The (Increasingly Lengthy) History of Games

Being a student of history means constantly discovering amazing new things about our world, our culture, and ourselves. There are so many unexpected twists and turns, synchronicities, coincidences, and flat-out mind-blowing facts waiting to be uncovered.

And when you’re a student of history with an interest in puzzles and games, it means you get to discover just how long humans have been dabbling in baffling brain teasers and friendly competition.

Board games, for instance, have been around a long time, longer than most people realize. There is evidence that Go has been played in China for more than 5,500 years!

And many other games also have shockingly long lineages. Chess can be traced back to the seventh century in India. Game boards have been found in king’s courts, university halls, and even former houses used by the Knights Templar, as pictured above.

We’ve previously explored that Viking gravesites from the ninth century reveal that board games were not just a pastime for the Vikings, but that their win-loss records were important enough to be recorded for posterity!

Check this out. It’s an ancient Greek painting on a vase, dating back to 530 BCE. This piece is an example of the black figure technique where images painted on clay turned black when the clay was fired. It depicts the two mightiest warriors of the Trojan War, Achilles and Ajax, playing a board game to keep themselves busy during the siege of Troy.

It’s unclear what game they’re playing, though many historians believe the warriors are rolling dice in the image. That would make sense, since astragali (the knuckle-bones of goats and sheep) were used in ancient Greek gambling games.

Dice have an equally ancient history. The Egyptian game of Senet, which was played with dice, dates back over 5,000 years.

Dice games have been uncovered in Mesopotamian tombs (some as far back as the twenty-fourth century BC), and a Vedic Sanskrit text known as the Rigveda, which dates back to India in 1500 BC, also mentions dice.

Tile games have a similarly deep history.

Chinese Dominoes can be traced back to writings of the Song Dynasty, nearly a thousand years ago. Dominoes as we know them first appeared in Italy during the 1800s, and some historians theorize they were brought to Europe from China by traveling missionaries.

Another tile game, Mahjong, has been around for centuries, but there are several different origin stories for the game, one tracing back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), another to the days of Confucius (500 BC).

Perhaps at some point, I’ll try to put together a historical timeline of gaming (similar to the crossword timeline I created around the 100th anniversary of the crossword).

In the meantime, I’ll settle for being utterly fascinated with just how long humans have been socializing, relaxing, and competing through the medium of games.


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Making Board Games More Accessible Than Ever!

[Image courtesy of Make Board Game.]

I’m a huge proponent of the idea that there’s a game out there for everybody. Some prefer fun, lighthearted fare. Others like the high-stakes of a winner-take-all scenario. Some thrive in cooperative games where victories are shared and losses softened by camaraderie, while others like one-on-one strategic battles.

But no matter who you are, there’s a game out there for you.

Unfortunately, for colorblind gamers or those dealing with visual impairments, some of the most popular games are less accessible.

[Ticket to Ride remains one of the more colorblind-friendly games on the market today. Image courtesy of Board Game Duel.]

I’ve had several colorblind friends tell me that the color-and-pattern-matching tile game Qwirkle is a no-go, because the game’s colors (as well as the black tiles on which those colored symbols are set) can cause serious confusion that hampers gameplay.

Although there’s no official colorblind-friendly edition of Qwirkle on the market, there is a colorblind-friendly version of the game that has been shared online. The color palette is more accessible, and instead of black tiles, the base tiles are gray.

Other games have also picked up on the need to keep their multicolored games accessible to a broader audience. As mentioned in a recent post on the official Tabletop Day website, the game Lanterns: The Harvest Festival incorporates specific symbols for each of their differently colored cards to make it easier for colorblind players to distinguish them.

And if you’re a visually impaired game enthusiast, there are other companies out there working hard to ensure you have the widest possible range of games to enjoy.

The folks at 64 Oz. Games produce specialty sleeves and other modifications for established board games and card games, allowing visually impaired players to play alongside their sighted pals.

[An image from their successful Kickstarter campaign a few years ago.
Image courtesy of 64 Oz. Games.]

A combination of Braille and clever use of QR codes has opened up games like Munchkin, Cards Against Humanity, Coup, Love Letter, Seven Wonders, King of Tokyo, and numerous roleplaying games to a previously excluded audience.

Add items like their 3D printed Braille roleplaying dice and a touch-based game called Yoink! that is based on tactile gameplay, and you have a wonderful resource for all sorts of game fans.

As we gear up to celebrate a day dedicated to gathering with family and friends to enjoy playing games, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to acknowledge those who are going above and beyond to make sure as many people as possible can participate.

It’s a beautiful thing.


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A Relatively Modern Idea: Fairness in Dice Rolling

[Image courtesy of Larsdatter.com.]

This may come as a surprise to you, fellow puzzlers, but fairness was not always a priority when it came to rolling dice.

Nowadays, whether you’re going after that elusive Yahtzee, hoping for doubles to earn another roll in Monopoly, or trying to roll sevens in a game of craps, the basic concept behind throwing dice is that every outcome of a six-sided die has an equal chance to appear. Unless you’re dealing with loaded or gimmicked dice, your odds should be 1 in 6.

But a recent study by researchers from the American Museum of Natural History and the University of California, Davis, has revealed that fairness in dice rolling didn’t really become a concern for dice users until the Renaissance. Researchers gathered dice spanning 2000 years of human history to explore why this was the case.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

From an article on Science Alert:

Roman-era dice, the researchers found, were a mess when it came to shape. They were made from a variety of materials, such as metal, bone and clay, and no two were shaped entirely alike. Many were visibly lumpy and lopsided, with the 1 and 6 on opposite sides that were more likely to roll up.

In fact, it seems like variety was the name of the game in Roman times, since the number configurations, shape, and size were inconsistent across the board, although dice were fairly common in the time period.

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

The Dark Ages led to a downturn in dice frequency, as they become very rare between the years 400CE and 1100CE.

The use of dice rebounds after 1100, and are most commonly found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in what is known as the primes configuration, meaning that opposite numbers add up to prime numbers. 1 pairs with 2, 3 pairs with 4, and 5 pairs with 6.

There was a reinvigorated focus on the mechanics of chance and calculating probability, thanks to names like Galileo and Pascal, as well as a spirit of greater scientific understanding overall. Those Renaissance influences led to both a standardized shape for dice and a change in the numbering system. At this point, most dice convert to the sevens configuration, where opposite sides add up to seven (1 pairs with 6, 2 pairs with 5, and 3 pairs with 4).

[Image courtesy of Smithsonian.com.]

And according to lead researcher Jelmer Eerkens, cheating may have been on the mind of manufacturers going forward. “Standardizing the attributes of a die, like symmetry and the arrangement of numbers, may have been one method to decrease the likelihood that an unscrupulous player had manipulated the dice to change the odds of a particular roll.”

That change from variable shapes, sizes, and designs reflects a sea change in thinking towards dice and chance. Before, the shape didn’t matter because the results were attributed to Fate or some greater outside force, but later on, an understanding of chance and probability pushed standardization of dice forward.

In the end, it’s amazing how much of our culture and worldview, both past and present, can be revealed by exploring how we solve puzzles and play games.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2017!

2017 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and tackled the Crossword from Hell. We accepted the challenge of diabolical brain teasers, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even pondering our place in the world of puzzles as electronic solvers like Dr. Fill and AlphaGo rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about the legacy of female codebreakers in World War II, game dice from centuries ago, theories about Shakespeare’s secret codes, and the long history of cryptography and the NSA. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, popular culture, famous quotations, and even the natural world as we pondered whether bees are verifiable problem-solvers like crows and octopuses.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Puzzles for Progress, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, dazzling corn mazes, and the ongoing Kubrick’s Game interactive experience.

We cheered the 75th anniversary of the New York Times Crossword, and chronicled the many celebrations that marked the occasion, from guest crossword constructors like Bill Clinton and Lisa Loeb to a puzzle-centric cruise across the Atlantic!

We also mourned as friends and fellow puzzlers passed on. We said goodbye to David Lindsey and Raymond Smullyan, two underappreciated giants of the field. The pun-fueled show @midnight this year, which inspired our monthly hashtag game, also closed up shop, sadly.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, made puzzly bouquets in honor of International Puzzle Day, marveled at the records broken at the Rubik’s Cube World Championship, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and New York Toy Fair, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, Lollapuzzoola 10, and Crosswords LA.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Pi Day, the Super Bowl, and Star Wars Day to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you. We even discovered Puzzle Mountain!

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked five years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I recently penned my 800th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2017 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for the Penny Dell Crosswords App. From monthly deluxe sets and bonus boxes to Dell Collection sets and holiday bundles, dozens upon dozens of topnotch puzzles wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And just last month, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Daily POP Crosswords — bringing you fresh, up-to-date cluing and relatable themes in world-class puzzles created by some of the industry’s best constructors! (Many of whom you’ve gotten to know in our recent interview series, Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors!)

But whether we’re talking about the Penny Dell Crosswords App or Daily POP Crosswords, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, the blog has over 2200 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2017 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2018!


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The Weird, Wonderful World of Dice

[Image courtesy of ThoughtCo.]

Dice have been an integral part of gaming for centuries. They’re the simplest way to introduce randomness to a game.

The six-sided die is, by leaps and bounds, the most familiar die. The d6, as role-players call it, is a staple of classic board games like Yahtzee and Clue, as well as the centerpiece of role-playing systems like GURPS.

But the d6 is hardly the only kind of die you see in gaming. Plenty of games and role-playing systems rely on dice of other shapes in order to run smoothly.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

If you play World of Darkness role-playing games like Werewolf or Vampire: The Masquerade, then the d10 is your friend. If you enjoy updated editions of Dungeons & Dragons (or even board games like Unspeakable Words or Scattergories), the d20 is a familiar sight, whether it has letters or numbers on it.

A standard dice set for beginners Dungeons & Dragons contains six different dice shapes: a pyramid-shaped d4, a d6, a d8, a d10, a d12, and a d20. (Many come with 2 d10s, one with single digits and one with double digits, allowing you to calculate percentages).

[Image courtesy of Instructables.]

Heck, if you think about it, flipping a coin to decide something is simply rolling a two-sided die.

But when you start delving into the history of games, it’s amazing to see just how far back some of these traditions and conventions go.

Did you know that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a d20 in its collection?

Dating back to Roman times (somewhere between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD), the above die is inscribed with Greek letters. It’s not certain if this particular die was used for games or religious divination, but there’s no doubt it’s a beautiful example of craftsmanship.

And this is just scraping the surface. One of my favorite dice in my collection is an oversized 3D-printed d20 with Braille markings for every number. Such a cool piece.

Can you think of any strange dice in favorite games of yours, fellow puzzlers? We’d love to hear about them! (Unless they’re fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror. Those don’t make reliable rolls in regular gameplay.)


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The Best of All Possible Puzzle/Game Worlds?

newold1

[A sampling of the wide variety of modern puzzles and games. Fluxx cards, Bananagrams tiles, a wooden puzzle box, Pairs cards, David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register, Timeline cards, last month’s edition of The Crosswords Club, Puzzometry pieces, Cards Against Humanity cards, multi-sided roleplaying dice.]

This is the most exciting time in history to be a puzzler or board game enthusiast.

Think about it. If you want to play a game or solve a puzzle, you don’t have to go any farther than your pocket, since a plethora of puzzly goodness awaits you on your smartphone.

Puzzle apps are our bread and butter here at PuzzleNation, so this might feel like a cheap plug, but honestly, it boggles my mind how much more accessible puzzles and games are now than they were even five years ago.

And the app revolution is only one part of the story.

I was reading a book the other day, as I am wont to do on the long train rides to and from PuzzleNation HQ. Titled The Revenge of Analog, it was all about the cultural response to digital media, highlighting the resurgence of vinyl records, film, and other tangible alternatives to electronic formats.

In the chapter “The Revenge of Board Games,” the author discussed the social aspect of tabletop gaming, and how sitting down with people and playing a game is a far different, more rewarding experience than online gaming and other social media-based interactions. (A fine point to consider, what with International TableTop Day a little more than a week away.)

tabletop2

While I do think that’s partially true, I also think that downplays the ingenuity of the puzzle/game community. I think we’re the best of both worlds.

I mentioned in my Tak review last week that puzzles are being created today that could not have been five or ten or twenty years ago. The advent of 3-D printing and laser cutters for homes and small businesses has brought design, construction, and promotion literally to the doorstep of entrepreneurial puzzlers.

Just last week I received a new edition of Puzzometry in the mail, a perk for supporting a team for a school robotics competition. This laser-cut plastic jigsaw will keep me guessing for hours (if its puzzly siblings are anything to go by), and it was designed and manufactured by a single individual.

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Old and new styles are meshing as never before. Many puzzle constructors are partially or fully supporting themselves via email puzzle subscriptions and direct sales to the customer. Events like the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games are organized and advertised mostly online.

Crowdfunding has leveled the playing field for many companies and designers in both puzzles and games, allowing more products than ever before to enter the market. (According to Kickstarter, tabletop game projects raised $52 million dollars in 2013, and that number has surely gone up in the meantime.)

You’ve got a proper board game renaissance as classic games and styles of play are meshing with new technology, and games from across the world are shared on YouTube, at Friendly Local Game Shops, or even in puzzle cafes like Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes or New York City’s The Uncommons.

Whether you’re a pen-and-paper solver or a Penny Dell Crossword App devotee, a fan of classics like Chutes and Ladders or a proud tabletopper experimenting with the newest games, this is an amazing time to be a puzzler or board gamer.

So keep playing. Keep puzzling. And share that with others.


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