The Curious World of Ancient Board Games

A few weeks ago, we delved into the surprisingly deep history behind games still commonly played today, like Go, chess, and various dice games. But we barely scratched the surface when it comes to ancient gaming. There are numerous games that fell out of favor centuries ago, only to be resurrected in the modern day by game enthusiasts and historians.

In today’s blog post, I’d like to dust off a few of these ancient games and briefly discuss what we know about them. It’s game history time!

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

A popular Viking game whose heyday was between the fourth and twelfth centuries, Hnefatafl was a popular game throughout Scandinavia. This mouthful of a game — sometimes called Viking chess by modern game fans — was so ubiquitous back then that it was mentioned in several of the Norse Sagas.

Amazingly, although game pieces and fragments of game boards have been recovered, no one is entirely sure how the game is played, so rules have been reconstructed based on a similar game called Tablut.

Translated as “board game of the fist,” Hnefatafl is part of a family of games called Tafl games, all of which take place on a checkerboard-style play space with an uneven number of game pieces.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Unlike Hnefatafl, the Royal Game of Ur has survived the centuries pretty much unscathed, thanks to a copy of the rules recorded on a Babylonian tablet. Played in the Middle East centuries ago — in places like Syria and Iran — the Royal Game of Ur was clearly popular, as evidence of the game has been found as far away from the Middle East as Crete and Sri Lanka.

The game and its trappings penetrated deep into Middle Eastern society. An Ur game board was carved like graffiti into a wall in the palace of Sargon II (dating back to the 700s BC). The Babylonian tablet indicates that certain game spaces were believed to be good omens, and could be interpreted as messages from the beyond.

The game was eventually either supplanted by backgammon or evolved into a version of backgammon, depending upon different historical accounts.

[Image courtesy of Chess Variants.com.]

Tori Shogi dates back to 1799 in Japan. Also known as Bird chess — thanks to game tiles named after phoenixes, cranes, and swallows — Shogi is played on a board seven squares wide and seven squares deep.

Unlike many chess variants, Tori Shogi allows for captured pieces to return to play, a nice twist that deepens the familiar gameplay style.

[Image courtesy of Bodleian Libraries.]

But chess and backgammon aren’t the only games with centuries-old precursors. The geographical game Ticket to Ride also has an aged forebearer in Binko’s Registered Railway Game, which was built around a map of the United Kingdom.

An educational game about placing trains on the map and determining how far they travel, this game has survived the decades relatively unscathed by time.


Those are just four examples of games that were either lost and then rediscovered, or games that fell out of favor, only to be resurrected by curious modern players.

And once again, these games are just the tip of the iceberg. There are centuries-old versions of The Game of Life, Parcheesi, a dating game, checkers, and more when you start digging!

As you can see, games have been a part of human civilization dating back millennia. We were always meant to play puzzles and games, it seems.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Deblockle

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

Chess, checkers, backgammon, Go, Othello… all of the classic board games rely upon the idea that both players know how the pieces can and will move from round to round. That way, they can strategize, they can prepare defenses, they can circumnavigate your attempts to flummox them. To outmaneuver someone, you have to know how they can maneuver.

But what if your opponent could potentially move in five different ways? How would that alter your strategy? How would that alter your gameplay?

Beware, fellow puzzlers… one-on-one board gaming just got a little more complicated with Deblockle.

Masterminded by the team at Project Genius, Deblockle pits two players head to head to see who can remove their four blocks from the board first.

That’s right, there aren’t sixteen pieces to keep track of, like in chess, or twelve, like in checkers. There are just four blocks for you, and four blocks for your opponent.

But here’s where things get tricky. Each turn, you have two moves. The first move is to roll one of your blocks into an adjacent space (either vertically or horizontally).

The second move is to place your block according to whichever symbol that landed face-up because of that roll.

There are six symbols, each with a corresponding action:

  • Stop: your turn is over, there is no second move
  • Cross: move your block one space either horizontally or vertically
  • X: move your block one space diagonally
  • Hoops: move your block three spaces (vertically or horizontally) in any combination, including backtracking over a space you just occupied
  • Slider: move your block either vertically or horizontally until you reach the end of the row or column, or until you’re stopped by another block

With each of those second moves, you’re not rolling the block to reveal a new symbol; you’re picking it up and placing it into its new position.

And yes, there are six symbols, and I only listed five above. That’s because the sixth symbol, the star, can only be revealed if you’re rolling onto one of the star spaces on the board. By rolling the block star-side-up onto a star space, you remove the block from play.

That’s the only time you can roll your block star-side-up, and the only time you’re allowed to occupy a star space with your block.

There are only two star spaces on the board, and you can only remove your blocks from the game if you utilize the star space opposite you.

And that’s when things get really tricky. Because it’s entirely likely that your opponent’s blocks will prevent you from rolling onto the symbol you wanted. So you’re puzzling out how exactly to roll and move your blocks so you’ll end up adjacent to the star space with the star symbol waiting to be rolled face-up, and also playing defense to impede your opponent’s efforts to navigate and manipulate the board to their own advantage.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and it makes for an immensely engrossing, engaging puzzle duel for two players. You’ve got the resource management of Risk, the piece placement mechanics of chess, and the defensive gameplay of Stratego and other strategy games.

And since the blocks are placed in their starting positions by your opponent — after rolling them randomly to see which symbol is face-up to start — every game of Deblockle is different. Opening gambits — like those you can learn in chess — are useless, because you won’t know how you can move your blocks initially until your opponent places them.

There is a wonderfully fresh challenge factor to Deblockle that many other head-to-head board games lack. While playing the game over and over will allow you to develop techniques and skills for how to better move your blocks, there are no shortcuts to becoming a better player through sheer repetition, because each opening setup is different.

Project Genius has managed to stuff a massive amount of gameplay, strategy, and style into those four little blocks, and they’ve got a real winner on their hands here.

[Deblockle is available from Project Genius and other participating retailers, for players starting at 8 and up!]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chessplus

Chess is one of the all-time classic games. Alongside Checkers, Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and mah-jongg, chess is one of the cornerstones of the genre, one of the first games we’re introduced to, and one of the formative games upon which we build concepts of strategy, timing, and opportunity.

Over the centuries, there have been numerous attempts to reinvent chess or find new ways to play. We’ve talked about puzzly variations on chess in the past, all of which can be played with a standard chess set. (Except for that guillotine set we featured last year.) But if you’re looking for a truly unique chess experience, the team at Chessplus have a simple, elegant game for you.

Chessplus is played under standard chess rules, but with one crucial difference: you can combine your pieces into more powerful ones.

Do you want a pawn that can make less-expected moves, or a knight that can play conservatively? Combine a knight and pawn into a single piece with the abilities of both. Do you need to keep your queen where it is, but still want a versatile piece that can command the board? Easy. Combine a rook and a bishop, and you’ve got a new piece that works just like a queen.

[Only the king is a solid piece. Every other piece can be combined with others.]

Merging pieces not only allows you to take advantage of each component’s abilities, but it can also allow you to more swiftly transport pieces across the board. Instead of a pawn crawling across the board one square at a time, combine it with a rook who can send it straight across the board, where it is then promoted to a queen! Or combine two pawns so you only have to escort one piece across the board safely, then split them again and voila! Two pawns promoted into new queens.

Oh yes, merging the pieces doesn’t link them forever. You can split them at any time. That feature adds another layer to your gameplay, since putting one merged piece into play deep in your opponent’s territory can suddenly become two separated pieces again.

Now, this piece-combining mechanic is a double-edged sword. Yes, you have a more powerful, mobile game piece. (I was very excited to try out combining a knight and a queen, just to make the queen even more dangerous.) But if someone takes a merged piece, you lose BOTH halves, making them as vulnerable as they are valuable. Imagine an opponent capturing my merged knight/queen, so I lose a knight AND a queen in one turn. That could be a devastating loss.

As you’d expect, it took a little while to grow accustomed to these new variant pieces. With so much to keep track of during a normal chess game, pieces with greater mobility make strategy — both offensive and defense — a bit more complicated.

But it was also great fun. Early Chessplus games tend to be faster, more aggressive, because of the greater mobility allowed by some of the merged piece combinations. But once you’ve played a few games, your more traditional chess mindset settles in, and gameplay tends to become more measured and tactical.

Just imagine. A single change that offers a world of new possibilities and challenges. That’s brilliant, in my estimation. Chessplus is a wonderful way to reinvigorate chess if the game has lost its luster for you. And if you are a dedicated player, I think Chessplus will prove to be a welcome change of piece from the traditional game.

[Chessplus sets start at $35.95 (for just the pieces) and are available from the shop on Chessplus.com.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Less

lessgame

There are many games out there that pair nicely with food or drink. Many party games even revolve around this mechanic, like Jason Anarchy’s alcohol-fueled roleplaying game Drinking Quest.

But I think Less is the first game where the playing tiles intentionally double as coasters for your drinks. It feels like a game that could be played in a tavern at a moment’s notice, which lends its minimalist style an old-world gaming charm.

less1

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Less is a strategy game that combines the tactical planning of chess with the dynamic maneuverability of checkers.

The game consists of 12 tiles and 8 game pieces, 4 white and 4 black. The players randomly select 9 of the 12 tiles and arrange a 3×3 game board. (With 12 tiles and four ways to place each tile, you’re virtually guaranteed a different game board every time you play.)

One player sets up their 4 game pieces in one corner, and the other player sets up their game pieces in the opposite corner. The goal of the game is to move all 4 of your pieces into your opponent’s corner before your opponent can occupy your corner.

less2

To do so, you are allowed three moves per turn. You can use all three moves for a single game piece, or spread them out over multiple game pieces. Moving a piece from one square to a neighboring square is one move. Jumping over a game piece to the next open square is also one move. (Here’s where checkers-style planning comes in handy.)

By now, you’ve probably noticed those blue walls on some of the tiles. Those walls require an extra move to traverse, so moving a game piece over a wall requires two moves. (And if neighboring squares each have a wall between them, jumping that double wall requires all three moves that turn.)

This three-move system offers players loads of options going forward, but your best bet is to arrange a sequence of leapfrog jumps to move your pieces as efficiently as possible across the board. (Unlike chess or checkers, there is no capturing or removing your opponent’s pieces from the board.)

less3

[Here, black has more pieces near the opposing corner, but that blue wall will make it harder to occupy the corner efficiently. Meanwhile, more of white’s pieces are farther away, but there are fewer obstacles to slow those pieces down.]

Mixing a tactical approach with the improvisation that comes with reacting to your opponent’s movements makes Less a very engaging gaming experience, even if a game routinely lasts less than ten minutes. And on the puzzle side of things, figuring out the most efficient way to navigate a path toward your opponent’s corner is great fun, since every game is different, and your opponent has different obstacles to tackle than you do, given the random placement of walls on the board.

Plus, if you’re willing to invest in two copies of the game, you can play with four players, as you and your partner coordinate your efforts across a 4×4 game board in the hopes of occupying your opponents’ corners first.

It’s a game that takes a few minutes to learn and offers near-infinite replayability. It might be called Less, but it feels like a very complete, very satisfying challenge.

less4

Less is published by InventedFor and is available online at less-game.com (with numerous coaster designs for the reverse side of the tiles). Click here for full details.


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How to Get Started in Games

[Image courtesy of The Board Game Family.]

So, it’s after Christmas, and you’ve been gifted with a new game, or a roleplaying book, or someone showed you a new card game and you want to know more. Or your New Year’s Resolution is to learn more games, play more games, solve more puzzles, or even make some puzzles yourself.

Basically… how do you get started?

Here. You get started right here. I’m going to run down my favorite guide books for gaming, puzzles, tabletop play, roleplaying, and more, creating the perfect first step to a new world of play for you.

Let’s get cracking!


My first recommendation is also the most recently published book on my list.

The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco is a perfect introduction to all things gaming. This delightfully nerdy tome is loaded with thoughtful advice covering everything from choosing new games to teaching them to others, as well as building a game group for regular sessions or roleplaying games, and more.

From how to deal with cranky gamers to how to host your own major gaming events, Teri has dealt with every obstacle imaginable, and she offers her hard-won first-hand knowledge in easily digestible tidbits. Even as an experienced tabletop gamer, roleplayer, and puzzler, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and I think you will too.

If card games are your poison, then what you need is a copy of The Ultimate Book of Card Games by Scott McNeely.

What separates this book from many other card game books — namely the ones attributed to Hoyle (the vast majority of which had nothing to do with him) — is that it doesn’t claim to be the definitive source. It provides the key rules for how to play, and then offers numerous variations and house rules that expand and refine gameplay.

There are more than 80 pages of variations of Solitaire alone! Kids games, betting games, games for two, three, four or more, this is my go-to guide for everything that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

What if you’re already a fan of games, but you want to play them better? If that’s your goal, check out How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple.

Monopoly, Jenga, Hangman, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Checkers, Battleship… heck, even Rock, Paper, Scissors is covered here. With advice from top players, world record holders, game creators and more, you’ll find advice, tactics, and fun facts you won’t see anywhere else.

For instance, did you know that letter frequencies in Hangman are different from letter frequencies in the dictionary? ESIARN is the way to go with Hangman, not ETAOIN.

That’s just one of the valuable nuggets of info awaiting you in this book.

Ah, but what about puzzles? There are so many amazing puzzle styles out there, how do you know where to begin learning to construct one of your own?

I’d suggest you start with Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder’s Puzzlecraft.

If you’re a puzzle or game fan, you already know their names. Selinker’s The Maze of Games is featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide; Snyder is better known online as Dr. Sudoku, and we explored several of his creations in our Wide World of Sudoku post a few years ago.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. You can easily lose hours within the pages of this in-depth handbook — I know from firsthand experience — and you always come out the other side a stronger constructor.


Do you have any favorite books about puzzles and games that I missed? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Tak•tak

When it comes to strategy puzzle games, no matter how complex or how simple the actual game mechanics, the game itself hinges on the two players involved. After all, two extremely tactical puzzlers can make checkers look like chess.

Now, imagine a game that combines the pattern-matching of Uno, the strategy of chess, and the mechanics of Upwords, and adds a scoring element to boot. It might sound complicated, but I promise, it’s as simple as checkers.

Tak•tak is a two-player strategy scoring game designed by the folks at Twizmo Games, and it’s another puzzle game brought to life thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Although Twizmo Games is best known for twisty puzzles (or Rubik’s Cube-style puzzles), they’ve taken a strong step into the traditional board game market with Tak•tak.

Each player starts with 12 tiles, each tile bearing a different score (10, 20, 30, or 40) and a different color (green, blue, or yellow). The two rows nearest the player form that player’s safe zone. The three rows in the middle are the war zone.

Your goal is to get as many points as possible into your opponent’s safe zone by stacking your tiles, crossing the war zone, and either capturing or maneuvering around your opponent’s tiles. You can only move forward (either straight or diagonally), so this is a game about tactics and initiative.

You build your stacks by matching either point values or colors. For instance, you can stack a yellow 20 and a yellow 40, or a yellow 30 and a green 30, and either of those new stacks would represent 60 points. This enables you to move more tiles around the board quickly. (But careful: once you’ve stacked tiles, they stay stacked for the rest of the game.)

But those matching rules also apply to your opponent’s tiles! When you and your opponent cross paths in the war zone, you can stack your tiles onto theirs and steal those points for yourself. (The stacks you make from your own tiles can only go three tiles high, but stacks made from your tiles AND your opponent’s tiles can go as high as you want! Heck, a stack might change owners several times and tower over the game board!)

The game ends when one player has no more available moves. (There are other ways to end the game if you choose to use the advanced game play rules, but we’ll stick with the basic rules for now.) And then it’s time to count your tiles.

You earn points for all of the tiles you’ve moved into your opponent’s safe zone (including any of your opponent’s tiles that are in stacks you control), plus points for any tiles your opponent never moved into the war zone. (Meaning they were never “in play.”) Highest score wins!

Tak•tak builds a lot of versatility and play possibilities into a game with checkers-simple mechanics, and the more you play, the more fun it is to delve deeper into tactics and strategy. It was worth losing 50 points for keeping a few tiles in my safe zone when they prevented a stack of my opponent’s tiles from scoring.

The clever mix of classic game-play elements not only makes Tak•tak so easy to dive into, but also ensures new players can more time actively playing and less time worrying about learning the rules (a common downfall for more complicated strategy games).

The designers claim the game is appropriate for ages 8 through 108, and I think they’re right on the money.


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