The ancient world's greatest board games

Ludus Latrunculorum. Senet. Chaturanga. And don't forget Hnefatafl. These were just some of the board games that ancient people were into thousands of years ago. Over at Smithsonian, Meilan Solly explains "The Best Board Games of the Ancient World." From the magazine:

The rules of Mehen remain unclear, as the game faded from popularity following the decline of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is sparsely represented in the archaeological record.

Writing in 1990, Egyptologist Peter A. Piccione explained, “Based upon what we know of this game ... the feline game pieces moved in a spiral along the squares, apparently, from the tail on the outside to the head of the serpent at the center.” The spherical, marble-like tokens may have been similarly rolled through the “longer spiralling grooves.”

In Patolli, a gambling game invented by the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica, players raced to move pebbles from one end of a cross-shaped track to the other. Drilled beans used as dice dictated gameplay, but the exact rules of “entry and movement” remain unknown, as Parlett notes in the Oxford History of Board Games.

Among the Aztecs, Patolli held unusually high stakes, with participants wagering not just physical goods or currency, but their own lives. As Diego Durán, a Dominican friar who authored a 16th-century tome on Aztec history and culture, explained, “At this and other games the Indians not only would gamble themselves into slavery, but even came to be legally put to death as human sacrifices.”

Images from top down: "Senet from the Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund; "Mehen" by Anagoria (CC BY 3.0 Read the rest

The game Operation was born as a test of desert survival skills

We all know the game Operation in which the player must conduct surgery on a curious character named Cavity Sam. As the commercial goes, "It takes a very steady hand." But as sci-tech historian Allison Marsh writes in IEEE Spectrum, Operation evolved from a very different electrified game called Death Valley that was invented in the early 1960s by a University of Illinois industrial design student named John Spinello. From IEEE Spectrum:

Spinello’s game, called Death Valley, didn’t feature a patient, but rather a character lost in the desert. His canteen drained by a bullet hole, he wanders through ridiculous hazards in search of water. Players moved around the board, inserting their game piece—a metal probe—into holes of various sizes. The probe had to go in cleanly without touching the sides; otherwise it would complete a circuit and sound a buzzer. Spinello’s professor gave him an A....

Spinello sold the idea to Marvin Glass and Associates, a Chicago-based toy design company, for US $500, his name on the U.S. patent (3,333,846), and the promise of a job, which never materialized.

Mel Taft, a game designer at Milton Bradley, saw a prototype of Death Valley and thought it had potential. His team tinkered with the idea but decided it would be more interesting if the players had to remove an object rather than insert a probe. They created a surgery-themed game, and Operation was born.


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A 3D papercraft Haunted Mansion board game to print and assemble

Escape from the Haunted Mansion is a massive, ambitious free papercraft project to download, print, mount on coreboard, cut out, assemble and play. I have no idea if the gameplay is any good, but the model is freaking gorgeous. It's from the good folks at Disney Experience, who have a wealth of papercraft Disney projects and other fan media for you to play with. (via Metafilter) Read the rest

4,000-year-old game board carved into floor of ancient rock shelter

An archaeologist is studying a 4,000-year-old game board carved into the floor of a rock shelter in Azerbaijan. According to American Museum of Natural History researcher Walter Crist, the board was used to play an ancient game called "58 Holes" or "Hounds and Jackals." From Live Science:

(Previously), British archaeologist Howard Carter found a game set with playing pieces fashioned like those animals in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Amenemhat IV, who lived in the 18th century B.C.

The distinctive pattern of round pits scored in the rock of the shelter in Azerbaijan came from that same game, Crist told Live Science. But the Azerbaijan version may be even older than the game set found in the pharaoh's tomb...

Though the rules of 58 Holes are unknown, many think it was played a bit like modern backgammon, with counters, such as seeds or stones, moved around the board until they reached a goal.

"It is two rows in the middle and holes that arch around outside, and it's always the fifth, 10th, 15th and 20th holes that are marked in some way," Crist said of the pattern cut into the rock shelter. "And the hole on the top is a little bit larger than the other ones, and that's usually what people think of as the goal or the endpoint of the game."

Players may have used dice or casting sticks to regulate the movement of counters on the board, but so far, no dice have been found with any ancient game set of 58 Holes or Hounds and Jackals, he said...

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1985's "Clue" the movie remains more fun than the game

Clue the movie sported an amazing cast who were clearly having a ball with the film. Clue the board game was never very much fun.

Riffing on the board game finale of declaring the murderer, location and weapon, the movie came with three alternate endings. Different theaters got different versions.

The game never ended fast enough. Read the rest

Crowdfunding an official, licensed Scrabble mechanical keyboard

On the crowdfunding site Massdrop, board-game fan Cassidy Williams is taking preorders for a $160 Scrabble-themed mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches (if you've got a mechanical keyboard kicking around that you'd like to convert, you can get the $47 keycap set instead). Read the rest

Custom-made meat-themed backgammon set

Artist Marija Tiurina created this tasty backgammon set by repurposing a fancy Jaques London set to look like meat: Read the rest

Suffragetto, an early 20th century board game, pitted suffragettes against the cops

Several years ago, the Bodleian Library mounted an exhibition called Playing with History. It featured one game enthusiast's historical collection of games and pastimes with an eye toward how games have been used through the ages to address the issues, challenges, and ideals of the time. One of the more fascinating games in the collection is Suffragetto, a board game from sometime around 1908/9 (the release date is debated).

Suffragetto was created by members of the militant British suffragette group known as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). A piece on Suffrajitsu explains gameplay:

Players enact the roles of either the suffragettes, represented by 21 green markers, or police constables, represented by 21 dark blue markers. The suffragettes’ object is to occupy the House of Commons with six markers while defending their home base of the Albert Hall against the police, whose object is, likewise, to occupy Albert Hall while defending the House of Commons.

Apparently, the Bodleian Library copy of the over 100-year-old game is the only one known to exist. But, thanks to Suffrajitsu, you can play an online version, and thanks to GA Tech, you can also download and print the game, including the box art. Bone up, kids. We might be playing this on the streets again in the near future.

[H/T Laura Spitale McGough] Read the rest

Kickstarting a new edition of Cheapass Games's classic "Button Men"

Carol from Cheapass Games writes, "In our continuing quest to bring back the very best classic Cheapass Games, we're creating a new boxed set of Button Men, our strategy dice combat game. This time around, the characters will appear on cards, rather than pin-back buttons, but since they're all 1950s era gangsters, the 'button men' name still works! The new format lets us provide 48 characters - and 30 high-quality polyhedral dice - in one affordable package. We'll also make the old-style pin-back buttons available as game accessories. Button Men won two Origins awards back when it was originally published in 1999, and it's one of our favorites." Read the rest

Code Master is an ingenious programming board game that'll make you feel smarter

I love playing clever puzzle games with friends and for years my go to company has been ThinkFun. They’ve just released a title with the claim of “teaching the basics of computer programming without a computer”. The designer of Code Master is an ex NASA virtual reality simulations programmer named Mark Engelberg and I think he’s hit his mark.

Like most of ThinkFun’s games, it comes with an ingenious, well-ramped set of levels that teaches new mechanics as you go. Even though the later levels are driving me batty, the “Huzzah!” moments encourage me to keep playing long after I should have gone to bed.

You play the role of an adventurer who needs to collect gems on each level before escaping through a Portal. To aid you in your quest you’ll need to “write a program” that moves your hero across the map.

To write the program you’ll need to order a random set of movement tokens that allows your avatar to travel on appropriately colored paths.

For the level shown above, you’re movement tokens are 1 red, 1 blue and 2 greens and must be placed in the following order to make it from start to finish.

This particular level may seem simple but believe me – the game ramps to insane levels of difficulty!

Early on you’ll be introduced to special paths that only allow your Avatar to move in the direction the arrows are pointing and Loop paths that bring your Avatar back to his current position. Read the rest

How to win at Monopoly and make you friends hate you

Here's how to make a bad game worse for everyone:

With a second monopoly completed, your next task is to improve those properties to three houses each, then all of your properties to four houses each. Six properties with three houses will give you more than half of the houses in the game, and four houses each will give you 75% of the total supply. This will make it nearly impossible for your opponents to improve their own property in a meaningful way. Keep the rulebook nearby once the supply gets low, as you will undoubtedly be questioned on it. At this point, you will be asked repeatedly to build some friggin' hotels already so that other people can build houses. Don't.

At this point, you more or less have the game sewn up. If losing a normal game of monopoly is frustrating, losing to this strategy is excruciating, as a losing opponent essentially has no path to victory, even with lucky rolls. Your goal is to play conservatively, lock up more resources, and let the other players lose by attrition. If you want to see these people again, I recommend not gloating, but simply state that you're playing to win, and that it wasn't your idea to play Monopoly in the first place.

[via] Read the rest

Castles of Mad King Ludwig – Build the most extravagant castle for a crazy king

See more photos at Wink Fun.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria, having built Neuschwanstein, has tasked players in their role as builders to build him the most extravagant and amazing castle ever. You'll have both open and secret goals based on the king's desires, and every round, someone will take a turn as the master builder setting prices for the individual rooms that are available. If they're not chosen, they'll be discounted on the following turns.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a superb game. Not only are you having to juggle the layout to determine what you can place in your castle, but you must complete rooms by connecting other rooms to them to earn points and other bonuses. How you price the individual rooms is another strong element when you're playing the part of the master builder. You need to interpret what you think your opponents want to build, and put it just within their monetary reach, since you're paid any money they spend on rooms while you're the master builder.

You'll end up with highly unlikely layouts in the quest to get all the rooms to fit into your castle. Trying to figure out what your opponents really want, and what bonus cards they might have is tough, particularly since more of them can be drawn during the course of play. After several rounds the game ends, and after points are awarded for the secret and the public goals, the most points wins.

– James Orr

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

by Bezier Games

Ages 13 and up, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours

$40 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

Arcadia Quest – Reclaim the throne from the vampire lord and his goblin army

See more photos at Wink Fun.

In Arcadia Quest, the mighty city of Arcadia has fallen to a foul vampire lord, Lord Fang, and his army of orcs, goblins and other monsters. They control the entire city, but the guilds of the city aren't going to take it laying down. There's loot to be had, and a throne to reclaim. The guild that does it sets themselves up in a position of power in the new regime. You'll guide a guild of three drafted heroes through six campaign-style missions with and against up to three opponents, attempting to complete objectives and gain power by fighting all comers.

The miniatures in the game are exceptional, with the individual sculpts for the heroes being incredible. The game play is tense, too. You weigh pursuing goals with not wanting to rush in and get the objectives, only to have the opponent's fresher guild members come in right after you and take it from you. The scenarios are well balanced and the map design is set up to not favor any particular side. Being able to grow your heroes and build them up, getting better armor and abilities is exceptionally appealing. You'll build rivalries with your fellow players, but they still need your firepower to help complete the missions, or at least need you to not be at their flanks while they fight the monsters. Win the day, for Arcadia – and also fat loots, and power.

– James Orr

Arcadia Quest

by Cool Mini or Not

Ages 14 and up, 2-4 players, 45-60 minutes

$68 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

Bow before The Duke

You’ll have tons of fun playing this well-balanced board game even if you never win - and I should know.

Getting my wife to play games with me is a bit like pulling teeth. To increase my odds of making it happen, I normally promise to light a fire and make a cozy evening out of it.

Here, you can see the lengths I went through last weekend to get my game on.  On this particular night, we played The Duke!

It’s a 2-player strategy game that takes place on a simple board of 36 squares. The game is a bit like chess – only better. The mechanics are constantly in flux and it forces you to think in a way that’s very different from other games.  

Like chess, players take turns controlling  the movement of troops on the playing field.  The player's movement options are graphically portrayed on the front and back of each troop but only the side that’s facing up is in play. Each time you move a troop, it's flipped and the movement rules change.

Each player begins with 3 "stock" troops a sack of mixed wooden tiles that'll be chosen from later.



Stock troop #1 - The Duke. He’s like the King in Chess. It’s important to keep him safe at all times because once he’s captured - you lose.  The Duke can move clear across the board like a Rook.  

Stock troops 2 & 3 – The Footmen. These are like pawns in chess. Read the rest

This board game takes place over a really bad year for humanity

See more photos at Wink Fun.

If you’re familiar with Pandemic then you’ve already got a handle on the basic game play of Pandemic Legacy. Fly around the world, cure diseases and save humanity. The first differences you’re going to notice with any Legacy game is the sheet of stickers, secret envelopes with little numbers and Advent calendar-like little packages in the main box. Pandemic Legacy takes place over the course of a really bad year for humanity. You’re going to be trying to save the world from four diseases, but this time, each individual game is going to affect the future ones as you place stickers on the board and the game changes permanently when certain events occur.

We’ll not be going into spoilers here, but some of the common knowledge things that carry over from Pandemic as slightly changed are that when cities outbreak, the first one is free, but then they slowly spin out of control there, restricting travel to and from those cities, making it harder to move in and out. Also your role will be with you for the duration of the game, and being in a city when it falls means bad things happening to your character that’ll provide lingering effects.

As far as play goes, you’ll get about 12-24 plays out of a single box of Pandemic Legacy. You get two chances per month to win, and the game adjusts difficulty based on how your record is going by varying the number of special cards in the player deck. Read the rest

Pie Face – If you get the wrong number, this slapstick comedy game will fling a faceful of whipped cream

See more photos at Wink Fun.

A cream pie in the face! It’s an ageless slapstick comedy routine that is also the inspiration for Hasbro’s Pie Face Game. Thanks in part to a viral video that’s making its rounds on social media, this equally ageless game is destined to be a hit this holiday season. Pie Face is as easy as pie to setup and play, although clean-up will be required. To get started, players attach the purple Chin Rest and Splash Card Mask to the Pie Thrower base, which comprises two handles and a throwing arm in the shape of a hand. After setting the throwing arm in place, you add the pièce de résistance: a dollop of whipped cream from your kitchen.

The rules of the game dictate that the youngest player goes first. A numbered spinner determines how many times a player must turn the handles of the pie thrower. Each player then places his or her chin on the Chin Rest with face protruding through the opening in the splash card (which is thankfully made of laminated, washable plastic). A point is awarded for each successful click of the handle that does NOT result in the player getting a face full of whipped cream. If a player completes a turn without getting hit, the points double. For the faint of heart, partial turns are allowed. For example, if a player spins a 4, he or she may elect to turn the handle only 2 times. But, this strategy comes with a price: you can’t score double points. Read the rest

Pengoloo – An adorably designed memory and luck game for young players

See more photos at Wink Fun.

Pengoloo is a fun game that encourages memory and color recognition. Young players will love the game design, with 12 adorable penguin characters and colored eggs (6 colors, 2 of each). The penguins are hollowed out wood pieces that sit on top of the eggs to hide them. Players take turns rolling two colored dice to determine what color they’re looking for. Then they pick up two penguins to see if the eggs underneath match the dice. You put matching penguins on your iceberg scoreboard; the winner is the first player to fill their iceberg (or whoever has the most after all the penguins have been picked). The game gets more fun as you try to memorize egg locations to gain an advantage.

Both kids and adults will enjoy Pengoloo. Kids get a kick out of the cute little penguins and the thrill of finding the right color egg. Even children who don’t fully grasp the memory aspects of the game will enjoy playing with the penguins. Adults will like playing a game without having to compensate for their child’s lack of skill; luck is just as important as memory and it’s entirely possible for your child to win just by picking up penguins at random. This makes the game enjoyable for children of all ages and skill levels.

The game is also well put together for something so simple: you get 12 penguins, 12 eggs, 4 scoring icebergs, and 2 dice in the box. Read the rest

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