A short history of board games, by doug mann


The bronze age


The earliest board games date from ancient Sumeria and Egypt - these, unfortunately, are long out of print! The Egyptian board game Senet (pictured here) is 3,500 years old. All cultures that we know of have played some sort of board games, one of the most popular being chess, which dates back in a primitive form to sixth-century India (though no one knows its true origins for sure). The modern era in board gaming begins with the publication of Monopoly in 1903, arguably the most popular board game ever. Other Bronze Age classics include the racing game Sorry (1934) and the detective game Clue (1946).


Bronze Age board games usually consisted of a cardboard game board divided into squares or rectangles, a set of metal or plastic playing pieces, dice and a set of game rules. Although strategy and diplomacy certainly played a role in winning or losing, luck was a major factor. Think of rounding the last row of properties in Monopoly and trying to avoid rolling that deadly seven which would land you on Boardwalk with a big red hotel on it. There were exceptions, however, Scrabble (1948) for one.


The golden age


From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the board game industry was dominated by American companies. With a few exceptions, the industry was split between fairly simple and “fun” family-orientated games such as Life (1960), Risk (1959) and Careers (1955) produced mainly by Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, and more historically orientated complex strategy games such as Afrika Korps (1964), Panzerblitz (1970), Squad Leader (1977), Ironclads (1979) and Civilization (1982) produced by Avalon Hill, Strategy & Tactics magazine (S&T), Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW), Yaquinto, Battleline and a handful of other companies. These latter games were designed for adults, with hundreds of titles covering all major historical conflicts and eras published in this period.


By the late 1960s the great majority of American wargames featured detailed historical maps overlaid with a hexagonal grid along with a hundred or more cardboard counters representing military units. The numbers printed on each counter usually represented the offensive and defensive strengths of the unit in question, along with its movement speed expressed in hexagons per turn. Players moved these counters around the map according to complex rules during the “movement phase” of their turns, then rolled dice on “combat results tables” during the “combat phase” of the turn. The most complex of these wargames might have twenty or more pages of rules. An extreme example was GDW’s Drang Nach Osten (1973), a simulation of the Eastern Front of World War II. Its map covered the best part of a ping-pong table, and it required dozens hours of play time by teams of three players per side to complete (yet was itself only one part of GDW’s massive Europa simulation of the entire European war).


Some strategy games dealt with economic conflict or civilization building, and featured maps divided into provinces or areas instead of hexagons, e.g. Gibsons Games’ Britannia (1986), Avalon Hill’s Civilization, and Milton Bradley’s Conquest of the Empire (1984), one of its classy “Gamemaster” series of strategy games which also included Axis and Allies (1981) and Shogun (1984). These late Golden Age games used simpler methods of conflict resolution than earlier wargames, and in some cases included plastic or round pieces, resource counters or civilization cards (these become more important in Silver Age games).


Another genre of game that became tremendously popular in the Golden Age was role-playing games. These games involved players playing the role of one or more individual characters in a series of adventures and conflicts in fantasy and science-fiction universes. The king of such games was Dungeons and Dragons (first edition, 1974;  third edition, 2000), which in its many expansions and variants became so popular that it spawned a minor moral panic about its players taking their roles as magicians, elves and dwarves so seriously that they’d act out their fantasies in real life as assaults, murders, and suicides. Many other fantasy and science-fiction role-playing games followed, including FASA’s Star Trek: The Role-Playing Game (1982-1989, with many supplements and adventure modules). Part of the place of RPGs in the gaming market has been taken up over the last decade or so by computer adventure and fantasy games, which eliminate the need for human “game masters” and complex sets of rules for interpreting player moves: the computer does all the background calculations and record keeping for you.


Two other genres of board games from the Golden Age merit mention. Knowledge-based family games such as Trivial Pursuit (1981) and Balderdash (1971) were won and lost based on each player’s brainpower and memory for trivia. Trivial Pursuit has published dozens of expansions and variants, and is still popular today. Games about space exploration and starship combat occupied a significant niche of the board game market in Golden Age. One such game was Task Force’s Star Fleet Battles (from 1979 to now), a game of starship combat set in the universe of the original Star Trek TV series. Its full rulebook requires a hefty binder to keep everything together, including an endless series of expansion booklets which added new rules and hundreds of new starship designs to the handful in the original package (these expansions are still being produced today). It morphed into the computer games Star Trek: Starfleet Command (1999) and Starfleet Command II: Empires at War (2001), where players commanded a single ship in tactical battles and strategic campaigns. Other examples of scifi games from this period include Avalon Hill’s Stellar Conquest (1975) and GDW’s Imperium (1977).


The growing popularity and sophistication of computer games in the late 1980s and 1990s severely reduced the output of the American board game companies, killing some of them (though others dropped out of sight as early as the “pong” era of computer games in the 1970s), forcing the survivors to dramatically reduce their output of game titles. A few North American companies soldiered on: Hasbro in family and strategy games, and Columbia Games with its attractive line of wargames using wooden blocks, “fog of war” and step reduction of units. Even the mighty Avalon Hill, the largest games production house during the Golden Age, was disbanded in the late 1990s, its catalogue bought up by Hasbro, which has re-released a select series of old AH titles. Games based on popular films such as The Lord of the Rings also still have some cache. But the Golden Age of American gaming was over by the time the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST hit the store shelves in 1985, the home computer killing the popularity of adult-orientated board games.



The silver age


In the mid-1990s the board game industry was revived in Europe, notably Germany, thanks to companies such as Kosmos, Hans im Gluck, Ravensburger, and Alea. English-language versions of these games are sold in North America by Mayfair, Rio Grande and Fantasy Flight Games.


Silver Age Eurogame designers became mini-stars, signing their games like book authors (unlike Golden Age games, where the designer’s name was no where to be seen on the outer box). The king of German game designers is undoubtedly Doctor of Mathematics Riener Knizia, with over one hundred designs to his credit.


These “Eurogames” are usually historical strategy games, but are quite different from their American equivalents in the Golden Age:


  • They are for the most part much simpler, averaging 4-8 pages of rules (about as complex as Risk).


  • Their boards, counters and boxes are of higher quality than earlier games. Their games pieces are often made of painted wood; counters and tiles are made of thick cardboard with the pictures on them sometimes having a durable linen finish. In the best cases, e.g. Wolgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling’s games Tikal, Java, and Celtica, the art is remarkable.


  • They emphasize pure strategy over historical detail and luck, player interaction over structured turn-taking.


  • Though they can feature direct conflict, some of the most successful ones (e.g. The Settlers of Catan, Carcasssonne) are more concerned with economics and civilization-building. Pure wargames no longer dominate the adult board game industry. Eurogame designers favour the ancient, medieval and early modern eras as source materials (as opposed to American Golden Age designers, who favoured the military conflicts of the twentieth century, especially World War II).


  • Their mechanics usually involve the use of action points, cards, resource counters, player trading and catastrophic events instead of combat factors and combat results tables. Their units and counters usually don’t have numbers printed on them (except pieces representing money and victory points), and they don’t use combat results tables to resolves battles. In fact, many have no dice, spinners or other types of random number generators at all.


  • They are usually limited to a set number of rounds of play or a reasonably achievable level of victory points, thus making them playable in anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, unlike the more complex American wargames of the Golden Age, which might take a whole evening or more to finish.


Some outstanding examples of Eurogames are seven I own myself [my ratings in brackets, out of ten, subject to change]:


  • The Settlers of Catan (1995), from Mayfair Games, designed by Klaus Teuber. This was the “breakthrough” Eurogame as far as the North American market goes. Its million-copy sales success in Europe has spawned several expansions (the Seafarers and Cities and Knights of Catan) along with parallel designs (The Settlers of the Stone Age, The Starfarers of Catan). Catan is an island made up of a series of oversized hexagons whose placement can vary each game. Each turn players generate new resources (brick, ore, wool, grain or lumber) on randomly determined hexes, using these to build roads, settlements (worth 1 victory point), or cities (worth 2 victory points). There’s also special development cards, soldiers, and a robber who steals resources. The first player to get ten victory points wins. It can be played in an hour by 3-4 players. Its rule book is only four pages long, with another ten pages of almanac. Winner of the German Spiel des Jahres for 1995. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Settlers_of_catan for an overview. [7.5]


  • Carcassonne (2000), from Rio Grande Games, designed by Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, is a tile-laying game where players score points by the strategic placement of followers or “meeples” - farmers, knights, thieves and monks - on an expanding map of an area of medieval France (see the picture of a game in progress). Playable in less than an hour by 2-5 players, its simple rules fill only four pages and are fairly intuitive in nature. There are several spinoffs from the game, the most interesting being the stand-alone variant game Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (2002), a prehistoric “prequel.” It doesn’t use dice. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres award in 2001. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carcassonne_%28board_game%29. [8.5]


  • Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (2002) is a stand-alone sequel to the original which moves us back into the dim recesses of human prehistory. Once again it’s a tile-laying game for 2-5 players playable in 30-45 minutes, though this time the objective is to connect forests, rivers and lakes, collecting points from fish, deer and wooly mammoths. A slightly more complex (with six pages of rules) and arguably better game than the original, player huts, bonus cards and saber-tooth tigers complicate matters just a tad. See http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/4390. [9]


  • Tikal (1999), from the prolific German design team of Kramer and Kiesling, is part of the “mask” trilogy of games which also includes Java (2000) and Mexica (2002), all from Rio Grande. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 1999, and playable by 2-4 players in 90 minutes, players act as heads of archaeological teams searching the Central American jungle for Mayan artifacts. The rules are nine half-pages long (with the auction version adding another three pages), placing it in the low end of moderately complex games. It features top-rate graphics, including a solid game board picturing a largely empty jungle, oversized terrain hexagons, square temple tiles, round treasure pieces and wooden expedition workers and camps. The game works on an action-point allocation system: each turn players have ten action points which they can allocate to place or move workers (1 point), uncover a temple level (2 points), recover or exchange a treasure (3 points), build a camp or place a guard on a temple (5 points). This system can slow things down if one player is indecisive, though this is a minor flaw of the game. The point of the game is to get the most victory points from owning treasures and controlling uncovered temples. These are only counted in the three semi-random turns when a volcano hexagon is placed along with the last turn, after the last terrain hexagon is placed. An odd mixture of cooperative and competitive strategies are promoted by the game, whose only luck factor comes from the partly random drawing of terrain hexes. Highly recommended! See http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/54. [10]          


  • Tigris and Euphrates (1997), from Mayfair Games, deigned by game ace Reiner Knizia. This is a real “gamer’s game,” playable by 2-5 players in 90 minutes. Its 14 pages of rules are full of examples and pictures, making it a game of moderate complexity (there’s a four-page rules summary to simplify things). It’s a fairly abstract strategy game of tile-laying and leader placement on a map representing ancient Mesopotamia with no dice or random events, rating number 2 on Boardgamegeek.com. The object of the game is to build small kingdoms using your kings, priests, farmers and traders by linking together four types of civilization tiles: settlements, temples, farms, and markets. Uniquely, you keep track of four separate totals of victory points (roughly representing urbanization, religion, agriculture and trade), and only count your lowest total at the end of the game to see who has won. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tigris_%26_Euphrates. [8, haven’t played it yet]


  • Puerto Rico (2002), from Rio Grande Games, designed by Andreas Seyfarth. The game can be played in 1-2 hours by 2-5 players using rules of medium complexity (11 pages of rules, of which 4 deal with special rules for buildings). It concerns colonization, plantation building, resource management, shipping and trading in post-Columbian Puerto Rico (sixteenth century). Each turn is divided into seven phases, each phase “run” by one of the seven roles players can take on: the settler, mayor, builder, craftsman, trader, captain or prospector. Each player has their own mini game board divided into a series of city and plantations squares on which he or she grows crops, adds colonists, and constructs buildings (which have various costs expressed in dubloons). Players may sell their corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco and coffee at the Trading House, or ship it back to Spain for victory points. The point of the game is to accumulate as many victory points as possible. Number 1 on both the Boardgamegeek.com and Internet Top 100 Games List. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Rico_%28board_game%29. [8, haven’t played it yet]


  • Ticket to Ride (2004): From Days of Wonder, Ticket to Ride is a relatively simple 2-5 player game playable in an hour or less. It features a map of North America cities connected by a series of colour-coded railway routes which players claim with plastic railway cars after playing the appropriately coloured cards. The longer the route, the more points scored. There are also destination ticket cards which the players draw intermittently throughout the game: these award the player points for extended routes (e.g. LA to New York), but subtract points if not completed by the end of the game. The trick comes from the fact that they’re held in secret, adding another level of strategy to car placement. Winner of the 2004 Spiel des Jahres. See http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/9209. [9]


Computer games have taken over most of the market for historically accurate war simulations and role-playing games: their graphics and ability to silently number-crunch odds and combat results in the background of the game itself make the experience of playing a video game version of such a game less mentally taxing that its board-game equivalent. However, video games take the social aspect out of gaming, even if the computer gamer is playing another human being over the Internet. And you can’t taunt or bluff a machine!





Board Game Geek – a comprehensive site featuring detailed information and reviews and pictures of thousands of games: www.boardgamegeek.com

  • As of September 1, 2006, the top rated games on this site were Puerto Rico, Tigris & Euphrates, Caylus, Power Grid, and El Grande, all of them Eurogames. At the bottom of the list, at #3048, is Tic-Tac-Toe! There are thousands of unranked games also on the list.


Internet Top 100 Games: http://scv.bu.edu/aarondf/Top100/list.txt

  • This list is compiled from ratings on the Usenet board rec.games.board. Puerto Rico and Tigris & Euphrates were rated 1st and 2nd as of August, 2005. Its top 15 games are all Eurogames.


Mayfair Games: www.mayfairgames.com


Rio Grande Games: http://www.riograndegames.com/


Columbia Games: http://www.columbiagames.com/


Fantasy Flight Games: http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/