The Story of the Board
Since the beginning of recorded history, people have played board games. Originating from as far apart as ancient Mesoamerica and the bamboo forests of early China and beyond, board games are still going strong today.
Board games have entertained and educated. They have been used as arbiters of disputes, tests of skill, games of chance, and reasons to host social gatherings. Perhaps most importantly, board games have served as cultural reflections of the societies that created them, and have preserved a snapshot of people and places long past.
The following four games from around the world showcase an example of a family—or collection with similar rules and origins—of games. Each was chosen out of the countless thousands of board games in existence today because of its historical and cultural relevance. Each tells a story about the society responsible for its creation.
Patolli, a game similar to backgammon, was once wildly popular throughout Central America. The game entertained peasants and kings alike, including the famed Aztec leader, Moctezuma, until it was banned by Catholic clergy following the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century. Those caught playing Patolli had their hands burned, and records of the game were destroyed.
This harsh punishment may have been a response to how Patolli was played. Before each round, two players would each make six offerings to Macuilxochitl, the Mesoamerican god of games and luck. The offerings could range from trivial personal tokens to parcels of land, slaves, or even daughters, and participants would play to take possession of their opponent’s offerings.
The game began as players tossed beans marked on one side onto the Patolli board. They then raced jade pieces around the X-shaped board, moving them according to the marks on beans that had landed face up after the toss. Making it around the board meant claiming one of the opposing player’s offerings; take all six of the opponent’s offerings, and the game was over. The Aztecs believed the spirit of Macuilxochitl bestowed the offerings to the winner as a token of divine esteem and once the game was over, they were transferred into the possession of the victor.
Xiangqi—literally “elephant game,” or Chinese chess—is China’s contribution to the chess family of board games, and has been played for at least 1,300 years. Other estimates place Xiangqi as many as 2,200 to 2,300 years old, suggesting it was created as a reflection of the ancient Chinese dynasties that fought for control during the Warring States period of the fifth to the third century BCE. Much like chess’s ubiquitous presence in the Western world, Xiangqi has remained one of the most popular and widespread games in the Asian mainland.
Also similar to Western chess, the objective of Xiangqi is to capture the king (or “general,” as the piece was called in order to avoid upsetting the emperors of China). The board also has a similar setup, although pieces are played on the corners rather than the middle of the squares. The boards are occasionally checkered in a variety of colors for aesthetic value, though unlike Western chess, the different colorations don’t have an impact on gameplay. A board’s markings are generally simple, straight lines, but occasionally ornate carvings or illustrations signifying rivers and palaces can change the direction of piece movement in these areas. Xiangqi’s pieces were modeled after Asian society and offer figurative representations like elephants, one of the game’s most powerful pieces, which can be blocked by rivers. Also symbolic of ancient China, Xiangqi’s generals cannot leave their palaces, which is based on the belief that a general was considered too valuable to risk on the field of battle. The rest of the game similarly reflects the philosophy of the Chinese military and its focus on the importance of strategy.
Originally developed by the first Polynesian colonizers of Hawai’i, Konane was more than just a game: It was also used as a courting ritual. Young Hawaiians began playing Konane as a rite of passage and developed their skill until they were ready to face-off against a potential romantic partner. The rules of the game were designed to instill virtues such as patience, thoughtfulness, endurance, and humility in young adults. Playing Konane also served as a reminder of those values to the rest of the community, even when the game was used for its other common purpose: gambling.
Konane is unique because the board, which is arranged in a grid similar to checkers, can be any size without altering the rules of the game, so long as the number of squares is even and uniform. An eight-by-eight-square board would be as acceptable as a 30-by-30-square board. Much like checkers, players take turns capturing pieces via jumps, but aggression isn’t the objective—outlasting the opponent is. The last player able to make a legal move wins. Strategy, restraint, and the ability to rise above ego are all essential to victory in Konane, which reflects the values of community well-being by the society that created it.
Oware, or “they marry,” is a game created by the Akan tribe of modern-day Ghana. The name derives from the myth of the of the game’s origin, which involves a couple, either married or betrothed, playing the game as a way of spending as much time together as possible.
The objective of Oware is to “sow” seeds in hollows, or “houses,” that have been carved into a rectangular board. As a player moves around the board, seeds are deposited in the houses, including a goal compartment in which each player accumulates seeds as a method of scoring. If, once all the seeds have been placed, the final house to receive a seed has already been “sown,” then the entirety of that house is picked up by the player and the process repeats until the final seed is placed in an unoccupied house. In this regard, Oware is very similar to other games in the widespread “count-and-capture” mancala family.
But unlike other mancala games, Oware is intended to last as long as possible. Players are instructed to always play their turns so the next player can continue to play. Only when such courtesy is no longer possible does the game end. Additionally, it’s expected that spectators will offer commentary and advice, engaging with the players for the duration of the game and making it a social event for more than just the players.