Friday, October 19, 2007

Board Games - Entertainment for Thousands of Years

A blast from the past: These pastimes go back thousands of years but they’re still keeping families entertained By IVONNE ROVIRA For The Courier-Journal In the Internet age, when we spend countless hours playing videogames, surfing the Web or spinning DVDs on our big-screen home theaters, people can still need a break for some fun and games. How about a little Monopoly tonight? A game of Clue? Parcheesi? "Board games are not only surviving but thriving," says Mark Morris, spokesman for Hasbro, a company that makes many of the most popular games in the world. Though the company doesn’t release exact numbers, "Millions get sold every year," he says. How can such an old-fashioned pleasure live on in today’s fast-paced world? "The reason for that is that, at a time when people have more entertainment options than at any time in our history, they provide a social experience that isn’t matched by any other form of entertainment," Morris says. Ryan Brown, a professor at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., agrees: "You can get Monopoly for your computer," says Brown, who teaches computer graphics and animation. "You can get Risk for your computer. My son’s a college freshman, and we’ve tried the electronic versions, but it’s a lot more fun to roll the dice yourself." HABIT STARTS EARLY Kids play board games such as Candyland and Hi-Ho Cherry-o even before they learn to read. Such games are children’s first introduction to taking turns, following directions and learning to lose gracefully — more or less. Board games aren’t just an American phenomenon. "Monopoly is sold in 80 countries and 26 different languages," Morris says. According to the Toy Industry Association, $2.09 billion in games and puzzles were sold in 2002, the latest year available. Most board games fall into one of two types: some sort of race to the finish (like Candyland and Parcheesi), or a strategic battle on the board to gain the most (squares, territory, tokens, etc.) or get rid of the most. While new board games come on the market all the time, some games keep selling through the decades. "Trying to keep up with a kids’ world today can be pretty daunting," Morris says. When parents see board games from their childhood, it "can be like finding an old friend." "There’s a feeling of being able to pass along the same games that I loved growing up," he adds. GAMES THROUGH THE AGES What’s the oldest game of all? No one’s quite sure. Among the contenders are chess and Nine Men’s Morris, a game in which pegs are moved around three concentric squares. Chess, of course, is played by millions worldwide now. Once played in Egypt, ancient Greece, Scandinavia and China, Nine Men’s Morris is still played in Great Britain. Board games came before most people could read. Still, the ancient Arabs had books of rules for games. All are now lost, but the Spanish King Alfonso X (who died in 1284) had these books translated into Spanish. The only surviving "The Book of Games" is in a monastery near Madrid, according to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Alfonso’s book mentions chess, backgammon and dice, among others. Chess is believed to have originated in Persia or India 4,000 years ago. Its earliest version was very different. Called Chaturanga, it was a dice game for four players. Instead of the king, queen, bishop, rooks and pawns we now use, the original pieces were elephants, horses, chariots and tiny soldiers. By 2,000 years ago, the game had evolved into the chess we know today. Like cards, chess was brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus. Checkers is one of the first games children learn to play. It’s a very old pastime, dating back to 3,000 B.C. Archeologists found a version when excavating the ancient city of Ur in what is now Iraq. The Egyptians called this game Alquerque. Speaking of Egyptians, how important were board games to them? So important that the roof of the temple at Kurna has seven board games cut into it, says Wikipedia. Among them are chess and Nine Men’s Morris. Originally, board games were expensive sets of inlaid wood and carved game pieces. But the rise of cheap printing and mass-produced markers in the early 1800s meant most families could afford them. A GAME OF MORALS S.B. Ives published the first commercially produced American board game in 1843. The Mansion of Happiness was a moralistic game in which good deeds got you closer to eternal happiness, while bad deeds moved you backward. Americans in the 19th century were still a very Puritan lot. Many parents didn’t want their children playing cards or board games with dice because it was too much like gambling, Brown explained. Dice "were the devil’s tools," he said. "There were problems in the early days for accepting games for children" that didn’t teach moral values or something else educational, says Brown, whose hobby concentrates on Parker Brothers games from the 1920s to the 1970s. For example, with the card game Authors, introduced in 1861, "you were learning about books," Brown says. While such an unexciting game is long out of print, The Mansion of Happiness gave a 16-year-old Salem, Mass., boy named George S. Parker the idea of coming up with his own game in 1883. Parker thought games should be fun, not pious. His game was called Banking, and it was just one of over 1,800 games Parker Brothers would produce in its 114-year history. These include Monopoly (1935), Risk (1959), Clue (1949) and Rook (1906), which are still selling today. Monopoly alone has sold more than 20 million copies! (Parker Brothers has been owned by Hasbro since 1991.) One of the games you’ve probably played is older than you think. Milton Bradley’s Game of Life was first published in 1860 as The Checkered Game of Life. The version you know was re-issued in 1960 by the company formed by the lithographer Milton Bradley of Springfield, Mass. Besides The Game of Life, Milton Bradley’s most famous games include Chutes and Ladders (1943), Candyland (1949) and Twister (1966). Like Parker Brothers and Playskool, Milton Bradley is now also owned by Hasbro. When Bradley came up with his version of the Game of Life, he had to be clever to make any sales. For one thing, the game had to have a moralistic message, Morris explained. "He was trying to design a game in Puritanical New England, which thought playing games was a total waste of time," he said. "He couldn’t use dice because that was associated with gambling. He couldn’t use cards because that was associated with tarot card readings. So he used spinners in the four corners of the games." Bradley "believed kids learned more when having fun," Morris said. That’s why he opened the first kindergarten in the United States in Springfield, Mass. The teacher was Bradley’s father, and Bradley’s daughters were the first students.

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