Progress In Play – Board Games And The Meaning of History

Players moving pieces along a track to be first to reach a goal was the archetypal board game format of the 18th and 19th century. Alex Andriesse looks at one popular incarnation in which these pieces progress chronologically through history itself, usually with some not-so-subtle ideological, moral, or national ideal as the object of the game.

Ten thousand years ago, in the Neolithic period, before human beings began making pottery, we were playing games on flat stone boards drilled with two or more rows of holes.1 By the Early Dynastic Period in Ancient Egypt, three millennia later, board games were already represented in hieroglyphs. And on the wall of Nefertari’s tomb, built in the twelfth or thirteenth century BCE, someone painted the queen playing Senet, one of three Ancient Egyptian board games whose pieces have come down to us, along with Mehen and Hounds and Jackals.

Queen Nefertari
Queen Nefertari playing the game of Senet against an invisible opponent — Source.

The ancient Greeks, for their part, had Tabula, an ancestor of backgammon; the Romans added Latrones, an ancestor of chess. All across the ancient Near East, people played the Game of Twenty Squares, while in ancient China they played Liubo and in ancient India Moksha Patam, which was rechristened Snakes and Ladders when colonials imported it to Britain in the Victorian era. Wherever there has been civilization, strange to say, there have been games played on boards.

By the end of the eighteenth century, games were being produced for the marketplace promoting everything from ferry rides to colonial conquest.

Until about the seventeenth century, these games tended to be traditional folk inventions that could not be traced back to a maker. Their boards were also relatively abstract, consisting of squares, triangles, spirals, or holes.2 With the advent of the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism, however, the board games of Europe — like so much else on the continent — began to change. By the end of the eighteenth century, games were being produced for the marketplace promoting everything from ferry rides to colonial conquest. To appeal to consumers (a category of persons that had not previously existed), these games were made to be played on boards printed with pictures that represented specific places, people, and things. The artists who designed them strove to attract the public eye and capture the public imagination, appealing to the modern craving for what Walter Benjamin would call “novelty and shock”.3

A great many of these new picture games were racing games, like Snakes and Ladders or the Game of Goose, in which two or more players move their pieces around a formalized track according to the number dictated by “some form of random generator”, such as a spinning top or dice.4 Each track has its unique combination of safe squares, penalty squares, hazards, and shortcuts; but the objective of all racing games is the same — to arrive at the final square and be the first to remove one’s piece or pieces from the board.

El juego de la Oca
El juego de la Oca, a Spanish version of the Game of Goose, published by the Libreria de Piferrer of Barcelona, sometime in the nineteenth century — Source.

The subject matter and aesthetics of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racing games ranged widely. The Dutch Stoomboots Spel (Steamboats Game), for example, is hand colored and charmingly childish, its figures and landscapes reminiscent of those you see in American folk portraits by Joseph H. Davis or Joseph Warren Leavitt. Intended to sell tickets on the Rotterdam–Dordrecht steamboat line, the game’s objective is as straightforward as can be — to reach the port of Dordrecht without being waylaid by various hazards, which (this being a “promotional tool” after all)5 are for the most part pleasant distractions: a glass of jenever, a cup of coffee, a carriage ride. The Pesthuis, or plague house, is the only ominous presence on the board.

steamboat game
Stoombots Spel, published by A. Daane of Rotterdam in the early nineteenth century — Source.

The New Game of Human Life, printed in London in 1790, is a far less convivial affair. Heavy on text — and even heavier on Protestant morality — the board is loosely modeled on the Game of Goose, which was well enough ensconced in the culture of late eighteenth-century Europe for Goethe to write that life itself was

like a Game of Goose:
The further you go,
The sooner you reach the end,
Where no one wants to be.6

Sure enough, the objective of The New Game of Life is to be the first player to become an old man, or, as the board would have it, “The Immortal Man who has existed 84 years . . . a Model for the Close of Life, which can end only by Eternity.”


Founded in 2011, The Public Domain Review is an online journal and not-for-profit project dedicated to the exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas. In particular, as our name suggests, the focus is on works which have now fallen into the public domain, that vast commons of out-of-copyright material that everyone is free to enjoy, share, and build upon without restriction. Our aim is to promote and celebrate the public domain in all its abundance and variety, and help our readers explore its rich terrain – like a small exhibition gallery at the entrance to an immense network of archives and storage rooms that lie beyond. With a focus on the surprising, the strange, and the beautiful, we hope to provide an ever-growing cabinet of curiosities for the digital age, a kind of hyperlinked Wunderkammer – an archive of content which truly celebrates the breadth and diversity of our shared cultural commons and the minds that have made it. NOTE: This article was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it, please see Using Material From Our Site.

SOLD OUT! JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE