Around the World in 9 Board Games
Here’s what game night looks like from Egypt to Argentina.
All over the world, people crowd around the kitchen table in order to do battle with one another armed with nothing but some game pieces and a simple board. Throughout history and the world there have been countless mixing and remixing of these fundamental elements that result in unique gameplay of varying complexity. Whether victory comes from meticulous strategy or sheer luck, it’s clear that the impulse to best our nearest and dearest within the structure of a board game is a universal one.
You’ve heard of the Game of Life, but what about the game of the after life? Senet, which is one of, if not the, earliest example of board games in human history, is believed to recreate the journey the spirit takes through the underworld in game form. Or was it purely a game? Some research suggests that it’s possible that at one point the senet game board was used as a method for communicating with the dead. If you’re hoping to play the game exactly as pharaohs might have, however, you’re out of luck. The exact rules have been lost, however, it is not so unusual for a game’s rules to evolve over time, so you can still play senet using a ruleset developed by game historians that reflects the strategic nature of the original.
The earliest written mention of Go dates back to 4th century BC China. Unlike senet, however, over the course of the succeeding millennia, Go’s popularity never waned in a significant way, making it the oldest continuously played game in the world. While the game originated in China, it went on to become popular in Korea as well as Japan, where the version that is widely-known today took shape. Played on a 19×19 grid, two players place pieces on points with the goal of surrounding the most territory on the board. When the game ends (when a game is over varies based on the ruleset, but generally this occurs when both players agree to end the game), each player’s score is determined and whoever controlled the most intersections is the winner (though how this is calculated depends on the ruleset being used).
If you’ve ever seen the tender-hearted French short film The Red Balloon , it may surprise you to discover that its director, Albert Lamorisse, also unleashed the unstoppable, destructive force that is the board game Risk upon France and the world. The game was originally released in 1957 with the title La Conquête du Monde. Just a couple of years later it was bought by Parker Brothers and renamed the game as Risk: The Game of Global Domination. Over the course of the game, players battle it out in order to control the most territory. And while many board games are touted as simulacrums of warfare and combat strategy, the fact that making (and breaking) truces is so (unofficially) central to its gameplay means you should steel yourself for the very real possibility that your friends and family may be more willing to betray you than you thought.
Though it has its origins in Italy, lotería has become synonymous with Mexico since it was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 18th century. The game is played similarly to bingo. Each player is given a tabla (board) with a grid of pictures that correspond to a deck of 54 cards. As each card is drawn and its name announced, the players mark off any matching sections of their grid. Once a player’s tabla has been filled out they announce their victory by shouting “¡Loteria !” or “¡Buena !” There is a set of 54 images that make up a traditional lotería deck, but there are variations including Millennial Lotería.
Mack Male(CC BY-SA 2.0)/WikimediaCommons
Bao la Kiswahili
WHERE: East Africa
There are a number of different types of mancala games. That is, games that are played by two players and involve seeds or stones and rows of pits. However, the mancala game Bao la kiswahili is of particular note thanks to its high levels of complexity. This version is played throughout East Africa, but is most popular among the Swahili populations of Tanzania and Kenya (the name translates to “board of the Swahili people”). The game is played on a board with four rows of eight pits and 32 seeds. The game progresses over a series of phases with varying rules. When a player has no more seeds in their inner row or can make no moves, the game ends and the victory goes to the other player.
It’s not certain when exactly pachisi was first played in India, with evidence going as far back as the Iron Age. Regardless, the game is so iconic that it’s been dubbed the national game of India. Pachisi gets its name from the Hindi word for “25,” the highest number a player can get when throwing the cowrie shells that indicate how many spaces a piece can be moved. The game is played on a cross and the goal is for players to move all four of their pieces from the center, around the perimeter, and then back to the center before the other players. Parker Brothers put out the branded version, Parcheesi, in the mid-19th century.
Micha L. Rieser/WikimediaCommons
When chess (which itself originated in India) made its way to Japan, it was popular enough that a multitude of variations on the game sprang up. Shogi, however, turned out to be the most popular version. What makes shogi notable as a variation is it was the first that allowed for captured pieces to be reintroduced to the game. As with most versions of chess, the goal of shogi is to checkmate the opposing player’s king. Checkmates are fairly common endings to the game (as opposed to a draw) since pieces aren’t permanently removed from the board.
Settlers of Catan
Released in 1995, this German board game was not only notable for the unique way it moved from being beloved by board game enthusiasts with niche interests to a mainstream hit in the United States, but how it mainstreamed an entire style of board games. Whereas board games in the U.S. are characterized by their directly combative nature, Eurogames tend to focus on resource management. This may not sound particularly thrilling on its face, but thanks to Settlers of Catan’s runaway success it’s clear that there’s an appetite for this style of games in the States as well as in Germany.
This Argentinian board game is a spiritual cousin of Monopoly, but instead of being themed around real estate, Estanciero has a slant that’s geared toward Argentinian ranching. Like Monopoly, players compete to run their ranches and bankrupt each other. Unlike Monopoly, however, Esanciero offers respite from the capitalistic appetites of your fellow players, with the innovation of a rest space that allows the player to avoid getting hit with fees from other players.
Wally Gobetz(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)Flickr