Board games mean something different to every person and culture in the world. For some they are a staple of family life. For others they signal vices like gambling and risk. But in our globalised world games of all form are a universal experience that have roots stretching back thousands of years. In this blog post ITB’s Tom Ana walks you through the history of tabletop gaming – highlighting some of the most important events that have shaped the hobby and the industry into what it is today.
Evidence of games being played for fun and competition can be seen as far back as some of the earliest human settlements. Archeological believed to show ancient game activity can be seen in Axum, Ethiopia, from around 8000BC. Games like this evolved into a handful of variants, and are likely to be the predecessor of the African game Mancala.
One of the earliest physical board games, Senet, is first played across Ancient Egypt. The game, which was only seen in the courts of royalty and the upper classes, is the first example of a physical object created for the purposes of a game. Although Senet’s rules are not entirely known, it is featured in ancient hieroglyphs, where it is described as ‘the game of passing’.
The Royal Game of Ur emerges in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). The game was one of the first played outside of the royal courts, and spread throughout the ancient world through trade and soldiers. The Game of Ur was arguably the first international game, with versions being found in sites such as India, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.
The ancient game of Chess is first played on the Indian subcontinent. The highly strategic competitive game evolved through several versions, but eventually spread in the form we know today via China and the Silk Road across the Eurasia.
In India, early versions of the game Snakes And Ladders emerge, evolving from games that may then already have been hundreds of years old. The game, which is almost identical to today’s contemporary version, was originally designed as a morality game, with ladders and snakes representing different virtues and vices on the path to Nirvana. The game existed in dozens of iterations, including Hindu, Jain and Muslim versions – but was eventually produced in the West as a secular children’s game.
The first four-suit deck of cards is created in Europe. The deck, which was inspired by other card games that had existed for hundreds of years, was designed to be used with multiple game rules. The four-suit deck eventually became the standard for dozens of card games, after being spread through trade and colonisation to all corners of the world.
Some of the first mass produced games are made in newly-industrialised Western Europe. Throughout the Victorian era card and board games that were simple and provided light and innocent entertainment were hugely popular. Many of these earliest games were only created in small runs, but some required the production of thousands of standardised copies.
The Victorian era saw rise of colonial and military themes in board games. Some of the first recognisable 4X games are directly descended from war and conquest games from this era.
Pachisi, known as the national game of India, becomes one of the first games appropriated for a Western audience. The game, a dice-rolling strategic movement game, has been played in the area for hundreds of years – but was redesigned and exported via the British Empire to the UK as the simplified game, Ludo.
In Arden, Delaware (US), artist and anti-monopoly protestor Elizabeth Magie creates the first version of her game The Landlord Game. The game was originally designed as a protest against unfair taxation and monopoly laws in the US, and was later copied and sold to the Parker Brothers Co in the 1930s as the game Monopoly. In 2015 Hasbro (who now own the rights) announced over 1 billion games of Monopoly had been sold worldwide, making it the most popular board game ever created.
The first ever videogame, Pong, is created. The new invention leads to a long-lasting relationship between digital and analogue games that inspired dozens of new design approaches. Although existing as separate art forms, board and video games had many overlapping philosophies of design and theory that continue to this day.
Game designer and writer Gary Gygax begins work on what would later become the first edition of tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons. The game was one of the first tabletop RPGs to become popular in the US, and inspired countless other imitations, as well as RPG-style mechanics in dozens of other games.
The first ever Spieltage (games fair) is held in Essen, Germany. The small convention for hobbyists and enthusiasts later expanded into an international annual event, influencing boardgame designers and companies across the world. Today conventions are held every year in the US, Europe, Africa and Asia, with the biggest drawing thousands of members of the public.
The first copy of popular German game Settlers of Catan is produced. The hugely popular game is famous as the first Eurogame to ‘break America’, leading to the growing popularity of European-style tabletop games in the US.
Toy giants Hasbro purchase Wizards Of The Coast, creators of D&D, Magic The Gathering and a number of other games. Since the 1980s Hasbro has been the largest toy company in existence, bringing games (both mainstream and hobbyist) to customers across the world.
Leading eurogame Carcassonne is published for the first time. The game quickly became a staple for eurogame fans across the world, and is notable as the first game to include ‘Meeples’ – a component that has since been included in dozens of other games.
Risk Legacy is published by Hasbro games. The redesign of the classic game Risk, is the first game to include ‘legacy’ elements that carry over between games, creating a game that changes and evolves with each play.
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