By Rob Huber
We have all spent many long and happy hours sifting through titles, ratings, and/or reviews on Amazon, Fun Again, Board Game Geek, and the shelves of our beloved local brick-and-mortar game stores hoping to find something new and exciting. I take great pleasure in introducing a game to my weekly game group that captures their fancy. It’s a feeling that I’m sure we all share. With the nearly endless list of modern games from which to choose we could be forgiven if it never occurred to us that our modern bounty was preceded by, and is predicated upon, an equally exciting and ancient body of work that is ours for the taking if we are willing to seek it out.
Some years ago, while re-shelving books during an especially quiet solo night shift at the small independent children’s bookstore where I was then employed, my mind was drifting between one passion (books) and another (games) when it occurred to me that they likely shared some common ground. That was when I acted upon the simple, perhaps obvious, idea of seeking out reference books written about board games.
When my special order arrived two weeks later I came home with a $13 paperback that was first printed in 1960 titled, “Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations,” authored by R.C. Bell.
I can’t begin to guess how many times I have read this book. Sometimes I bounce from entry to entry. Other times I will read all of the accounts of one family of games. Since I acquired it, I have curated a small collection of similar titles and am always on the prowl for more. My reading and rereading of BaTGfMC has not been inspired by R.C.’s snappy prose style. (Though, in his defense he is trying to discuss and describe thousands of years of games in a semi-scholarly manner, not dethrone Fitzgerald.) Where it really delivers is in its clarity of description and illustration. The games it records are documented in such a way that upon reading an intriguing entry, all that is required to make a playable version of Tawlbwrdd (Throw-Board) — the prehistoric Welsh game — is some cardboard and a handful of the multicolored glass nuggets from the vase in the dining room. (The gladioli won’t miss them, I promise.)
After making the investment of those five minutes with your marker, ruler, and cardboard, you are rewarded with a solid two-player game. In fact, I am here to tell you that Tawlbwrdd is at least as good a game as any of its modern two-player abstract descendants. It has both perfect and complete information, it requires strategic play, it leads to some bedeviling gotcha moments, and the set I usually play will fit in a pocket. (I made the board on an 18-inch square scrap of muslin.)
If “Rob read about an old Welsh game” isn’t exciting enough news to stir the gaming heart in your chest, let me add that Tawlbwrdd is not the only great game that I have dusted off, nor is it necessarily the best. (Though as a proud Welshman I could never fully concede that point.)
Jungle or Dou Shou Qi (Chinese: 鬥獸棋, “Game of Fighting Animals”) is a traditional Chinese board game played on a 7×9 board. The game is also known as The Jungle Game, Jungle Chess, or Animals Chess, and is sometimes called Oriental Chess or Children’s Chess.Please allow me to bolster my argument with the following offerings:
- “Jungle” (Dou Shou Qi), is a game that comes to us from China (and also referenced in a recent episode of The Board Game Show). In it two players control eight discretely valued animals that start arranged in mirror opposition to one another on the nine-by-seven board that they traverse in an orthogonal manner as they endeavor to occupy the opponent’s “den.” (Jungle is the only game I play that explicitly involves mice eating the brains of elephants. Which, by itself, is enough to make me love it.)
- Mayhaps you’d like to try the two-player hexagonal ‘queen’ of the mountain game, “Agon”.
- If you want to skip boards altogether, gather some index cards, eight dice, a stack of poker chips, and five friends and see if you can master the strategy hidden in the dynamic, bidding dice roller, “White Horse.”
- Finally if you live within 60 miles of Chicago and are willing to try the four-player precursor to chess, “Chaturanga,” let me know. I’m in.
I freely admit that I’m a gamer, not an historian. But from what I’m told, electric light is a pretty new thing. I have, however, personally been to Wales recently and can report to you that the Welsh night is as black as pitch. I imagine that 10th century nights were only more black. So if our 10th century Welsh fore-gamers were of a mind to spend their night’s leisure time by the hearth, challenging one another to a safe and friendly board game instead of walking around outside in an inky blackness populated with bears, towering cliffs, and ominous spectral hounds, I can’t say that I blame them.
Since prehistory gamers have been creating, passing on, and refining the distractions that they deemed to be a worthy use of their precious leisure time, often doing so in a world where life was short and resources were scarce. In fact, if you were to investigate the dates of the end of the Stone Age, when the wheel was invented, and the manufacturing date of the first board games, you’d discover that all three date to around 3300 B.C. Perhaps when taking all of that into consideration we shouldn’t be surprised when we find that some of these forgotten games are found to have enduring value.
Am I going to sell my Last Night On Earth collection? Can my copy of Cosmic Encounter be found on the shelf of the local thrift shop? Was Lords of Waterdeep used to kindle my last bonfire? No, no, and no. But these historic and prehistoric offerings are unquestionably solid games and they are certainly top notch downtime fillers. I take as much pleasure from playing and teaching an Iron Age oldie as I do from any title that Flying Frog or Fantasy Flight have to offer.
So to my fellow gamers here in the 21st century, I say that we owe it to our fore-gamers, to ourselves, and to the gamers of the 31st century to occasionally leave our familiar isle of Catan, castle of Carcassonne, or station on the Galactica to tread the boards of history. I firmly believe that if we do, we will find that there is something of merit there patiently waiting for each of us.