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Weekly Alibi Serious Games

By Steven Robert Allen

JULY 19, 1999: 

The Oxford History of Board Games by David Parlett (Oxford), hardcover, $45

The cover reproduces A Hitt at Backgammon by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), depicting an angry man and an angry woman locked in battle over a backgammon board. Two candlesticks have toppled over, and the tablecloth is about to light on fire. The woman grabs at the man's powdered wig as he, in turn, raises his dice shaker into the air, ready to smash his opponent in her warty, grimacing face.

The picture conveys emotions similar to the ones my sister and I felt long ago as we hunched over a game of checkers at the ages of, let's say, five and seven. I vividly remember her flipping the board into the air, pieces flying upward then dropping to the carpet like black and red rain. Something about board games, especially those based on pure skill, bring out the worst in people. Egos are easily bruised, friendships easily crippled, families easily upheaved. I suppose that's what makes them so fun.

It's also what makes them so instructive. A board game of pure skill teaches kids, and their immature parents, to accept both loss and victory with grace, to maintain a calm mind in the face of approaching defeat, to learn from past mistakes, to be vigilant and thoughtful even when the chips are down and your clever opponent threatens to mate in four moves.

As David Parlett illustrates in this excellent book, board games have been and continue to be an important part of every culture. Great games originate from every continent. Just as India developed chess, China and Japan developed Go (or Wei-qi), Africa developed mancala, Amerindians developed various dice games and Europe developed checkers. Every one of these games is an awesome work of art. And after you get past the theoretical and aesthetic elegance of each, you'll find that they're also pretty darned fun to play.

In dark days such as these, though, many people who find themselves browsing the games section of their local toy store might wonder if the ingenuity and brilliance of the old classics are as dead as the generations who created them. Most of the games, about 90 percent by Parlett's estimation, are, as the author puts it, "promotional games, TV spin-offs, and character-merchandising exercises, of an essentially trivial, ephemeral, mind-numbing, and ultimately soul-destroying degree of worthlessness."

Parlett may lash out with the occasional jab at a particularly stupid modern game, but for the most part he focuses on the games that are unique, stimulating and built to last. His book tells the story of how the world's greatest games, like chess and Go, developed from antiquity as folk games. He pauses to consider dead games -- like The Philosopher's Game of medieval Europe -- which were played for centuries before gradually disappearing forever. He also describes many fantastic modern games of which dozens of wholly original specimens have been created in the last 30 years.

Many games' origins are fascinating. For example, Parlett shows how several board and dice "games" were probably originally used as tools for divination, rather than play. He reveals that Monopoly, that premier gaming symbol of money-grubbing capitalism, was actually created by a Quaker who called her creation The Landlords Game and saw it as a tool for educating players about the evils of unscrupulous, money-grubbing landlords. The game was subsequently plagiarized in the 1930s by Charles Darrow, who became a multimillionaire and retired at the age of 46.

Stories like this abound, all told in Parlett's irreverent, humorous prose. History aside, though, the most enjoyable thing about this book is that it describes the rules for hundreds of board games. Some of these aren't entirely fleshed out, but many of them are described well enough so that you can make the games yourself at home.

Thankfully, Parlett focuses mainly on games requiring at least some minimal level of skill. Reading this book from cover to cover may give you a headache -- it did me -- because the astounding diversity and creativity of board games can be perplexing. This book will require you to think in ways you never before thought possible. For the same reason, though, you probably won't be able to put this one down. Just keep a bottle of aspirin by the bed and call me if you're up for a game of Go.

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