A Game So Old Its Boards Are Hung In Museums

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When was the first true board game? That really depends on your definition.

Certainly tabletop style games with pieces and dice have been around for almost all of recorded history. Senet, for example is a game found in the tombs of ancient Egypt. That makes it more than 5000 years old. It was played on a board, not unlike a Cribbage board, but does that make it what we would call a board game? Chess and Checkers and Go are all played on boards and are also hundreds, if not thousands of years old, but while they might technically be board games, they are still missing something from how we think of board games today.

For me, the concept of “board game” seems to start with games like Monopoly or Life, the mass produced board games of the 50s (although Monopoly actually gained popularity in the 30s). Interestingly, it seems these were not the first such games either. Long before games like Trouble, the first mass produced and what some might call “modern” board game was called The Game of the Goose, and its odd history was the subject of a gallery exhibit in New York last month.

The Game of the Goose first crops up in the history books around the mid 1500s when Francesco dei Medici, Grand Duke of Florence sent a copy to King Philip II of Spain. Apparently it caused quite a stir at court. Considering two rulers both getting excited about the same game, it was to no surprise that the game took off. It was in England by the end of that century and quickly made its way everywhere else.

In case you are chomping at the bit to play this game, you might want to turn down your enthusiasm. By all modern gaming standards the game is pretty boring. It’s essentially a roll and move game. There is a long winding track and players take turns rolling one or two dice (depending on the version) and moving that many spaces. The first to make it to the end, 63 spaces away, was the winner. There was a number of “special” spaces that would affect the player pawns. For example, in many versions, landing on a picture of a goose would move you forward again the same number of spaces. Some spaces would move you back. Some spaces would be jails and lock your piece in play until you rolled a specific number or a number of turns went by. In this way The Goose was a lot like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders.

What’s amazing is just how prolific this game was. Perhaps because it was so simple and easy to “skin” with new branding, the game was reworked and re-released by several companies over the years. It also had a lot of other names, often based on the board art. The Royal Game of Cupid and Swan of Elegance are just a few. Plus, there were a few dozen branded versions of the game used to promote products like Coca-Cola or to lampoon the Italian electoral process. Some have estimated that if you counted all the versions of The Game of Goose by every name together over the years, it would have outsold any modern board game. In the 1895 inventory of The Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, they listed over 146 different versions of the game with distinct names and from all over the world. Only the game’s mechanics and similar names and imagery for the special squares unified them all as the same old Goose.

Taken as a whole, the game stands as an odd reflection of the culture of its time, with each new version featuring the passions and interests of the world around it. Some sets look like ancient illuminated manuscripts. Other boards depict hot air ballooning or brand new modern conveniences such as electric lights. They are all beautiful with odd concentric patterns and often hand painted art that’s as breathtaking as it is enlightening. Certainly, the idea that an exhibition of such boards could be displayed in a museum is not unthinkable when you look at them and their historical significance or their artistic merit. The aforementioned exhibit in New York based on the vast collection of Adrian Seville had over 70 such boards  

Of course, I’m not the first writer that’s looked at this exhibit and asked the question what modern board games will be similarly displayed in 200 years. Monopoly? Settlers of Catan? Mouse Trap? A collection of zombie board games? Perhaps some day the prize in someone’s collection will be the Felicia Day character card from Dead of Winter.

We know you collect board games but would you ever display the boards as art? What games are so beautiful you might put them on your wall? In the future what games will be displayed in museum collections? Leave your historical thoughts in the comments.

All images via Wikimedia Commons 

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