Sunday, 3 April 2016

Stranger Games

The 2016 Board Game Studies Colloquium is to be hosted at The German Games Archive in Nuremberg.

I'll be giving a paper on the spintriae, curious Roman tokens from the first century AD with an erotic image on one side and a number on the other that are often referred to as "brothel tokens".

They are of interest to games scholars because one idea about their use is that they may have been used as games pieces.

My presentation, "Stranger Games: The Life and Times of the Spintriae" will review the evidence

Monday, 30 November 2015

Strange Games

After I had agreed to organise the 2014 Board Game Studies Colloquium at UCS, it dawned on me that I probably ought to contribute a paper to the event.

A version of the paper was accepted for publication in the Board Game Studies Journal and can be found here: Duggan, E. (2015) "Strange Games: Some Iron Age examples of a four-player board game?". Board Game Studies Journal 9. pp 17 - 40

Stuck for a topic and pondering the possibilities, I recalled an odd and interesting display I had seen on a few visits to the British Museum and thought the game-related objects contained therein may merit some further investigation. That thought led me to the original archaeological report: Stead, I. (1967) "A La Tène III Burial at Welwyn Garden City". Archaeologia 101 pp. 1 – 62.

Following a footnote in Stead, I looked at some other archaeological artefacts and cobbled together a presentation for the colloquium: Strange Games: Some Iron Age examples of a four-player board game?. The presentation seemed to go quite well and I was pleased to be able to give the paper again at the “Jeux et Multiculturalitѐ” International Symposium at the Swiss Museum of Games as part of the Veni Vidi Ludique programme in October 2014.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Board Game Studies Colloquium: Swiss Museum of Games

Got up at 04.00 today to travel to the XVIII Board Game Studies Colloquium at the Swiss Museum of Games, where I am giving *two* papers: one is a solo contribution on Pervasive Games and the other is a collaborative undertaking on 3D-printed astragali.

Off the Board: A Brief Definition and History of Pervasive Games

Astragali: some observations on the anatomy of different mammalian species and their performance as 4-sided dice when thrown onto different surfaces in the form of either the original bone or 3-D printed models of them

I used Adobe Slate to create a blog of the trip to colloquium. The blog can be found here:#BGS2015

Monday, 12 January 2015

Game Developer: magazine archive

Game Developer ran from April 1994 to July 2013.  The magazine contains much of interest to game designers, and is the source of material reprinted elsewhere. (For example, Doug Church's "Formal Abstract Design Tools", which started as a talk at GDC, first appeared in printed form in the August 1999 issue of Game Developer; it was re-published as a Game Developer article on Gamasutra and is available in various forms on the web (including a powerpoint presentation by Earle E. Lane of Delta College) and it has also been re-printed in Salen and Zimmerman, eds (2006) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology).

The entire Game Developer archive is available here:

This is great, as is gives access to every issue in PDF format, as well as code examples in zip files. For those who want to download everything (and who wouldn't), the process is made easier with the Download Them All extension for Firefox.

Install the Download Them All extension, restart Firefox (yes, really!) reload the Game Developer archive page and right-click. Select dTa OneClick from the context menu and type ".pdf, .zip" into the Fast Filtering pane. Select a destination with 3Gb storage and the download will chug away in the background.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Gateway Games

A group of first year games-design students visited The British Museum as part of their study of ancient games. Irving Finkel met the group and pointed out some interesting artefacts. Here, the group is looking at a graffito game board, scratched into the base of the giant winged bull statue about 3,000  years ago. The statue is one of a pair of guardians at the entrance of the palace of King Sargon II (721-750 BC) in the Assyrian capital Dur-Sharrukin (present-day Khorsabad, near Mosul, in Iraq).

Thursday, 27 November 2014

During today's session, the group managed to leave game counters and dice on the floor, together with a good sprinkling of popcorn, and also remove one of the feet from a chair.  


Thursday, 30 October 2014

Dicing with Destiny

Games Britannia

Part One: "Dicing with Destiny"
Presented by Benjamin Woolley. Duration: 59 minutes.
First broadcast on BBC4 in December 2009 as part of the Game On season.

The Stanway Game [02:15]

At a gravel quarry in Stanway, just outside Colchester, in 1996, archaeologists began excavating five enclosures dating from the iron age, when Britain was under Roman rule. The enclosures had been identified from aerial photography and the quarry company allowed archaeologists to undertake the excavations ahead of the advancing quarry line.

The enclosures were burial sites for indigenous British people (they were not Roman graves) dating from about 43AD. One of the burial sites, subsequently referred to as “The Doctor’s Grave” contained various artefacts, including a set of diving rods, rings, a set of surgical instruments and a board game, set out as if a game was in progress, had also been placed in the doctor’s grave (other gaming pieces were found in the other enclosures, notably “The Warrior’s Grave”)

The game board is the oldest complete gaming board found in Britain. The rules are not known. What is known is that the game consists of a board (the excavated board had rotted, but enough remained, including fragments of wood, metal corner pieces and hinges, for a facsimile to be created) and a set of blue glass pieces and white glass pieces, set up on opposite sides of the board.
Woolley consults Irving Finkel, curator of games at the British Museum. Finkel suggests the game is a strategy game, probably a British game, dating from before the Roman invasion.

Woolley consults Mike Pitts, an archaeologist at Colchester Castle & Museum, to ask if there are any clues as to the identity of the owner of the game. Pitts notes that the game board may be deemed a highly significant object because the cremated remains of the grave’s occupant had been set out on the board, which was arranged as for a game, with the other objects on or around the board. Pitts suggests the occupant of the grave may have had divinatory powers and was “probably a Druid.” The game, therefore, suggests Woolley, may have been used for divination (ie prophecy).

Alea Evangelii [11:17]

Aethelstan, C10th King of Britain (and grandson of King Alfred) is mentioned in an illuminated manuscript as having a particular game in his court: alea evangelii (game of the evangelists). The manuscript, a copy of the gospels, also includes a diagram of the board game.

Woolley attempts to play the board game with mediaevalist David Howlett (note that they play with the pieces on the lines rather than in the spaces). Alea Evangelii is a member of the tafl group of games: it is an asymmetric game; there are twice as many attacking pieces as there are defending pieces. The object of the game for the defending side is for the king to “escape” to the edge or to the corner of the board, while the attacking side seeks to capture the king by flanking him between two pieces.

Alea Evangelii is a complex version of tablut. The board is an 18 x 18 grid and there are 72 pieces. In this version, the four corners represent the four evangelists, and there are various correspondences between the positions of the pieces on the board and biblical scripture.

Libros de los juegos [book of games] [18:40]

 Chess, draughts and backgammon began to be played by the end of C13th. They are recorded in a late thirteenth century manuscript, Libros de los joegos, compiled by the Spanish king, Alfonso X. Some of the games described in the book are eastern in origin.

A parable in the book tells of an Indian king and three wise men who are considering the nature of things and whether luck or wit is most important in shaping one’s life. The wise men refer to games in answering the king:

  • The first wise man refers to games of chance: because everything in the universe is pre-ordained, we should put our trust in luck. This position might be understood as fatalism.
  • The second wise man referred to games of skill, such as chess. Our fortune depends on our wit. This position refers to free will.
  • The third said that the perfect game was a combination of luck and skill, because it was a representation of life itself. The example of this perfect combination is backgammon.

Woolley finds many games boards scratched into cloisters and even tombs in medieval cathedrals. One of the most popular games was Nine Men’s Morris.

Nine Men’s Morris [22:00]

Nine Men’s Morris is a form of noughts and crosses: the aim is to get three pieces in a row (which allows the player to remove an opponent’s piece).

Hazard [27:00]

Hazard may have been brought to Europe by returning crusaders in C14th. It is a gambling game, played with dice. It is telling that the name of this game is now the word used for danger of any kind.
  • Calls 5
  • Throws 6+4
  • 10 is your chance
  • 5 is your main
Throwing dice was frowned upon by the medieval church. The outcome of the dice determines the will of god – and the chance of winning a few coins is too trivial a matter to justify the invocation of god’s favour.

Faro [32:00]

A card game, popular amongst the aristocracy and upper classes in the C18th, saw many a ruin as fortunes were lost on the faro table.

An 1823 murder trial, involving James Thurtell (the son of the mayor of Norwich) who was convicted and hanged for killing a man over a gambling debt, led to The Gaming Act (1845). The case aroused a lot of interest in the press; hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were sold and several plays were put on, telling the story as a warning of the evils of gambling.

The Royal Game of Goose [38:00]

Popular Victorian board game based on theme of virtue. The game used a spinner rather than sinful dice. Board of 63 squares.

Snakes and Ladders [43:45]

Derived from, or inspired by, gyan chapoor, the Hindi game of knowledge. The Indian game sets out a quest, from nothingness to enlightenment. Similarly, the Indian game of Pachisi was simplified as ludo. Both Ludo and Snakes & Ladders were popular mass-produced games in C19th.

Chess [50:00]

Originated in India, ca. C8th

Howard Staunton, after whom the most familiar-shaped pieces are named, standardised the pieces and the rules for the first international chess tournament which was part of The Great Exhibition in 1851. Prior to this, chess had been played around the world for a thousand years with variations in both rules and pieces.