Now that our latest game, Sub Terra, is in production, ITB Board games at future projects in the pipeline.
This week we’ve been playtesting a couple of incredible concepts that we can’t wait to share – as well as taking notes on some amazing board games made by other companies in the last few years. Just like in every creative industry it’s incredibly important to keep up to date with the innovations and ideas other people are putting out into the world. Rarely, if ever, do we look to the past for inspiration.
When we think of old board games we tend to imagine a dusty copy of Monopoly sat unplayed on someone’s bedroom shelf. But of course, the history of board games is much, much older than the big names and brands all of us are familiar with.
In the British Museum, just a short trip from the ITB offices, is a game that is truly ancient. The Royal Game of Ur was created around 4500 years ago in Sumer, modern day Iraq. The game was a mystery for many years – until British historian and wizard Irving Finkel discovered its rules from the translation of ancient cuneiform documents. Earlier this year Dr Finkel and YouTuber Tom Scott played the game for International Tabletop Day, showing that even though the game is about as old as the Pyramids of Giza it can still be enjoyed and understood today.
Like many old games the Royal Game of Ur is heavily luck-based. Movement of game pieces relies on the role of a dice (or at least a tetrahedron proto-dice that almost resembles a D4), and the only real tactical chose is deciding which piece to move and hoping your opponent doesn’t roll better than you.
Many ancient games used only a small handful of simple mechanics in their rules. Games like Go, Chess and Backgammon have very few rules but can be fiendishly difficult to master. Many others, however, relied on luck and randomness to progress the game.
Complicated tactics and strategies are a relatively recent inclusion to board games. The densely complex rulebooks of some modern games would never have emerged in ancient times. With randomness being designed out of many contemporary strategy games it’s interesting to imagine what a future as far away from us as we are to the Sumerians might hold for board game design.
Another lesson we might learn from our ancient roots is that of roleplaying. We tend to think of roleplaying as a relatively modern invention – something that came about with Gary Gygax and his phenomenal Dungeons & Dragons. What the Royal Game of Ur proves is that roleplay in some form has always been a part of tabletop gaming.
In the Royal Game of Ur players take control of army commanders, directing troops down a contested path. When their tokens collide with the other players a battle wipes one of them from the board. The roleplaying theme may be small, but it’s there nonetheless.
In many examples of these ancient games themes have always existed. Some of them may have been lost to time, but others remain. In chess, for example, battling kings deploy troops with special powers to battle an opposing team. Although we may not think of this today as a game theme there may have been a time when this idea helped share and spread the rules across the ancient world.
Light roleplaying and themes can transform games from a dull exercise in abstract strategy into something engaging and fun. Today, more than ever, those themes are hugely important to the hobby, and looking back to the past enforces this idea.
The Royal Game of Ur may seem mysterious and esoteric at first, but when we look closer we see that many of the elements and ideas inherent to it exist in some form or another today. With so many designers tweaking and reimagining mechanics that already exist in other games revolutionary innovations are rare.
This isn’t as bad as it sounds at first, as board games, like many other creative exercises, are often about building on ideas that came before – slowly and gradually creating notions, mechanics and ideas that elevate the entire hobby as a whole. Any innovations that do come along can quickly influence the entire hobby. They don’t just make their own game better, but they make all of tabletop gaming better.
Whether the idea of board game past is your first childhood copy of Mousetrap, or a game with roots as far back as 5000 years, reflecting on the elements that made games of the past great is a hugely useful tool in looking forward.