Around the World in 800 years

Posted on Oct 12 2012 by pomomojo in Backgammon

I get excited any time a new game is published to rave reviews.  I look forward to the opportunity to try something new and hope it will offer me an experience I haven’t had before.  In modern board game internet forums this desire for the latest hit game is often derided as the “cult of the new.”  It is an insatiable desire to open up another box and make another purchase rather than mastering the games you already own and enjoy.  Although I do continue to indulge in this practice, there is something fascinating about those classic games that have been survived not just for a few years but for centuries.

Backgammon is an interesting case study of how a few basic rules and pieces can travel around the world and absorb a variety of cultures.  The board itself is often a defining characteristic.  In ancient Egypt the game was known as Senat, or , the Game of Thirty Squares.  Rome imported many things from their interactions with Egypt and altered Senat to “the Game of Twelve Lines” which included three sets of 12 points that the checkers moved across.  In Persia the game was known as “Nard” which also derived from the board, though in this case it referred to the type of wood used.

The dice and checkers can also be culturally specific.  In Sumeria a backgammon like game used tetrahedral dice.  The Roman game used black and white checkers made of ebony and ivory.  Some cultures used three dice to play the game while Nard’s use of only two dice soon spread widely.

The people who play the game can change from country to country.  In Sumeria it was known as the Royal Game of Ur, suggesting its popularity among the aristocracy.  In France, however, Louis IX prohibited his court from playing the game.  In England the game was popular in taverns very early on but over time spread to the clergy by the eighteenth century.  In the United States the game was connected to gaming clubs, particularly in New York.

Speaking of the United States, we can even see the evolutions in the rules as the game crossed borders and oceans.  As it spread around Europe the current standard of playing doubles twice was adopted.  But even after centuries of history, it took some gamers in the lower East side of New York to invent the doubling cube and both increase the stakes and skill of the game.

Because our world is so connected today, modern board games are played roughly the same in every country.  A few centuries ago, however, the games themselves were a form of communication and cultural exchange between people who might not ever be able to speak to one another.

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