I can honestly say that today’s book came out of left field as a Top Book of 2017 pick, andI never expected to be so absorbed and engaged by a book about the history of board games. We received It’s All A Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Board games have been with us longer than even the written word. But what is it about this pastime that continues to captivate us well into the age of smartphones and instant gratification?
In It’s All a Game, British journalist and renowned games expert Tristan Donovan opens the box on the incredible and often surprising history and psychology of board games. He traces the evolution of the game across cultures, time periods, and continents, from the paranoid Chicago toy genius behind classics like Operation and Mouse Trap, to the role of Monopoly in helping prisoners of war escape the Nazis, and even the scientific use of board games today to teach artificial intelligence how to reason and how to win. With these compelling stories and characters, Donovan ultimately reveals why board games have captured hearts and minds all over the world for generations.
Upon reading the blurb for this one you may, as I initially did, think, “Hmm. That sounds mildly interesting”. On picking up the book and reading the introduction, which discusses the decline and rise of board game shops and cafes in various major cities around the world you might say to yourself, “How quaint! I wasn’t aware of those!” And by the end of the second chapter, having read about the ancient game of Senet and the history of Chess, you would be forgiven for ignoring friends, family and important duties in your pursuit of further knowledge about the history of board games.
This book was bizarrely absorbing.
I struggled to put it down.
Since I finished it I have been pondering and planning how to (a) acquire more board games and (b) seamlessly integrate board game playing time into the lives of the fleshlings of the dwelling.
Honestly, this book is bizarrely, weirdly, totally absorbing.
I could not have predicted any of the fascinating and useful (for trivia nights, if nothing else) information about the creation of various board games. Did you know Chess originated in India? That Monopoly began its life as a game promoting the evils of capitalism? Were you aware that the Japanese used table top board games to plan and role play the bombing of Pearl Harbour? That rigged board game sets were sent to Allied prisoners of war in World War II in order to provide prisoners with tools they would need for escape? That Cluedo originally had a bunch more characters? That one of the most famed board game makers in America suffered from crippling paranoia that workers might leak developments in the factory?
I bet you didn’t.
I certainly didn’t, which is why I found this in-depth examination of board game playing and its social history endlessly fascinating. The book is divided into chapters dealing with either specific board games (Chess, Backgammon, Monopoly, The Game of Life, Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit are all included, amongst others) or some aspect of society that has been influenced by the use of board games (the use of table top military manouvring games, the development of electronics and new forms of playing surface in board games, the rise of games for adults and “adult” **wink, wink** games, how characters or elements of games were switched to appeal to their cultural context). The chapters have sections that are almost written in a narrative nonfiction style as the stories of the game inventors (and frequently their loss of expected fortune) are recounted. Surprisingly, the stories often involve backstabbing, theft of intellectual property and not quite the number of rags to riches tales as you might expect.
What was most surprising, and inspiring, was the observation that board games and their variations are seemingly in high demand again as more people begin to look for non-screen-based ways to connect with family and friends. If you have any interest at all in popular culture and the playing of board games, I highly recommend giving this book a read – mostly because I want to see whether it really is as endlessly fascinating as I experienced it – but also because by reading it, we might all kick-start a revolution toward face to face experiences again.
Until next time,