At the 2017 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, one of the exhibitions was about board games, slightly different versions of the ones normally seen on shelves, games like Pandemic where players collaborate to solves global crises, Collection Deck, less Ren Faire-ish analog to Magic: The Gathering, and Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo (that one’s pretty self-explanatory). The exhibit evinces a rich gaming history, going all the way back to Kriegspiel, a Risk style game enjoyed by the Prussian army in the 19th century. And the exhibitor? The US Central Intelligence Agency. My name…
We’ve been making board games for a long time. Like a long, long time. 7,000 years or more. For a bit of context, we stopped hunter-gathering and settled down to be farmers about 10,000 years ago. Rather than try to cram 7,000 years and 6 occupied continents’ worth of history into a half-hour podcast, I’ll hit some of the high points, especially the less well-known ones. The earliest gaming pieces ever found are a series of 49 small carved painted stones, found at the 5,000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey. Similar pieces have been found in Syria and Iraq and seem to point to board games originating in the Fertile Crescent. You remember the fertile crescent from the first week of world history class. It’s the same region that discovered alcohol, invented papyrus, and made calendars, all of which you need if you’re hosting game night. Other early origin dice games were created by painting a single side of flat sticks. These sticks would be tossed in unison and that would be your “roll”. Mesopotamian dice were made from a variation of materials, including carved knuckle bones, wood, painted stones, and turtle shells. No wonder folks used to say “roll them bones.” Dice from the Roman Era looked like the six-sided dice we’re used to today, though some had their corners cut off to be able to reach a higher number, not unlike D&D dice. Imagine excavating a roman outpost and finding a D20. Crit.
Board games became popular among pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. It shouldn’t a surprise that board games will be a bigger part of life for upper-class people, since they have both money for entertainment and time to play. Even before the First Dynasty, Egypt loved a game called Senet. It’s even seen on the walls of tombs and were buried with noble people. Ancient Egyptians were strong believers in the concept of “Fate” and that your luck in the game of Senet meant you were under the protection of the major gods of the national pantheon: Ra, Thoth, and sometimes Osiris. The significance seems clear; the gameplay not as clear. Historians have made educated guesses as to the rules (more on that later), and board game companies have used that as a jumping off place to make modern versions. Board games also became tied into religious beliefs. One such game being Mehen, played around 3,000 BCE. Mehen was a protective god, depicted as a snake which coils around the sun god Ra during his journey through the night. The game and the god became intertwined. Tim Kendall, an Ancient Egyptian Historian, believes it isn’t possible to know with the information we have available whether the game was inspired by the deity or the deity was inspired by the game.
Many people think Backgammon has been played the longest out of all board games, with evidence that it existed around 2000 BCE, but there is an extant game that’s a little bit older, relatively speaking, The Royal Game of Ur. The game gets its name from its founding within the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq. There was also a set found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb. Gameplay is simple, but oh so familiar–you’re trying to get all of your pieces around the board first, bumping off your opponent’s pieces along the way. Again proving there’s nothing new under the sun, The Royal Game of Ur was played with tetrahedral dice, a D4 for the tabletop set. Even though the game is over 4,000 years old, amazingly, we found a copy of the rules. Irving Finkel of the British Museum desciphered a cunieform tablet and discovered it was the rules for Ur. He then spotted a photograph of a nearly identical game board from modern India. This makes The Royal Game of Ur the longest played game in world history. There’s a great video of Finkle, who is ever so pleasantly mad, teaching YouTuber Tom Scott how to play, link in the show notes. I couldn’t talk myself out of including a clip
Ludus duodecim scriptorum, “game of twelve markings,” was popular during the Roman Empire and is similar to if not the progenitor of modern backgammon. There were some minor differences, but as today each player had 15 checkers and used six-sided dice to be the first to bear off all of one’s checkers. I confess I’m just reading that verbatim–I know less about backgammon than I do about cricket. Backgammon had a renewed surged of popularity in the 1960’s, which is a helluva comeback, thanks in part to the charisma of Prince Alexis Obolensky, “The Father of Modern Backgammon.” Cigarette, liquor, and car companies began to sponsor tournaments and Hugh Hefner held backgammon parties at the Playboy Mansion.
At the same time the Romans were playing Latin Backgammon, the Chinese were playing Weiqi, or as you may have heard of it, Go. Weiqi might even predate the game of 12 markings and the royal game of Ur. According to legend, which has a pesky habit of turning into history, Weiqi was created by the ancient Chinese Emperor Yao to teach his son Danzhu discipline, concentration, and balance. The popularity of Weiqi grew throughout other East Asian countries, especially Japan, which is where the name Go comes from.
Another ancient game, which is still out there and a favorite of nearly every household in my family is the African game of Mancala. In our modern parlance, Mancala is referred to a specific game, but the name actually belongs to an entire genre of games, a genre of over 800 traditional games. This family of board games is played around the world and referred to as “sowing” games, which evokes the way you pick up and drop the stones, like sowing seeds. The word mancala comes from the Arabic word naqala, “to move”. Most mancala games share a common structure, where each player has game pieces in divots on the board and move them to capture their opponent’s pieces, leading them to also be called “count and capture” games. The board can be wooden, clay, or even holes in the dirt. Playing pieces have been everything from seeds, stones, shells, and anything else near at hand that fits in the holes. The earliest evidence of the game are fragments of a pottery board and several rock cuts found in Aksumite areas in Matara (in Eritrea) and Yeha (in Ethiopia), dated to the 6th century CE. Though if the games were played with seeds and a wooden board or pebbles and divots in the dirt, it could be even older. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all. That particular logical fallacy is called argument from ignorance, ad ignorantiam, and it’s not a good look.
Now we go to the land of the ice and snow, of the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow. Scandanavians played a chess-like game called Hnefatafl at least as early as 400 CE. I’m sure my clever listen hasn’t forgotten that a Viking refers to the raids undertaken by a small portion of the population, called Vikingrs. Meaning “King’s Table,” Hnefatafl was a war strategy game. The king’s objective was to escape to the edge of the board, while the opponents’ (plural) objective was to capture him. The attacking force has the natural advantage at the start of each game, perhaps mimicing a cultural mindset of a small group being victorious against a larger force, like say a few boats full of Vikingrs against the army of an English king. Scandanavians spread the game to Ireland, Britain, and Wales through, let’s call it, unexpected cultural exchange. Archaeologists have even discovered that the game was popular in Ukraine.
So you’ve found some pieces and a remarkably intact board…now what? It’s not like there’s a little paper instruction book, and even if there had been, paper doesn’t do well over hundreds of years. So how do we know how to play these games whose creators have been gone for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Science! That’s how we know anything. Specifically digital archaeoludology, a new field that uses modern computing to understand ancient games.
Cameron Browne is the principal investigator of the Digital Ludeme Project, a research project based at Maastricht University in the Netherlands that’s using computational techniques to recreate the rules of ancient board games. To assist in this work, Browne and his colleagues are working on a general-purpose system for modelling ancient games, as well as generating plausible rulesets and evaluating them. The system is called Ludii, and it implements computational techniques from the world of genetics research and artificial intelligence.
The first part of the process codify the odds and bodkins that have been found as units called “ludemes,” essentially known things, in a database. Cultural information from the area where the game was played is also recorded to help judge the plausibility of the rules the computer comes up with. Using techniques from the world of algorithmic procedural generation, the team then uses the information in the database to infer and reconstruct rulesets of varying plausibility and playability for these ancient games. “This is where the modern AI comes in and helps us evaluate these games from a new perspective,” Browne said. “To possibly help us arrive at more realistic reconstructions of how the games were played.”
Next, the team uses algorithms to assess the generated rulesets. Artificially intelligent agents play these ancient games and their variants and build lists of moves. As the AIs play through different rulesets, they generate data about the game’s quality to help researchers determine if a ruleset is viable.
How do computers understand fun? Fun is subjective, of course, but Browne believes there are a few universals — games should have strategy, a bit of conflict, a dash of hope for that last-minute come from behind victory, a clear winner, and they should run for a reasonable length. Looking at you again Monopoly. The programs developed by the Digital Ludeme Project are not meant to be a replacement for human intuition and cleverness, but rather to complement it. “What we’re trying to provide, as part of the project, is a tool for toolbox of historians and archaeologists. So they can make more informed reconstructions based on the evidence they have,” Browne said.
The project also works to preserve the games whose rules we know. Already, the Digital Ludeme Project has rounded up all known games discovered or invented before 1875. “The industrial revolution tends to be the tipping point for when games became traditional and more proprietary,” Browne said. The best part? You can actually play these ancient games with their computer-calculated rules! Go to ludii.games, not a sponsor. Browne’s team has created hundreds of variations of historical games.
Organizing Thanksgiving one year for my large family, I declared that after the meal, we’d play a board game. One of my sisters asked, “Can’t we just have a fist-fight like a normal Irish family?” I said, “How do you think the fist-fight starts?” We were joking, mostly, but the wholesome past-time of playing board games really has inspired violence. Fights and assaults are more common than you might think. Looking at just one page of Google search results: in 2017, a NC man stabbed his girlfriend when a game of Monopoly led to an argument; Monopoly was also the cause of assaults by two women on their boyfriends in 2014, one in GA, the other in NH, a man smashed his wife over the head with a bottle and she attacked him with a knife after one caught the other cheating, and so many more; a man playing Life with his family in IN got into an argument with his wife that ended in assault after he bemoaned landing on a space that saddles you with a wife and kids; a WV man ended up in jail for assaulting his wife after she flipped the table, and a chair, after he accused her of cheating, they did this in front of another couple they’d invited over to play; and a Pacific Union College student broke his roommates nose over a game. Again that’s just one page of search results
For those of you trying to get ahead of me, yeah, people have been murdered over board games. That shouldn’t be too surprising. The human animal will kill one another for asinine reasons. A MD man was stabbed to death over a Popeye’s chicken sandwich and they’re not even that good. Come at me. You might expect Monopoly to be the primary catalyst here, but the first deaths I found were over games of chess and they’re going to make me keep an eye on people who enjoy playing chess.. Two men in Iowa were playing chess drunk when they started to fight and one man died of his injuries; a prisoner in Ohio killed his cellmate during a game, though in the game’s defense, it’s believed the man was intentionally trying to get the death penalty; a Dublin man beat his landlord to death with a dumbell over a game, then cut him open and ate his lung, thinking it was his heart. For balance and palate cleansing, though, a Minnesota man tried to end his legal troubles with a board game, rather than start them, when he gave police a Monopoly “get out of jail free” card. He’d been carrying it just in case he ever got picked up on his outstanding warrants. Police gave him an A for effort.
Speaking of Monopoly, many of us have experienced learning that we’re wrong about the rules of a game, but rarely do we experience being wrong about the whole point of the game. Monopoly encourages players to consume property like Galactus, horde like dragons, and charge rent like Ebeneezer Scrooge. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Monopoly was designed to warn players about the dangers of capitalism, not to train them in it. Monopoly began life as ‘The Landlord’s Game’ in 1902. Its creator, Elizabeth Magie, thought it was unfair that landlords raked in profits by passively owning land, much of which was inherited or purchased with rent from other property. The game was supposed to be a satirical indictment and she thought that when people played it, they would ‘see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system.’ Granted, she really misread the room, but we appreciate the effort.
The original version used paper money like the modern game, but instead of passing ‘Go’ and collecting $200, you passed ‘Labor upon Mother Earth produces wages’ and got $100. One corner square read ‘No Trespassing. Go to Jail,’ which was meant to signify ‘foreign ownership of American soil’. She patented the game in 1904 and published it through a small game maker. It proved to be popular, but only really in left-leaning circles and on college campuses, among the people who go what Magie was going for. She began to shop it around to license to a larger publisher, but Parker Brothers told her it was too complicated. Over time, Magie moved on with her life and forgot about The Landlord’s Game. That didn’t stop it from circulating, nor did the patent stop it from being copied. People who played it began to make their own versions, one of which was eventually seen by a Philadelphian named Charles Darrow 1933.
Darrow was introduced to the game by a friend and when he asked to read the rules, was surprised to find that none seemed to have been printed, ever. In Darrow’s mind, this meant the game was up for grabs, or at least sufficiently unguarded. He added some colors to the board and suggested people use small items from around the house, or perhaps trinkets from a charm bracelet. He passed the game off as his own creation and began selling it. It was already selling well at department stores and famed New York toy store like F.A.O. Schwarz when Parker Brothers offered to buy it from Darrow in 1935 for $7,000, around $121,000 today. Not a bad payday with a minimal amount of work. What changed the company’s mind on the overly complicated game. A friend of Sally Barton, daughter of founder George Parker and wife of company president Robert Barton, like the game and told Sally she should tell her husband about it. Guess it really is who you know. It was Parker Brothers who added the playing pieces you would recognize, like the shoe, top hat and iron, as well as the Chance and Community Chest cards and a cartoon character who was called Rich Uncle Pennybags, though he was originally used on a game called Rich Uncle. Before long, they were printing 20,000 copies a week.
Parker Brothers went about getting their own patent for the game, only to find out that Darrow, the man they bought it from, didn’t actually own it. They also had to fight off infringement claims from people with similar games, some of which were actually based on modified versions of Magie’s Landlord Game. Parker Brothers eventually tracked down Magie and paid her $500 and no royalties, but with a promise that they would make a version of the Landlord’s Game. It may surprise you to learn that they were true to their word and in 1939 when Parker Brothers published The Landlord’s Game. It sold like salty pretzels at a slug convention. Most of the 10,000 copies were returned by retailers who couldn’t get rid of them. Darrow meanwhile made millions, even after Parker Brothers reduced his royalties, for, you know, selling them a stolen game. Over 250 million copies have been played, in many languages and different themes, but without the original message.
My second-favorite thing about doing this show is finally getting the answer to questions that have stowed away in my brain for years. My first favorite thing is interacting with listeners, of course. It makes my day when I get a message on URLs. One long-time mystery is why the British version of Clue is called Cluedo. Why would you ruin a perfectly descriptive word by turning it into nonsense? It’s not like pavement vs sidewalk or lift vs elevator, both of which are equally good at describing their thing. Why would you change it to Cluedo? Actually, I guess the real mystery is why I never top and google these things.
Turns out, Cluedo is the original name and it’s arguably justified. The classic whodunnit game was created in the early 1940s when a British musician and munitions factory worker, Anthony Pratt, had some forced time on his hands. Who forced it? The Luftwaffe. He and his wife, Elva, began working on the game so could play while waiting out the raids. Pratt filed a patent for the game in 1944, listing the weapons as the significantly more visceral ax, a cudgel (stick), a small bomb, rope, a dagger, a revolver, a hypodermic needle, poison, and a fireplace poker. The characters were also different from what we’re familiar with: Doctor Black, Mr. Brown, Mr. Gold, the Reverend Mister Green, Miss Grey, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlett, Nurse White, Mrs. Silver, and Colonel Yellow. You may have noticed there were a lot to keep track of. The original 10 was eventually whittled down to 6. Colonel Yellow was changed to Mustard so that one of her Majesty’s officers didn’t sound like a coward.
Pratt sold Cluedo to games manufacturer Waddington’s, though it wasn’t released until 1948, due to materials shortages from the war. The name Cluedo was a blend of clue and Ludo, a 19th century game whose name is Latin for “I play.” When Parker Brothers picked up the rights to the game in America in 1949, they shortened it to Clue, rightly suspecting people wouldn’t know about Ludo. The game has gone on to spawn world championships, a British TV show, a musical that invited audience participation and played over 500 shows, and of course, the classic movie. Initially though. The movie wasn’t to Classic initially go. Settling kids, I’ve got a whole bonus paragraph on this one. Director Jonathan Lynn thought it would be a clever idea to release three different versions to the theater, each one with a different ending, but not tell moviegoers in advance which version they had bought a ticket for. Somewhere in his mind, he thought people would just keep buying tickets until they had seen all of them. Clue left theaters quickly and found its way to home video oh, Evan nascent Market. It still didn’t do well, which resulted in copies being marked down for clearance. Once they were cheap, everyone bought one, everyone watched it, and everyone loved it. If you tell me you didn’t not. Well, just don’t tell me.
In 2008, the US version got a makeover. The murder takes place at a celebrity party, Colonel Mustard morphed into a football hero; Professor Plum became a dot-com billionaire, some of th weapons were swapped out, and Mrs. White, the murderous housekeeper, was replaced with scientist Doctor Orchid, the first time since the game launched that a character got the boot. In the late 1990s, after selling 150 million Clue games, Waddington’s tracked down Pratt. He had fallen off the map after his patent on the game expired in the ‘60s, which meant no more royalties. He also never got royalties for international versions of the game, having signed away those rights in 1953 for 5000 pounds (about $135K today); he didn’t know it was selling like hotcakes across the pond. But Pratt didn’t mind. “A great deal of fun went into it,” he said in a 1990 interview. “So why grumble?”
The Waddington company also did their bit to keep up the British end in WWII. Did they repurpose their machinery or supplies the way companies have pivoted to help with the Covid-19 crisis, like distilleries making hand sanitizer? No, they contributed games, but not just to keep up morale. During the war, a fair few jockeys and second dickeys took a flaming onion to their kite and pranged sausage-side. [monty python banter clip] A lot of British pilots ended up in POW camps, is what I was saying. Toeing the line with the Geneva Convention, Germany allowed humanitarian aid groups like the Red Cross to distribute care packages. One category of permissible item to be included was “games and pastimes.” So the Allies took strategic advantage of the opportunity. Using made-up charities, they sent care packages to their POWs that would make most prison escape plans look like a file baked in a cake the shape of a file. The games they sent over were secret escape kits, complete with compasses, metal files, money, and, most importantly, maps.
Wait, you say, surely the Germans would look at the packages before giving them to the prisoners. They could look all they wanted. The games looked perfectly normal. Inside games of Monopoly were compasses and files disguised as game pieces. French, German, and Italian bank notes were hidden beneath the Monopoly play money. The board concealed secret maps to lead the men to freedom. The game cartons were marked with secret codes that represented each German prison camp, so MI9, the British secret service unit specializing in evasion and escape, would know which particular set was to be delivered to each prison camp, based on their reconnaissance of the camp.
But why Monopoly? The game hadn’t been on England’s pleasant pastures for even a decade; it was still thoroughly American, except for the Scottie dog, I suppose. The game wasn’t the first consideration, but rather the manufacturer. Waddington was the only company to have perfected printing on silk. This detail would be critical. The material of the maps needed to be more resilient than paper, less prone to tearing and not subject to dissolving, but thin enough to be shoved into a boot, pocket, cigarette pack, etc at a moment’s notice. Silk maps also don’t make noise, which is handy when you’re trying to slip away into the night. Waddington’s could print the sil and, as it happened, was the UK licensee for Monopoly.
Before departing for missions, Royal Air Force airmen were told that, if they happened to be captured, they should look for Monopoly games in the “care packages” sent to them. You would know if you had the escape kit version if there was a red dot on the Free Parking space, which looked like nothing more than a small print error. Few copies of this life-saving game exist today, and for good reason. Soldiers were instructed to destroy the games after they’d gotten all of the useful components out, so the guards couldn’t figure out how they’d escaped, which would endanger the men at every other camp the games were sent to. Monopoly games weren’t the only vehicles used to conceal escape maps. Decks of cards, the board game Snakes and Ladders and pencils also concealed maps for prisoners.British historians estimate that these special edition Monopoly boards helped thousands of captured soldiers escape from their prison camps. That one really was a get out of jail free card.
And that’s… Believe it or not, even in this technological age, the CIA uses specially designed board and card games to train its officers. Unlike other exercises that focus on the individual, success in these games depends on teamwork. David Clopper, the CIA senior collection analyst who launched the game program in 2008, told Ars Technica, “[When] people took the time to talk to one another … They tended to win. The tables where someone would go on their own […] or didn’t collaborate until too late, they couldn’t catch up to the crises. It was a simulation of what we do, but also teaching the importance of working together.” Might make you wonder who you’re sitting across from at that new board game cafe, though. Remember…Thanks…