What Is a Board Game?
A board game is a game played on a table top with game-specific pieces on a playing surface called a board. The board sits comfortably on a kitchen table or coffee table, where a group has equal access to the playing surface.
Board games usually come with unique playing pieces, which are manipulated around the game board by the players. These pieces often represent a character, team or army, but also can represent abstractions like numbers or letters.
The board game has existed since ancient times, when people played earlier derivations of modern games, like chess and go. In the modern age, there has been a proliferation of new board games. Companies create and market new board games every year. They also continue to mass market the most popular modern games like Monopoly and Scrabble, which themselves are considered "classics".
Types of Board Games
Strategy board games remain popular. Modern strategy games tend to be less abstract than chess, and tend to stress acquisition of wealth, land or some other marker of success. Monopoly is a strategy game based on modern real estate, while Risk markets itself as a game of "world conquest".
While the earliest board games tended to emphasize strategy and pit two people in a one-on-one match up, modern board games often include larger numbers of people. Modern board games can sometimes be games of luck, though popular board games of today also often emphasize knowledge, teamwork or communications skills.
Boardgames meant for group interaction fall into two main categories: family entertainment and party games. Such games are differentiated either for the sake of appropriateness, or because younger users may not have the necessary cognitive skills for certain games.
So there are several ways to categorize board games. One can classify them according to the challenges posed: luck or strategy games. Or one can classify them according to their social dimensions: family entertainment or party games.
Luck Board Games or Strategy Board Games
Many gamers divide board games between two broad categories: games of luck and games of strategy. Typically, games which involve luck are considered for less serious gamers. On the other hand, games of strategy are meant for more mature, sophisticated or serious gamers.
Of course, many games offer a mixture of both factors. Backgammon is a strategy board game, but it has a substantial luck factor. Some gamers consider this a positive, since it requires a player to calculate risk and odds when making a game decision.
Games of Luck
Games of pure luck are generally for younger or less serious players. Children's games like Candy Land, Life and Mouse Trap are examples of luck games. Players tend to be playing for the fun and social interaction, as opposed to playing for the sake of winning.
Not all luck games are for children. Some party games are largely luck-based, and are typically for groups who are looking for the enjoyment of competition without the pressure to perform. These games often use dice for their random results, though others use dealt cards. While some adults enjoy these games, more serious gamers tend to consider games of luck boring.
Games of Strategy
There are many types of strategy games. Games like Risk, Axis & Allies and Diplomacy use a world map as their game board. These military strategy games require each player to take the role of a world power, hoping to conquer a major portion (or the totality) of the game board before one's opponents do the same.
With the popularity of the games mentioned in the paragraph above, there have been many other variations of the military strategy game. Virtually every time period and region have been spotlighted in strategy game or another, from ancient Rome and imperial China to dark future earth settings. Some strategy games use faster-than-light travel and fictional interstellar empires for a setting. (See our list of science fiction board games.)
Not all strategy games are military games. Monopoly and Gold Rush are examples of strategy games that do not require military settlement of the game situation. Each game requires players to strategize ways to become wealthier than other players, generally from allotting resources in a more profitable manner.
The Diplomacy Factor
Diplomacy brings an added dimension to many board games. This often dovetails with strategy games, but is not necessarily confined to them. Diplomacy is the term used when two or more players cooperate for limited ends in a board game. This might allow both parties to accomplish some material gain, allowing each to maneuver closer to victory.
An example of this cooperation can be found in Monopoly, where two players trade properties which allow each to complete a monopoly. In this way, the trade helps a player get closer to victory, though both realize parties realize the advantage gained helps an opponent in their pursuit of victory.
Negative diplomacy is common in board games, too. Two players may perceive that a third player is too close to victory. In this case, an alliance might be formed to thwart the third player's attempts to win the game. This is common in a game like Risk, where one player may build up his "empire" to where it rivals that of any two other players. In this case, an alliance must be formed to check the continued expansion of the most powerful player, or else the remaining players risk losing the game.
Diplomacy, the cult classic game, is considered one of the more involved versions of this type of game. Battle is actually a small factor of the game. Instead, players must enter into coalitions to achieve limited ends. But intrigue becomes the pivotal factor, since either party to an alliance is capable of betraying the other at key moments.
Family Board Games
Family board games are usually appropriate for all ages, though often it is stipulated that children under a certain age may not understand the game. Therefore, board games often have disclaimers for "ages 8 and up" or "children 12 and over".
Some family boardgames are specifically marketed for children. These games tend to rely heavily on luck, a mechanic which is usually controlled by the use of dice. These games usually require the players to manipulate a game piece around the board, usually towards a finish line. These games usually have cartoon illustration on the board.
Party games are marketed for gatherings of adults. These games may or may not have adult themes which are not inappropriate for children. More often, these games requires trivia knowledge or other skills which might be beyond the average child's abilities.
Trivial Pursuit is one of the most popular boardgames introduced to the market in the last 25 years. The original game required players to display general trivia knowledge. Questions were divided into "genuses" like geography, entertainment and literature.
In later editions, the categories became more specific, hoping to take advantage of niche interests. Later editions included sports, music and the baby boomer generation. Popular movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings had their own editions, too.
Other Party Games
Many games imitated Trivial Pursuit, though none have matched its popularity. In time, the trivia game fad would give way to less demanding party games. In fact, Trivial Pursuit has become atypical of a party game.
Guessing games have become popular party games in the last fifteen years. Charades had a heavy influence on party games on many of these games. Not all guessing games are board games, because not all of them use a board for game play. The most popular guessing game, Pictionary, fits into the board game category.
But before we get to far into the evolution of board games, we should probably lay the groundwork for an understanding of board games. Therefore, let us start at the beginning and learn the history of board games.
A History of Board Games
It's hard to know which was the first board game. Evidence of games may not have survived the ages. Sometimes, it is difficult for archaeologists to determine what meaning or use a relic had to an ancient society. Therefore, we know more of those societies who tended to leave decipherable information about their language and customs. For this reason, Egypt offers several of the earliest known examples of board games.
An ancient Egyptian game by the name of Senet generally gets credit as the first board game, because it is the earlier verifiable board game. Senet game pieces have been found dating back 5,500 years.
Little is known of how Senet was played. It consisted of a board that was 3 tiles across and 10 tiles long. Various game pieces were placed on this board. Scholars believe that Senet was a racing game, where pieces were moved from one end of the board to another. It is assumed the game was for two players.
Evidence shows that Senet was quite popular in its time. The Egyptians had a deterministic view of life. Therefore, those who won at Senet were blessed in the eyes of the gods. People often were buried with their favorite set of Senet, as it was considered a token of good fortune.
Mehen appeared in Egypt some 500 years after Senet. The game is associated with a mythological figure of the same name. It is unknown whether the game derived from the myth figure, or whether the Egyptian god influenced the board game.
Mehen is depicted in Egyptian art as a coiled snake. In their painting, the snake coils around the feet of either Ra or Set. It would appear the creature is meant as a protector of Ra, since Set himself (before a later time when he became a villain god) was a protector of Ra in predynastic Egypt.
The Mehen board depicts a snake broken into several segments. It is assumed that game pieces were manipulated around the segments of the snake, though this is only an assumption. Unfortunately, little is known about how the game was played.
Mehen was outlawed for 1600 years of Egyptian history. This undoubtedly had to do with the politics of changing dynasties, and how the corresponding power struggles changed the perceptions of various gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Other games began to take the place of Mehen.
The Royal Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur is another Egyptian board game. It dates from around 2600 B.C., which is around the time Mehen was made illegal. The game is so-called because its game pieces have been found in royal crypts on the site of the ancient city of Ur.
Like Senet, this game appears to have been a racing game. There are black and white game pieces, which seem to indicate two opposing sides in the game. The game employs three dice, which appear to have randomized game movements. The Royal Game of Ur is a precursor to backgammon, which also originated in the Middle East.
Other Games in Ancient Egypt
The discovery of the Kurna Tomb indicates that the Egyptians had numerous other board games. The excavation revealed several games in one tomb, including a Quirkat board. This game would later come to be known in 10th century Spain as Alquerque. Early versions of game boards for Three Men's Morris and Nine Men's Morris were found at the same site. These games were the ancestors of modern tic-tac-toe.
Games in Ancient China
Go pieces have been found dating back to the 2nd century B.C. Legend has it that Go dates back another two thousand years, when a Chinese emperor invented the game for his son. Direct references to the game come from the 6th century B.C., so it is known to have existed at least 2,500 years.
Go is the first known pure strategy game, because it requires one to outmaneuver one's opponent in the acquisition of territory. There are two sides, one using white stones, while the other using black stones. Each player takes turn placing a stone on intersecting lines on the Go board.
The strategy is to surround the opponent's stone, while avoiding the same for one's own stones. By these means, one captures territory. The winner is the one who captures the greater part of the game board.
Chinese Chess or Xiangpi
Chinese Chess board pieces have been dated to the 1st century B.C., though there are references to the game three centuries before. Though the Xiangpi is definitely native to China, it bears many similarities to chess derivations from south Asia.
Like chess, the game has multiple game pieces with their own ranks and abilities. The game has its own distinct rules, though, both for how the pieces are manipulated on the board, as well as how the board itself plays into the strategy of the game. For example, the Generals, which roughly correspond to the Kings in standard chess, cannot directly move against one another.
Xiangpi is thought to have been the game of the masses, while Go was played by generals, aristocrats and warlords. This remains true to this day. For this reason, Chinese Chess is one of the most popular games in the world, in that it is played by a great number of people.
Latrunculi was a Roman game dating from the second century before the common era. The name translates roughly from Latin to the name "brigands". It is not unlike chess in its strategy aspects, though game setup is much different.
There are two players in Latrunculi, along with 34 game pieces. The game board has 56 spaces on it. The two players take turns placing their pieces on the latrunculi board, which can be placed on any space on the surface. The final piece for each team is differently marked, and is called the King.
Game pieces can be moved one space in any direction. To capture the opponent's game pieces, that piece must be flanked by two opposing game pieces. If this is done, that piece is removed from the board. A winner is determined when one side's king is removed from the board.
Backgammon seems to have had many sources in history. Egyptian games like Senet and The Royal Game of Ur may have influenced backgammon. A roman game named Ludus duodecim scriptorum bears a striking similarity to backgammon, and is probably the immediate forerunner to the game. Backgammon as we know it may have been invented by the Persians under the name "nard". This game entered China in the 3rd century A.D., being called t'shu-p'u.
Backgammon is a game of both strategy and chance. It requires the use of dice, which randomize movement of the game pieces. Backgammon is a race game, which rivaled strategy games for popularity in the ancient world. One must moved all of ones pieces to the ending place to win the game.
Since its inception, backgammon has proliferated throughout the globe. It is one of the most successful and enduring board games ever invented.
Tafl Games and chess
Tafl is the ancient Germanic word for "table". From the 4th century onwards, tafl games were played in what is now Germany. These games were somewhat similar to chess, so much so that certain northern European countries still refer to chess by variations on the word tafl.
Tafl spread throughout northern Europe in the early middle ages. The game varied in rules from one region to the next, and took on many different names. Some of these game and where they were played are: hnefetafl (Scandinavia), brandub or black raven (Ireland), fidchell (also in Ireland), tablut (Lapland in northern Finland), alea evangelii (Saxon-era England) and tawl-bwrdd (Wales).
The game was widespread and popular for centuries. By the high middle ages, tafl games were being replaced by the European fascination for chess. Though the game still exists to this day, it had lost widespread popularity by the 14th century A.D.
Modern Board Games
Board games entered a golden age in the interwar period of the early 20th century. A new middle class was emerging during this time, which was looking for new ways to spend their disposable income and leisure time. Games like Scrabble and Monopoly were invented and became popular during the interwar period in America, despite the depredations of the Depression.
After World War II, the middle class experienced a new age of prosperity. Table games came to be in high demand. At the same time, companies began to market a greater number of games, hoping to tap this new market. It was in the generation immediately after World War II that many of the "classic" board games would appear.
Hasbro is the largest producer of board games in the world. The company was started in 1923 by the Hassenfeld Brothers, Helal and Henry. At the time, Hasbro was in the toy making business. In the after war period, its major successes were toys like Mr. Potatohead and G.I.Joe. Later, Hasbro began to acquire gaming companies.
Today, Hasbro has many subsidiaries worldwide. Their board gaming empire includes Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, two American companies synonymous with board games. Hasbro also owns the famed gaming enterprises Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast.
Among the popular board games Hasbro owns is Monopoly, Life, Candy Land, Risk, Axis & Allies, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit.
One subsidiary of Hasbro requires special attention. Parker Brothers may have had more to do with the popularization of board games than any other American company. It was founded in 1883 by George S. Parker. Five years later, George's brother, Charles, joined the organization, and Parker Brothers was founded. Their company would be well-established and well-positioned when the demand for board games began to increase.
Parker Brothers introduced Sorry! to America in 1934. Though it was created in England, the American company followed a strategy that would make it quite successful; Parker Brothers bought good ideas and sold it to a wider public. Sorry! was popular with American youth, because winning was based mostly on the luck factor, but required a small element of strategy.
Monopoly was the greatest success Parker Brothers had. In fact, the game is the best selling board game of all time. It is probably no coincidence that a money acquisition game was so popular when it first appeared on shelves in 1935, in the lean years of the Depression.
Clue was another striking success for Parker Brothers. The game required players to solve a murder mystery through deductive reasoning and the process of elimination. The game, first sold in 1948, was popular enough to inspire a Hollywood movie by the same name.
Scrabble is the most popular word game to ever hit tabletops. The game began selling the same year as Clue, in 1948. Spelling and vocabulary are the key skills in this board game, which has made it distinct from most other board games on the market in the adjoining decades.
Risk was invented by a Frenchman in the mid 1950s. In 1959, Parker Brothers brought it to stores in America. Along the way, they made several key changes to create the Risk that the public recognizes, changes that made play more unpredictable and dynamic. This was the mother of all strategy board games.
Trivial Pursuit was not a Parker Brothers original. It was developed in 1979 by Scott Abbott and Greg Haney, a pair of Canadian sports journalists. Parker Brothers bought the manufacturing rights in 1988. When the company was in turn bought by Hasbro, Trivial Pursuit joined the growing Hasbro board game empire.
Another subsidiary of Hasbro should be pointed out.
Milton Bradley had a large hand in the early popularity of American board games. The company was founded by its namesake in 1860. By the time the American craze for board games peaked, the company had been in existence for nearly 100 years. It introduced to America several games that are now standards of the board game industry.
Battleship was a popular pen and paper game in the early 1900s. In 1931, Milton Bradley began marketing a board game version.
Candy Land was produced for the American market in 1949. Because the game was luck-based and it did not require its players to read or write, it became popular with American children of that generation. With bright colors and many allusions to candy, it remains popular with young children to this day.
Life, also known as The Game of Life, was another success for Milton Bradley in the middle 20th century. It hits stores in 1960.
Playing a Board Game Online
Now playing a board game online is an easy thing to accomplish too. Sites like Facebook offer traditional board games like Scrabble to play. Other sites, like Brettspielwelt, specialize in enabling you to play your favorite German board game online.
I like to play online board games at Brettspielwelt, especially Dominion. But boardgames online can drain hours of time, and some days I don't get as much work done as I should because of my boardgaming online hobby.
My point is that if you want to play board games online, you have a lot of options, but you need to use maturity and good sense to make sure that you don't become some kind of boardgame online addict. (You don't hear about that problem as often as you hear about MMORPG addiction, but I'm convinced that it exists.)
Board Games: An Overview
Board games are so multifarious that it is hard to define or categorize all the sub-genres in one neat fashion. As cultures have influenced one another and modern consumer demand has increased for new entertainments, the examples of this genre of games have increased greatly with each succeeding year. It is sometimes difficult to archive the sheer number of games.
That is our purpose here. This site hopes to list and describe every board game ever.