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A World of Games

By Bruce Whitehill

Heading into the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens is a perfect time to learn when and where some of today’s most popular games originated.

MancalaSound the trumpets for a little history lesson. Games have been played and traveled the world for over 5000 years. The origin of many ancient games can be traced to Africa and to the Orient. The earliest games, known as Mancala, date as far back as 5000 B.C.; variations of some of these original Mancala games are still played in many places, especially Africa. A Senat gameboard - an ancient Egyptian game of strategy and chance and a forerunner to backgammon - was discovered in 1922 where it had been buried in the tomb of King Tut since about 3000 B.C.

The oldest board known showing the game of Nine Men's Morris, also called Mill or Morelles, was also found in Egypt. The simple nine-piece board game was popular in the 14th century, but earlier versions with fewer than nine pieces have been found dating back to 1400 BC.

Go, an ancient game from Japan, is still a favorite there and has earned a great following in the United States. Mah Jongg, the game that became a craze in the U.S. in the early 1920s (and appears to be making a comeback), had been the game of China since the late 1800s.

Checkers, called Draughts in England and elsewhere, dates back to the 12th century. The Origins of Chess are a bit cloudy. Some findings indicate India in 600 A.D., others point to China before 200 A.D. And Backgammon,a variation of a game called Tabula, dates somewhere in the 1st century.

DominoesThe oldest sets of Dominoes – which are actually flattened dice – date to the early 12th century. The early sets of this international favorite, as well as most Oriental versions, have one to six "pips" on half the block and do not have any blank halves. Dominoes found their way to Europe some time in the early 18th century making their first appearance in Italy.

One European favorite that at various times has had a following in the United States is Fox and Geese which had its origin around the year 1300, possibly in Iceland. The Game of Goose, which originated around 1500, is another classic game we borrowed from Europe. By way of contrast, the earliest known American Game of Goose was printed in 1851.

OthelloGames played today in the United States and many other countries were around a long time ago, though sometimes under a different name. Othello, was brought over from Japan and won an award for "best new game" in 1976. But the same game, with a slight variation in the limited opening move, was played throughout the U.S. in the 1950s as Reversi, its European name. Reversi came to the U.S. from England where it was invented in the 1880s.

Pick Up Sticks was played by both European and American children in the 1880s. Then the game was known as Jack Straws in the U.S., and in Europe as Spilikins, a name still used today. The sticks, now long, thin, and smooth, were often shaped like farmer's tools or spears and lances. Some sets were made of bone or ivory rather than the usual wood. Now, of course, many sets are plastic.

Chutes and Ladders, a Milton Bradley game first introduced in the United States in 1943, was, according to the company’s catalog of that year, taken from Snakes and Ladders, "England's most famous indoor sport." Snakes and Ladders, an early morality game from India, was similar to many righteous games of the period in which virtue was rewarded and vice punished.

ParcheesiThe Game of India, one of the most widely played games in the world, can be traced to the Korean game of Nyout from the third century. Milton Bradley and a company called McLoughlin Brothers produced the game in the United States around the turn-of-the-century, while in 1896 a similar version was being played in England under the name Ludo. The most famous Game of India, however, was produced in this country around 1870. It was called Parcheesi, and it holds one of the earliest patents for an American game—1874.

One of the most popular card games today is Mille Borne, a game we supposedly got from France. Cards require players to complete a journey, at various speeds up to around 75 MPH. The game has actually been in existence since 1906, when it first came out in the U.S. as Touring; the speed cards then were 1, 3 and 5 MPH. Subsequent editions through the next six decades take you on an interesting journey of change. Similar games exist, such as Stap Op in the Netherlands; the mile cards and hazard cards are similar to Touring, only the trip is made by bicycle. Mille Borne moves the same, and the game is excellent for children to play with each other or with adults.

AuthorsMany other games have captured the interest of players from around the world. The game of Authors was invented in the U.S. in 1861, and is played throughout Europe, under different names and, of course, with different authors. Bingo, a favorite fundraiser for churches around the country, is sold throughout the continent as Lotto. Anagrams, a game with letter tiles, translates well into any language. And the best action game for kids and adults, Tiddley Winks, is played all over. The game started in England around 1850, then traveled the Atlantic in the 1880s.

And then there’s Monopoly. Monopoly first produced by Parker Brothers in 1933, is probably the most popular and successful commercial game.

Many other successful proprietary games have crossed the Atlantic over the past half century. Clue hailed from England in 1948, changing from Cluedo to Clue, The Sherlock Holmes Game.

ScrabbleScrabble started out in 1931, fashioned by an out of work architect named Alfred Butts during the Depression. Butts chose the alphabet distribution by doing a letter count on the front page of the New York Times. Years later, a board was added to the crossword game, and It took until 1948 before the game emerged as it is known today. It is played around the world in many languages.

Stratego is another one of those games we call our own, but we actually got it from the Dutch in 1961. Mind you, the idea goes back to World War I, when it was published by Bradley as Le Choc. What is unique about the game is that players determine the placement of their pieces before the game begins.

Many games found on shelves in American toy stores can be located in Europe as well. Risk (selling also as Risiko) has been around since 1959, the Game of Life since 1960, and Operation since 1965.

BattleshipBattleship, said to date back to World War I, when it was played by Russian soldiers, has been in Milton Bradley’s line since 1967. Played across at least two continents, the game has seen many incarnations, and has sold under many names, like Salvo, since 1931. Of course, the most international way to play the game is with pencil and paper.

Games that have traveled the world and survived so many generations must be worth the time to play.

Bruce Whitehill, author of "Games: American Games and Their Makers, 1822-1992," writes frequently for game and collectibles magazines in the U.S. and England. The extended section on games in Grolier's New Book of Knowledge encyclopedia is another example of Bruce's fine work.

Don't Miss
With a little imagination and planning, you and your kids can create your own game that may stand the test of time with Make-Your-Own Games by Made By Hands, Inc. This inventive, uncomplicated and imaginative kit includes simple, durable elements: a game board with two blank sides, a blank spinner, a blank deck of cards, pop out shapes, three blank dice of different sizes and a glue stick - enough pieces and supplies to create two games; it even has a carrying case.

The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless ToysFor more game and toy history, don't miss Tim Walsh's The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys. This lavishly illustrated book includes behind-the-scenes stories of 58 timeless toys of the Twentieth Century, from the Flexible Flyer sled in 1900 to Beanie Babies in 1993. Pictures include both the original and current packaging, and occasionally several versions in between; advertisements; and portraits of people closely identified with the toys. Endpapers show Patent Office application drawings, including the Clue game floor plan, Spirograph, Slinky, Twister, and the inner workings of Etch A Sketch, Super Soaker, G.I. Joe, and the Pez dispenser.

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