Long before there was electricity and all the new entertainment it made possible, humans still needed a way to unwind in the scant few hours of leisure they had. As time went by and people had more time to kill, this became a more important need.
Of course, seem to have always engaged in physical games. Today’s sports are a reflection of that. However, long winters and people who were older or otherwise not as athletic also needed games of their own.
So it’s no surprise that virtually all cultures have developed some sort of indoor entertainment that doesn’t require athleticism. Instead relying on chance, wit or some combination of the two. Today we’re living in a golden age of games, but we should not take it for granted. In this article I’ve tried to bring together a short summary of tabletop game histories. To show how far we’ve come and how far we might yet go.
The History of Board Games
Board games go way, way back. Obviously no one knows exactly when the first board game was invented. I have seen claims that dice games go back at least to 5000 BCE. Of course, dice games are not board games, but most board games that use random chance as a mechanic need them to function properly.
We’ve found board games that date from ancient Egypt. Backgammon, which I still don’t understand, dates from Persia more than five millennia ago. That’s only 300 years after the earliest invention of writing.
We owe a lot to many asian cultures for providing us with games like Chess. Which comes from India, despite many people being convinced that Chess is a European invention. “Go” is another one-on-one strategy board game that is not becoming popular internationally. That’s a game invented in China and now known mainly as a Japanese pastime.
For much of human history most regular people didn’t have time to sit around and play board games. Which is why only the rich or the royals really did it. After the industrial revolution people both got progressively wealthier on average and they had more free time, which made the market for board games much larger.
Urban American Loafers
During the 19th century we saw exactly this in the USA. People starting moving away from farms and moved to cities and towns. The types of jobs they did became more sophisticated. We saw the rise of the eight-hour work day and many other labour rights. All of a sudden people didn’t have to work constantly in order to live. They had free time to kill, which means the market could now serve them with products geared towards entertainment and leisure.
According to Margaret Hofer, who is the big cheese at the New-York Historical Society, the 1880s to 1920s were the golden age of board games. At least where the USA is concerned. Because board games were no mass produces rather than painstakingly hand-crafted, they were cheap.
Feeling a Little Board
For the rest of the 20th Century, board games remained a common pastime, but lots of other things were now competing for people’s leisure time. Mass media is probably a major factor. First with radio broadcasts and later with the advent of television. Home entertainment has come along in leaps and bounds. Today we can play video games, watch any movie or show we like on demand and much, much more.
Despite this, since the 1990s board games have had a strong revival. The internet and its ability to draw niche groups together might have helped quite a bit. It’s also cheap to make board games these days, which means more game designers are putting their games out there. It’s also a social activity in an age that has been typified by people not actually doing things in-person anymore. It’s going so well for board games that this might be considered the second golden age of board games. Aren’t we lucky!
The History of Card Games
Cards are such a simple device that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. Actually, they have a fascinating history and form one of the most stalwart pillars of the tabletop gaming, er, tabletop I guess.
Made In China
We are all pretty much used to seeing the words “Made in China” on the back of a standard set of playing cards, but actually that’s very fitting. It’s thought that playing cards were invented by the Chinese in the 9th century. It makes sense since even way back then the Chinese had advanced technology such as woodblock printing and paper manufacturing.
The Modern Playing Card’s Story
So how did the standard four-suite card set come to be? There’s evidence of precursors to the four-suite set in Persia and Arabia. By the 11th century playing cards were everywhere in Asia and even reached down into Egypt. Scientists have actually found Egyptian playing cards from the 12th, 13th and15th century. These cards closely resemble modern four-suite playing cards.
Europeans got their first taste of playing cards around the year 1365 and they are most likely based on an Egyptian set known as the “Mamluk” deck.
Modern Cards Today
Although the English world is pretty familiar with the hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades suites, there are five other formats: French, italian, Spanish, Swiss-German and German. Although they are broadly the same, they vary in design, suite name and in the number of cards. Largely however they work the same way. Honestly, there’s a lot to the history of modern playing cards and I have read through dozens of pages as background reading for this article. The origin of the artwork, social role of cards and evolving manufacturing methods are all fascinating, but way too much detail for my purposes here. If you want to know more, check out this site.
Trading Cards and the Evolution of Card Games
While there are dozens of modern games that use traditional playing cards, these little paper squares have inspired modern game designers to come up with even more creative systems.
Many board games, such as monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, use cards as an integral part of their game mechanics.
Trading cards games like Magic the gathering might not seem like they have much in common with traditional playing cards, but they borrow plenty of ideas from them. Cards often have suites. In MTG you have cards with mana colours, for example. Shuffling is an obvious transfer. The idea of being dealt a hand of cards and of cards having rank is another. In games like MTG the ranks are simply more complex.
Playing cards are cheap and easy to make these days and even within just traditional cards the potential number of games is essentially unlimited. Cards games on digital platforms are also blowing up in popularity. Of all the tabletop games out there, playing cards are the ones I’m least worried about going away.
The History of Miniature Wargaming
Wargaming, of which modern miniature wargaming is really a subset, is a pastime with a long history. Games of strategy such as Chess can be thought of as early versions of what tabletop wargaming has become.
It was an attempt at simulating war strategy, albeit in a pretty abstract way. The Chess pieces themselves are miniatures of a sort and the Chess board a very basic sort of terrain. The pieces are meant to represent different types of military assets. The pawns are infantry, the knights are cavalry and so on. Although I guess it’s hard to prove it without any doubt, a common view is that modern tabletop wargames were mainly inspired by game like Chess, if not Chess itself.
In Europe it was military men who worked on making tabletop wargames. Obviously the idea wasn’t just to make something fun, but to use it as a sort of training simulation. Chess has always been associated with strategic skills, but it doesn’t really translate into something of practical use. It doesn’t take any of the real factors that are important in warfare into account. There are no supply lines, terrain elevation, terrain that modifies movement or factors that affect weapon effectiveness. Interestingly, dice were already used in these early wargames to determine whether things like bad weather or other unforeseen circumstance happen or not. The Prussians developed a game called Kriegspiel (wargame) which apparently had a positive effect on their military performance.
These military tabletop wargames were around since the late 1700s, but it took until the 19th Century for civilians to catch on.
It was a Naval warfare fan named Fred Jane who came up with a set of rules that used ship models to simulate combat around the turn of the century. This is one of the earliest examples of civilians getting into tabletop wargaming.
War of the…Tables?
It was none other than H.G. Wells who wrote two foundational books on wargames with miniatures. The first was titled “Floor Games” and the second “Little Wars”. In these books we basically see the earliest tabletop wargaming rules set for the public. Floor Games, the first book, was not dedicated to wargames specifically, but has some games that make specific use of toy soldiers.
Little Wars, on the other hand has simple yet expansive rules in wargames using infantry, cavalry and navel guns. Little Wars was directly inspired by Kriegspiel. As the 20th Century went on more and more takes on wargaming rules were written. The main problem preventing a much wider adoption of these games was how expensive it was. Most people weren’t particularly well off. So it was again just the well-off folks who had time for this sort of hobby. I think that’s probably one of the reasons board games were so popular in the mid-20th Century. They were relatively cheap.
Wargaming Goes Big
It wasn’t until the mid-50s that miniature wargaming starting morphing into a mass-market phenomenon. A guy named Jack Scruby starting using cheaper methods such as rubber molds to make miniatures. This is way cheaper than handmade wooden models as you can imagine. It was Scruby who saw the potential of these miniatures as a game people would buy. So just a year or two after figuring out the manufacturing process, he started publishing War Game Digest. This was what brought different fans of the game style together and brought new people into the fold.
The 70s – When It All Comes Together
While quite a few games were developed and sold in the 50s and 60s, the 70s are often thought of as a golden age for wargaming. Why? Because lots of new wargaming companies formed and brought new games to the market. This is also when we saw games that weren’t aiming to be realistic military sims come to the fore. For example, Star Fleet battles was a Star Trek combat game played on a board.
While wargaming got quite big during the 70s the hobby started to wane in popularity. The 80s are particularly notable for the rise of computer games, which I think is probably one of the reasons wargaming became less popular. In a tabletop wargame, you have to learn many rules and then apply them. A video game takes all of that mental work and does it for you. So you can simply switch on and concentrate on playing the game, not making it run properly.
Despite this shrinkage of the market, the 80s was the decade in which Games Workshop was formed. They revolutionized tabletop warfare with their Warhammer Fantasy Battle game. Of which the massively-popular Warhammer 40K is an offshoot.
Today the wargaming fandom is relatively small compared to trading card games, board games and, of course, the juggernaut that is video games. However, better manufacturing technology and much cheaper prices means it’s unlikely that this wonderful hobby will die off completely any time soon.
The History of Tabletop RPGs
There seems to be a clear evolution that runs from ancient strategy games, to board games, wargames and now tabletop RPGs. It makes sense, but I actually think the true history of the tabletop RPG goes much deeper than just an advanced board game. Since long before we humans invented writing, the only way to pass down knowledge, culture and history was by telling stories. Elders would tell tales of the tribe to the new generation. Of course, since our memory isn’t that great, these stories tended to morph over the generations. Perhaps to take on a supernatural aspect or to paint the ancestors in a better light.
The point is that sitting in a group regaling each other with stories is an ancient tradition. It’s easy to think that storytelling is something that only a select few are allowed to do. Filmmakers, authors and other “official” artists have taken over storytelling for the global village. With a tabletop RPG that storytelling tradition comes back home. Although it has a bit of a gaming twist.
Early Roleplaying Games
Before there was the modern tabletop roleplaying games, there were plenty of board games that included some element of roleplaying. Although character stats and dice rolls are what most people think about when you mention RPGs, that’s not what defines it. The clue is in the name, RPGs are all about roleplaying. Taking on the persona of a character. Acting out their decisions in alignment with their motivations.
As RPGs started to become a distinct form of game, people simply started making up their own games. Many of these were tied to wargaming, which was beginning to become quite popular in the latter half of the 20th century. Some wargames had started to take on an RPG character since players began taking on roles of famous generals or heroes. Which meant the decisions were not purely tactical, but also depended on the roles and personalities of various characters.
Significantly, Gary Gygax (who I’ll get to shortly), developed a set of rules for medieval wargaming. In other words, he tried to solve the problem of simulating armor, bows, swords and other medieval weapons for wargaming purposes. That would prove crucial to RPGs that naturally fell in with fantasy settings. This wargame was actually released under the name Chainmail. Although it wasn’t meant to be a fantasy game, Chainmail would later incorporate magic and other fantasy elements.
The Big D&D Revolution
Things really took off after 1974. That’s the year the same Mr. Gygax released Dungeons and Dragons. I guess I don’t have to explain D&D to anyone anymore, but just in case I will anyway.
It was a tabletop game with clear rules on how to resolve things such as fantasy battles and any other action that a character would want to take within the world. A world that Gygax laid strong foundations for.
Although he didn’t expect the game to sell much and be pretty niche, it’s popularity exploded. SF&F geeks and college students in general loved the game. D&D was so successful that entire support industries popped into existence. It wasn’t long before the copycats began rolling out. We still see that massive diversity in RPG systems today, but they all owe a huge debt of gratitude to D&D.
Advancing the Art
That first iteration of D&D looked very different to what comes to mind today. Although it was a robust dungeon crawl system, Gygax felt he could do more. Thus we got Advanced Dungeons and Dragons starting in 1977. Now the game was expanded over several books and could deal with details and situation most people hadn’t even imagined.
Gygax and his team expanded the lore and detail of D&D extensively. He drew widely from mythology and literature to build a compelling, diverse and dark world. Now D&D was really pulling in the players, many of them as young as their teens.
D&D Hits Some Snags
This is also the time period where D&D started becoming a little infamous. Given the occult, magical and dark nature of the content plenty of religious people had a problem with the game. It became part of the “Satanic Panic”. Basically, people who didn’t really understand the game or cared to condemned it because it drew from lore that included demons and other supernatural creatures.
Seemingly in response to this later editions of D&D toned things down a little. Changing some references and giving religious busybodies less ammo for their criticisms.
Since the late 90s AD&D isn’t as popular in its traditional format as it once was. This is most likely down to the rise of video games. Plenty of compelling RPGs widely available on computers and game consoles were too convenient to pass up. Ironically, many of the best (such as Baldur’s Gate) are explicitly based on AD&D rules and systems. Even “original” RPG video game borrow liberally from AD&D ideas.
Recently there’s been a bit of a reversal. With technologies such as Skype and amazing tabletop simulator applications it’s much easier to get a party together. YouTube and other video platforms have also introduced a whole new generation to tabletop gaming.
All for One
I decided to discuss the various tabletop game histories in one article to show how they all have very similar core driving forces behind their development. These games have expanded the minds and imaginations of humanity for millennia. They are as much a part of human nature as language itself. Games have taught us how to think and how to look forward unto an uncertain future. It gives you a lot more respect for a simple game of cards, right?