From Past to Present -The Popularity of Board Games in Mainstream Culture

A late night discussion with a friend of mine raised an important question: why are board games still popular today? Traditional board games today are not unusual. However beyond family classics, there has been a sharp increase of other board games popularity over the years. Supporting this, Euromonitor International for games and puzzles showed a jump in sales from 9.2 billion in 2012 to a whopping 9.6 billion in 2017. Board games make up a huge amount of those rising sales and continue to show moderate growth. From this, I wondered about the origins of board games and how they maintained and increased their popularity today. Here to tell you more, I’ll be showing this history from its humble beginning in 5000 BC to the board games we see today and why they’ve picked up in popularity!

To start off, I’d like to define what constitutes a ‘board game’. Simply put, board games involve the movement of pieces on a pre-marked ‘board’ and are usually played on a flat surface such as a table. Pieces follow a specific pattern according to the board game’s rules, whether by chance, strategy or both. Board games tend to use strategy when it comes to a players’ decisions about movement around the board while chance dictates if the player will be able to fulfill these decisions. Not all board games use this combination since strategy and chance can be interchangeable- the reverse can be said about a board game’s tendency. Overall, a board game’s definition is vague at best and this opens the door for a mix of board games with different styles, types and mechanics. Some of you may think the games I cover in this article are not true representations of board games. While I agree that some board games push the bounds of this definition, I feel they still count towards the development and consideration of board games today. Now, lets begin our journey starting in 5000 BCE.

Knucklebones – 5000 BCE

Knucklebones‘- otherwise known as ‘Astragale‘ in ancient Greek or ‘Tail‘ in Latin. Knucklebones involves playing with cubic, bone pieces from the ankles of hind legs of hoofed animals. The original rules remain incomplete, allowing the freedom to revise and build upon multiple variations of Knucklebones. One variation is similar to Korea’s childhood game, ‘Gonggi’– throwing and catching dice in mid air. Another variation comes in the form of dice games like, ‘Pleistobolinda‘ from Greece, similar to Chinchirorin except playing with a different amount of Knucklebones as dice and without the use of a bowl.

Knucklebones requires no board set up, making it an entertaining and quick way to pass time. You could argue its lack of a board makes it unfit for the board game category. I disagree and this is because I feel Knucklebones fits the board game criteria because of its playability on any flat surface and its strategy – the innate muscle memory and timing to pick up multiple bones at once.

Senet – 3100 BCE

Next up, we have Senet, an Egyptian board game that translates to ‘game of passing‘. True to its name, Senet involves movement of counters through ‘rolling’ two sided sticks. The aim of Senet is for players to move their counters while avoiding hazards on the game board. Hazards represent either good or bad fortune and effect each player’s counters. The first player to move their counters off the game board wins. Winning at Senet was believed to grant blessings for a person’s passing into the afterlife. Senet’s rules were translated from snippets of hieroglyphic texts spanning over a thousand years, thus the original rules are still unknown today.

Senet uses a pre-made game board akin to a traditional board game set up. Hazards mark strategic points a player wants to avoid or reach. Meanwhile, the ‘rolling’ of sticks dictates a player’s movement to reach or avoid hazardous checkpoints.

Mehen – 3000 BCE

Having the same origins as Senet, this Egyptian snake race game follows the movement of marbles around a coiled snake board. Players’ move their marbles according to the number roll of the throwing sticks. Beyond this, the exact rules for this board game – just like Senet – remain a mystery. However, an Arabian game known as, “The Hyena Game” shares multiple characteristics with Mehen, adding to and adapting Mehen’s rules.

The coiled snake board consists of square spaces where the marble can move freely to reach the goal – the snake’s head. Along the way, each player has access to a lion token able to eat the opponent’s marbles on the way back from the snake’s head. The first player to move to the head and back to safety without being eaten wins. Interestingly enough, Mehen incorporates the reverse of a board game’s tendency – relies on luck with very little skill in gameplay.

The Royal Game of Ur – 2650 BCE

One of the longest running board games, the ‘Royal Game of Ur‘ makes it way from Egypt yet again. The ‘Royal Game of Ur’ is named after its first discovery in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq. Egyptians do love their board games and this one is a personal favourite of Pharaoh Tutankhamen- found in his tomb. After finding the ‘Royal Game of Ur’, speculations flew as people tried their best to piece together the rules of the game. It wasn’t until Irving Finkel’s discovery of an incomplete description etched into an ancient stone tablet that the rules for the game could be rebuilt. A photograph of a modern Indian board game added to the big discovery, proving this board game to be one of the oldest continuously played games.

Royal Game of Ur includes two sets of seven pieces: one black and one white as well as four tetrahedral dice. Similar to all the other Egyptian games, its precise rules are still unknown to this date. After its multiple reconstructions, a majority of people ascertain its similarity to Senet – being a race game.

Backgammon’s First Appearance – 2000 BCE

Backgammon is a well known game with lesser known origins. Its closest surviving descendent is, Ludus duodecim scriptorum which translates to ‘a game of twelve markings’. Markings are in three rows of ten on this ancient tabula similar to the markings we see in a modern backgammon board. As with many ancient games, the original rules of Ludus duodecim scriptorum are unknown. All that is known is the board game comes with three cubic dice and each player has 15 pieces to move around the board. Beyond that, Backgammon has shown an increase in popularity in the mid 1960s during the founding of an International Backgammon Association co-founded by Prince Alexis Obolensky. Raising the bar from leisurely pastime to competitive stakes, the World Backgammon Club of Manhattan established a tournament system in 1963.

The rules in modern Backgammon remain unchanged and its emphasis on strategic movements while relying on luck is what makes it entertaining even today.

Ludus Iatrunculorum – 1300 BCE

Strategy is indicative of War and nothing shows this better than Ludus latrunculorum – popular during the Roman Empire. Resembling the look and gameplay of Chess, this two player strategy game is inspired by the wars that occurred in 13th century BC. Reconstruction with this game like all other ancient games is difficult because of limited resources.

The game board is in a checkerboard pattern much like Chess except in a completely neutral tone. Each player’s piece is a ‘dog’ while the outskirts of the board is called ‘the city’. Players are given a set of their own colour and each piece can remove an opponents piece by enclosing it between two of the same colour. Much like Chess, it’s a game that revolves around methodical strategy – keeping in mind what your opponent will do next instead of relying on luck.

Chess and its Counterparts- 400 AD

Chess has a long standing reputation of being a chance to pit great minds against each other in a drawn out strategic battle. Its origins date back to Northern India in 6th Century AD  after which it eventually spread to parts of Persia. Back then, the early stages of Chess were still in development until the pieces’ movement changed in the 15th Century. The two notable changes were Pawns being able to advance two squares on their first move and Bishops and Queens having flexible movement. These rule changes are what standard chess follows today.

The game board is a distinctive black and white checkered pattern with two sets of black or white pieces. Chess captures the attention of players by the way a win can be achieved in numerous ways. It is a board game that relies on pure strategy rather than relying on luck to move each piece.

Mancala- 700 AD

Mancala is a family pass time that I always enjoy when going back to my grandmother’s house for a visit. Traditional Mancala Games span 800 different names, with my hometown being under its Indonesian name, ‘congklak’. Revered around the world as a family board game, it’s known as a ‘sowing’ or ‘count and capture’ game. Its to-the-point description matches its straightforward gameplay and includes 200 variations of ways to play Mancala. The game board consists of two sets of 5-7 small holes with two large pits at either ends.

Mancala games share a common set up with players placing a certain number of counters in their pits on either ends of the game board. A regular turn of Mancala involves removing all counters from each smaller pit and placing one counter into your large pit on the end. Counters can consists of a variety of objects: seeds, beans, stones and marbles. While I played this game at my grandmother’s house, I used cowry shells as counters. Mancala seems to lean on luck but is reliant on a person’s ability to judge where the counters will eventually end up. This is a reliance on strategy, although you are only given a certain amount of time before you can move – not enough time to count.

Settlers of Catan – Klaus Teuber, 1995 

A popular classic segways its way into the board game scene. In Settlers of Catan, players aim to build the most successful colony on the fictional island – Catan. The game board represents the whole of Catan with individual hexagonal tiles indicating the different land types available. On a given turn, players get to roll dice to see if the land they are on produces resources. Resources are then used to build infrastructure – roads and settlements. By expanding a colony, players earn a specific amount of points that eventually lead to victory. Setting itself apart form board games during this time, Catan allows bartering with other players to come to a mutually agreed trade of resources and supplies.

By building settlements and gaining cards, players earn points leading to victory. Unlike most board games, Catan entices players to go outside the confines of strict rules — allowing them to come to their own agreements when trading resources and money with one another. Catan’s unique style of gameplay surged to a feature in the 2012 American Documentary Film, “Going Cardboard” – showing Catan’s impact on American gaming communities. Its universal impact overshadowed the likes of Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit and became a catalyst for the sudden growth of popularity of board games in the United States.

Wrapping Things Up

From humble beginnings to now family classics, board games have been and still are a good source of entertainment that caters to a wide audience and brings people together. The above board games are not only different in comparison, they would each play out differently making replay value limitless to anyone playing with their friends and families. However…

Is that really it?

Although there is a huge market for family classics and traditional board games, there is not much to the different art renditions of these games. Their inherent rules do not develop further and they remain the same. Suddenly, they become mundane and predictable, especially with the same group of people. Thus, a variety of provocative board games were made to usher in a new era of playing with creativity while still keeping with basic mechanics. Listing all of them would be next to impossible as there are always new and upcoming board games in the 21st century, yet I’ll do my best to show the ones that I feel are the biggest influence on the popularity of board games. These contemporary games include but are not limited to:

21st Century Board Games

Ticket to Ride (2004)

Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004)

Pandemic (2007)

Dixit (2008)

Machi Koro (2012)

All of these board games contain basic mechanics yet they give their own spin on things when it comes to their win conditions and strategies. They vary from building your own trails for your designated trains and achieving your destination goal to earning currency by use of rolling dice. Unlike traditional ways of playing, we also have games like Dixit that revolve around guessing cards based on a person’s visual perception and Betrayal at House on the Hill which involves co-op play and eventually fractures into semi cooperative play with one player becoming a traitor. These different ways of playing give a refreshing take on traditionally ‘moving counters around a board‘  by introducing win conditions that are influenced by mainstream culture. This includes Betrayal at House on the Hill, as influenced by cliches in horror movies to Pandemic being informed by outbreaks covered in mass media.

These board games’ strength lies in direct interaction as Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic puts it, You connect with people across the table… It’s a very human thing… And it’s tactile… You need to handle the physical components, to get the feel for the texture on the cards and see the wood grain on your components.The popularity of these board games helps reflect upon the connectivity of the world today. We all seek  meaningful direct connections in the form of conversation or likeness and yet, this is hard to come across as technology merges with how we form our identities and main ways of communication.

This concludes my article and I hope its been an enjoyable read! Let me know down in the comments below your opinions of this article, whether or not you agree or disagree with the reasons why board games are popular. Like and subscribe to ATGN for more tabletop gaming content and opinion pieces!

Beyond this, there are more avenues to support locally made board games with the more prominent one being Kickstarter.

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  1. August 27, 2017 | Reply
    • Jessica
      August 28, 2017 | Reply
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