5000 Years of Board Games (Part Two)

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This week, Keith Law is taking us though the evolution of board games. If you missed yesterday's installment, you might want to read that first.

While modern western board games trace their lineage through Europe to the Middle East, Asia has its own long history of board games, dating at least back to 300 A.D., where we find the earliest references to a Korean game called Nyout, first described in English by Stewart Culin in 1895. Nyout, one of the earliest of a style of game now known somewhat pejoratively as “roll the dice, move your mice” games, involved a game board with a circular track circumscribing a cross, where the goal for any player was to have his or her pieces (called “horses”) make complete circuits around the outer track. Horses can be captured by another player's horses should they land on an occupied space. Although the game itself is Korean, Culin argued that its roots were Chinese, and early Nyout boards included Chinese characters. Within Korea, the game was associated with gambling and considered plebeian.

Go (I-go) is a classic Japanese game of placement, originally known in China as wéiqí, and is described by Parlett as the oldest extant board game in the world, with its rules nearly unchanged for several thousand years. In go, each player places stones with an eye toward surrounding as much space as possible. While the earliest reference to wéiqí appears in 548 B.C., the game's popularity in China soared during the T'ang dynasty of 618 to 906 A.D., as Taoism rose in importance. [Image credit.]

A similar traditional game called mig-mang or ming-mang, meaning “many eyes,” is played in Tibet; the board is 16x16 and all pieces start on the perimeter, with each player occupying two adjacent sides of the square.

Wéiqí moved to Korea some time in the second century B.C., when the Han Dynasty expanded into the Korean peninsula, where the game, called baduk, remains extremely popular. Go arrived in Japan in the 5th or 6th century A.D., and by the end of the first millennium was an essential part of Japanese culture, factoring strongly in two great Japanese novels of widely different eras: The Tale of Genji, which was written around 1000 A.D.; and The Master of Go, written in 1951 by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Go became a favorite game of the learned classes of medieval Japan, as well as of warlords and military tacticians. When Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun in 1603, he created a government office for the regulation and development of go (as well as one for shogi, or Japanese chess). His first principal, Honinbo Sansa, also known by his Buddhist name of Nikkai, established a nationwide system of rules and four major go “houses” or academies, one of which, the eponymous Honinbo, lasted until 1940.

At first glance, the go board resembles a super-sized version of Reversi, but go is played on the vertices of a 19 by 19 square surface, and pieces are captured not through a line but by surrounding them on four sides, or on two or three sides at the board's extreme corner or edge. Any piece that is not yet surrounded by the opponent's color is said to have “liberty,” and thus the object is to take liberties from – rather than with – one's opponent. Due to its simple rules, zero-sum nature, and extremely high number of legal game positions – about 2.08 x 10170, roughly the estimated minimum number of atoms in the known universe squared – go has attracted attention from mathematicians and game theorists, and even led to the creation of an arithmetic continuum called the surreal numbers.

In India, Pachisi – bastardized in name and form for westerners as “Parcheesi” - is considered the national board game, due to its long history and mention in the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. The name Pachisi comes from the Hindi word “pachis,” meaning twenty-five, the highest possible score that a player can achieve by throwing the cowrie shells used as a sort of binary dice. [Image credit: Micha L. Rieser.]

The game board resembles the cross found on Parcheesi boards, but pachisi is a four-player game involving two partnerships, as in bridge. Players attempt to move their pieces around the entire perimeter of the board and back into the board's center, with victory going to the partnership that has all eight of its pieces complete the route first. The board is similar to that of Nyout, and Parlett theorizes that the games may have shared a common ancestor.

Chaupar is a more complex variant of pachisi using different dice substitutes and giving players more flexibility in using the results of their rolls; chaupar was seen as the rich man's game, while pachisi was the peasants', although the popularity of both games has declined in India in the past century. Further simplified versions of the game called Ludo and Sorry! have found commercial success in the West, although they bear only a superficial resemblance to their grandparent.

The most popular game, or more properly style of game, in traditional African cultures is mancala. The game's name is derived from the Arabic word naqala ('to move'), where two players attempt to capture neutral pieces from a playing board of two tracks of cups or containers. Like go and mig-mang, mancala games involve no luck or chance, but unlike contestants at go, mancala players move quickly. The earliest Western reference to mancala came nearly 500 years ago, although the game is likely much older than that, with mancala-like boards appearing in Egyptian temples and pyramids, on Neolithic tablets found in Kenya, and in once-fertile areas of the Sahara that may date back to 3000 B.C.

Although hundreds of varieties exist up and down the continent and wherever African slaves were taken, including Wari/Woro of West Africa and the Caribbean and Endodoi of Kenya and Tanzania, the basic principle involves taking all of the stones in one hole/cup and moving them forward, dropping (or 'sowing') one stone per cup. The rules for capturing the stones in any cup vary depending on the game, but may depend on how many stones were in the cup at the point of sowing, or whether the cup across from it was empty, but the objective remains the capture of the majority of the pieces on the board.

Tomorrow: Backgammon, Scrabble, and more!

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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November 16, 2010 - 9:31am
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