by Melody Amsel-Arieli
Through the ages, nearly all cultures have developed pre-marked surfaces used for playing games. Players, drawing on skill, strategy or luck while following pre-determined rules, move game pieces, like seeds, animal droppings, or pebbles, on patterned paths along their surfaces.
Vintage game boards, which are available in wide variety, not only reflect social customs and cares of their day. Since many existed in multiple versions, or as variants of earlier ones, they also transcend time and place. Moreover, gaming reflects our common humanity. Then, as now, people were drawn to games like moths to flame.
Senet game boards, which date to pre-dynastic Egypt, were often carved in stone. Though its rules are lost in time, scholars believe that its 30-square grids, arranged in three rows of ten, represent journeys to the Afterlife. Remnants of Hounds and Jackals, another 2-player popular Egyptian game, have been found around the Mediterranean Basin and across Eurasia. Amazingly, ten slender game pieces, which resemble the rival predators, were unearthed intact in Thebes, alongside their ivory and ebony game board.
Backgammon, a race game originating in Persia, was (and is) a hands-down favorite. To play, two opponents, combining chance and skill, follow a continuous track of long, narrow triangles while striving toward a single goal – being the first to bear off all his game pieces from the board. Since backgammon was played predominantly by the wealthy in ancient times, their boards were often fashioned from fine, heavy wood embellished with ornate engravings.
Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, a 2-player gambling game featuring three rows of 12 inscriptions, was so popular in ancient Rome that its “boards” were carved into pavement stones in places populated by soldiers. Boards of Nine Men’s Morris, a complex alignment game, featuring three concentric squares, have also been found carved on buildings across the Roman Empire. Similar, carved configurations, also known as Marelles, the Old Mill Game, and Ninepenny Marl, have been found on masonry as far afield as Israel, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, and Russia. Scores are also chiseled on stone floors, window ledges, and cloister seats of medieval-era churches and cathedrals across England. Masons, apparently, loved this game.
American Colonists initially had little time for leisure. As conditions improved however, many played Nine Men’s Morris, Backgammon, chess, or checkers on improvised boards. Well-to-dos played on ornate ones fashioned from exotic woods or fine leather, Others amused themselves over elegant, prestigious game tables imported from England.
Other early19th century game boards, lithographed in dull, single tones, reinforced Christian morals and values. The Mansion of Happiness: An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement (1843) for 2-4 players, for example, guided players along spiral paths interspersed with images representing vices and virtues. Whoever reached the Mansion safely was assured a successful life. Games like this, whether guiding players toward success or around the country, generally feature refined illustrations against pastel-hued grounds.
Pachisi, a strategic race game originating in medieval India, was initially played, with cowrie shells, on boards shaped like symmetrical crosses. Handmade, squared versions, which apparently reached the United States in the mid-1800s, were known as Patcheesi, then Parcheesi. Since then, its boards feature classic cross- and circle race designs, with circles split into four by symmetrical crosses.
Their resulting geometrics may create intriguing interplays of light and dark that, to some, evoke the charm of pieced quilts. In addition, all Parcheesi boards feature four wide paths leading to large, central “homes ” the endgame that all players race to reach. Though many of these “homes” repeat the boards’ basic palettes, others feature more striking shades associated with particular cultures, like Pennsylvania German or Nova Scotian. Other Parcheesi “homes” depict vibrant florals, lacy designs, ivory inlay, or intricate marquetry.
The Checkered Game of Life, which the Milton Bradley Company introduced in 1860, was the first popular, published parlor game in America. Rather than reward players with happiness or heaven, it promoted values like honesty, honor, and perseverance as they progressed from infancy toward “Happy Old Age.”
Until the advent of the radio, parlor board games remained the most popular form of family entertainment. In fact, newspapers, including the 1899 Chanute Daily Tribune (Kansas), urged readers to purchase games so “there will be no more long evenings.” Yet many fans, instead of purchasing bright, multi-hued, chromolithographed ready-mades, constructed one-of-a-kind visual delights for themselves.
Twentieth-century commercial game boards, like Uncle Wiggley, Wahoo, Sorry!, Monopoly, and Candyland, abound. Yet many collectors, instead, are drawn to older, well-cherished ones. Some seek rare, fragile, hand-colored, hand stitched cloth boards that date from the early 19th century. Some focus on printed mid-19th century travel boards or hand painted, red, white, and blue patriotic models. Many prefer boards of a single game, possibly Parcheesi, Backgammon, or Nine Men’s Morris boards. Others seek double-sided boards featuring, say, Chinese Checkers on one side with checkers on the other.
Most collectors, whatever their preferences, are enticed by the striking visual appeal of vintage game boards. Those whose static designs are personalized with unusual or highly contrasting colors, bold hand-painted graphics, or sentimental scenes amid lavish artistic flourishes, are most desirable of all.
Some favor vintage game boards in pristine condition. Others prefer ones bearing signs of age and honest-to-goodness use. Though warping, staining, grime, or mildew detracts from their value, many find original surface-shrinkage, splits, scratches, crackling, or fading poignantly appealing. After all, with a bit of imagination, these well-used charmers evoke actual people, players of yesteryear.
Vintage game board, depending on their age, rarity, visual appeal, and condition, generally command from, several hundred to several thousand dollars each. Signed ones featuring untouched original surfaces, unusual palettes, vivid graphics, multiple borders, high patina, as well as overall, age-appropriate crazing, are most collectible of all.
Melody Amsel-Arieli, an Israeli-American raised on a New Jersey farm, grew up amid cows, corn, and collectibles. In addition to writing countless magazine articles, she has also authored Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov (Avotaynu) and Jewish Lives: Britain 1750-1950 (Pen & Sword). Visit her at amselbird.com.