The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board and Table Games by Margaret K. Hofer is a sriking showcase of the games in Ellen and Arthur Liman’s historic collection of American games.

It began with a $6 yard-sale purchase in 1980 and grew to contain more than 500 games which they donated for display in NYC.

Games We Played HoferEven if you’re not interested in playing games, the collection is fascinating for the insight offered on society’s changing values, aspirations and prejudices.

Middle-class household could spend between a quarter and three dollars for small boxed card games and more elaborate spreads.

But not everybody played: games were viewed suspiciously by those who saw the Devil in the idle hands that played them.

Some of that outlook remains today, but people spend more money on games today than ever before, although Guild Wars feels far removed from the classic card game Pit.

Roots of today’s well-known games are visible in this early collection however, like Scrabble, which is based on Anagrams (popular at the turn of the 19th century). Or, consider Pick-up Sticks, which was based on an old dexterity game called Jack Straws.

Before Trivial Pursuit was The World’s Educator, which contained over 2,000 quiz questions and answers. (The answers were in code and printed on oversized cards, but it does look all THAT different.)

And before the Wii was a parlour game called Pillow Dex, a forerunner of Ping-Pong , which required players to volley a balloon over a net strung across a table.

Board Games like BooksFrom Tiddledy Winks to war games with Napoleonic conquests, from Fish Pond to fotune-telling games: the volume is sumptously illustrated and strangely mesmerizing.

There is far more detailed information about the history of games in David Parlett’s The Oxford History of Board Games. (He also wrote The Oxford Guide to Card Games, if that’s more your thing.)

Whereas anyone, even with a fleeting interest in either art of history, could still enjoy browsing through Margaret K. Hofer’s volume, only true afficionadoes are likely to spend more than a minute with David Parlett’s work.

First, he begins by sharing the criteria on which he decided to organize his discussion of board games.

This is surprisingly intricuate, with arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ various options, which also challenge or support similar decisions made in earlier histories of the subject.

Ultimately he divides them into five sections: race, space, chase, displace and more modern theme games (the volume was published in 1999, so it’s no longer current).

These categories reflect traditional human preoccupations and activities (e.g. hunting, war)and it’s impossible to forget that games are an inherent part of our culture.

Old Maid Board GamesIn that sense, this volume has a broad appeal. But, in fact, the author’s approach is so detailed that one must be exceedingly curious about games to persist with his analysis, which is increasingly intricate as discussion of the general evolution of a particular game develops into more mathematical and scientific considerations.

Nonetheless, question of lineage and heritage are interesting. For instance, Pachisi is the predecessor of the popular American game Parcheesi and the British game Ludo. (I had no idea; I’ve also never played any of them.)

Pachisi means twenty-five, the highest throw possible in the game, and the game is like a complicated four-handed Backgammon.

Parlett posits that it has been played historically since the first millenium and refers to many ancient artworks which display element of Pachisi (or Chaupar) play.

Modern versions, like Parcheese and Ludo, were dramatically simplified, the latter in particular to appeal to children and families. (And, still, I didn’t play them!)

Having grown up playing Snakes and Ladders, I particularly enjoyed reading about the history of this game and, because it’s one that I remember very well, I even enjoyed the detailed discussions of conflicting rule-sets.

For instance, some players insisted that one must roll a 6 in order to put a marker on the board, whereas others began to play immediately after determining which player would move first.

Some players declared that only an exact roll could take a marker to the 100th square, and lacking that roll meant that one’s market remained stationary until that magical roll was achieved, whereas others moved their marker ahead and then backwards once more according to the die.

Some played with a single die, others with two dice.

Chinese Chess Board GamesHistorically, the game did not always have actual snakes and ladders either.

In traditional versions, it was not so much of a race game, but all about the morals. (For instance, there were Hindi and Jain and Muslim versions played in India, in which the ultimate goal was a Nirvana-like state whereas the lowered numbered squares represented base and human desires and conditions.)

This is the kind of detail which I am not equipped to appreciate about most of the other games considered in this volume. Even with the ones I have played (e.g. checkers, chess), I’ve not been very deliberate or devoted.

So, it intrigues me that people have this degree of interest in the games, but I skim past the calculations and read more about the history and evolution, rather than specific tile layouts or strategies.

Admittedly, my interest in this volume has more to do with my love of more modern board and table games, but the journey through these pages makes for an enjoyable diversion between play sessions.

How about you: do you play? Boardgames or card games? On tables or online? Or would it interfere too much with your reading time?