There are three versions of Snakes and Ladders games in India. They vary slightly, and are played by Jains, Hindus and Muslims. On a numbered board, players make their way as if through life – and the squares are associated with specifc vices and virtues, punishments and rewards. The number of squares also varies; the western format, with 100 squares, copies the Muslim game. Whatever the version, there are always more snakes than ladders… Kismet Snakes and Ladders; Germany, 1895; Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

All Boarded Up

13th October 2016

Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered, a new exhibition at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood, focuses on board games and their influence over our lives from ancient Egypt to the present day – and celebrates their enduring popularity in the digital age. Jill Glenn went along to feed her inner geek…

There are, I’m led to believe, people who don’t play games, but I have to declare my hand here; I’m not one of them. I love a good board game (and I don’t get enough opportunities to indulge). I grew up in a family where Monopoly and Scrabble were rituals, where buying Cluedo was an event. We let our adventures in Monopoly go on night after night, putting money and cards in envelopes for safe-keeping, writing down our positions and properties and taking up the following day exactly where we’d left off…

…so Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered has absolutely got my name on it, presenting, as it does, some of the most iconic, enthralling and visually striking games from the V&A’s outstanding collection. In a comparatively small area – perhaps a quarter of the second floor of the V&A’s Museum of Childhood – curator Catherine Howell and her team have created a surprisingly comprehensive exhibition devoted to the history and significance of board games, ‘with all the classic games that people will know… and lots they won’t’, she says. Catherine’s enthusiasm for the subject is evident; indeed, it was hearing her talk so knowledgeably and keenly the previous morning on Radio 4’s Today programme that piqued my interest in the exhibition, and led to my presence amongst a small but animated group of journalists at the launch.

The size of the crowd is a shame, though. Why are there so few of us here? I can’t help thinking that if this were being staged at one of the central London museums or galleries it would have attracted three or four times this number. Bethnal Green, where the Museum of Childhood is situated, is hardly the back of beyond; it took less than quarter of an hour on the Underground from Tottenham Court Road, and the Museum is within sight as you come out of the station. Is culture really so city-centric? It’s a real disappointment, if so. This is a show that definitely deserves a wider audience. It’s fairly cerebral, sure, but there are beautiful exhibits with fascinating information and interpretation panels, and enough hands-on opportunities to keep you engaged. There’s even a progressive game that you can interact with as you move through the exhibition – though I think the instruction to ‘go back to the beginning’ halfway through is ambitious! I bet people cheat. And that’s quite clever, because at the end there’s a big question and answer board that will tell you what kind of game player you are… a goody two shoes, a sore loser, a gloating winner, or a cheat. Be sure your sins will find you out.

The displays are divided into four loosely themed sections, which segue nicely into each other. ‘Square One’ sets the scene, looking at classic games that generally originate from the Middle or Far East – games such as Backgammon, Go, Snakes & Ladders and Nine Men’s Morris. One of the earliest is Senet, ‘the game of passing’, which originated in Ancient Egypt and involved two players using five pieces across 30 squares. The rules aren’t clear, but, crucially, it’s known to have been played at all levels of society – and it demonstrates one of the unifying qualities of board games: they cross class, age and gender boundaries, and have a universal appeal that transcends cultural and language barriers.

Watching a video clip of Ludo counters playing themselves (part of a sequence explaining the four different categories of games, of which more later) is surprisingly absorbing, possibly because it’s taking place on the exact Berwick board that I used as a child – when I first learned to play fair, to say ‘well done’ to the winner, and to conceal disappointment at losing. There are, of course, plenty of useful life lessons in almost every board game you can imagine – although one of the sayings inscribed on the wall does suggest ‘If you’re not prepared to lose every friend you have over a board game, you’re not playing hard enough.’

David Parlett, whose Oxford History of Board Games is a key reference work, determined that there are essentially four types of games: ‘race’ – all about beating others to the finish, and made more complex the more pieces there are in play (think Ludo, as an example); ‘space’ – where the method is the positioning of pieces on a board, in a line, perhaps, or in such a way as to control an area, capturing or reducing your opponent’s men (both Go and Nine Men’s Morris fit into this category); ‘chase’ – in which two unequal forces battle to overpower each other (the old Fox and Geese game falls into this grouping, as, curiously, does Cluedo); and ‘displace’ – basically games of war and strategy, in which two equal forces battle to overwhelm each other (we’re talking games such as Draughts and, of course, Chess).

Section Two, ‘The Game of Life’, moves us forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, when games were intended to be educational as well as entertaining. Topics of history, geography, science and moral values were all covered, and games were carefully and thoughtfully designed. The Game of the Goose, played on a spiral track with two dice, was very popular, and is considered the father of the modern race game. The same hazards are always found on the same spaces, and always generate the same penalty.

‘Fun and Games’, the third area, illustrates how growing prosperity in the second half of the 19th century led to more leisure time… and more demands for diverse and interesting pursuits. By the end of the century, new printing techniques and cheaper components led to mass production possibilities, and made board games more widely affordable. The 20th century saw the emergence of the classic games that are still played to day, including Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble. Designers and developers turned their attention to all walks of life, and games based on everything from conflict and politics to invention and exploration became common. The world around us, and popular culture in particular, continue to be reflected in the games we play.

While it’s fascinating to try to categorise each different game, there is some crossover, of course, and – frustratingly – some of the more modern games won’t slot into the neat ‘race, space, chase, displace’ classifications. Catherine Howell is very patient with me when I press her on this, humouring my attempts to pin down Carcassonne, for example, and Settlers of Catan, and even Scrabble. She refers me back to Parlett, who adds a fifth category – themed games, into which many of the modern developments fall. There are several examples in the final section of the exhibition (‘Game Changer’), including – as a nod to modern technology – a slightly disconcerting digital 3D version of Settlers, a game I thought I knew well. It’s entertaining but frustrating, and keeps me occupied for a good while.

The main game here is Pandemic, first published in 2007, in which two to four players join forces to defeat the game itself. Each player takes on a different role, with specific powers, in the fight to prevent four deadly diseases from destroying the human race. It is, according to Catherine Howell, almost as much fun to lose as to win. She admits she’s getting hooked.

It’s good to hear that she still has faith that new classics can emerge – and are emerging. Indeed, board game aficionado and journalist Owen Duffy, writing in The Guardian in November 2014, declares that we are in a Golden Age of board games, despite the growth in electronic versions. ‘Beyond mass-market titles… a community of independent designers and publishers has been steadily producing innovative, exciting and beautiful games offering experiences beyond even those of the most sophisticated gaming hardware.’

In fact, The Guardian has just launched a new monthly column devoted to helping readers find the best board games. Reviews in the 30 September edition covered Ice Cool, Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails (verdict: ‘adds length and complexity, but it offers little new in terms of gameplay… if you’re new to Ticket to Ride, this isn’t the place to jump aboard; you’ll have much more fun with the original game’), Mystic Vale and Sneaky Cards. Comments from readers expand the coverage.

There’s clearly a massive appetite for playing games, both from those who take a particular stance that these are great ways of keeping youngsters off their phones and tablets, and from those who just love them for their own sake. What I remember about those childhood card and board games is warmth and camaraderie and love, and, from early on, a sense of being an equal player, and equal member of the family.

You can intellectualise the board game process; you can talk about how playing teaches fairness and self-control, or encourages deductive logic and strategy, or develops critical thinking… but really, it’s just fun. You don’t have to justify it.

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