Thursday, November 6, 2008

David Parlett's "Oxford History of Board Games": Book Review

I learned last week that my personality type seeks out pursuits not for competition or reward, but for the pleasure of the pastime. I get absorbed, as many readers of Parlett may, by the world within a game that mirrors and distorts our reality. Curious about the history of chess, and the personality quirks associated with it and other strategies occupying space on a grid, board, circuit, or pattern, I found Parlett's guide.

As with so much of gaming scholarship, throughout his entries, Parlett nods to the massive but uneven, now partially superseded, research of H.J.R. Murray on the origins of chess and varieties of other board games. I might add how it's easier to consult and use than Murray's exhaustive compendia. Now out-of-print, a companion to Parlett's card games history, this 1999 study deserves reprinting in paperback by OUP.

"The aim of this book is primarily to present a historical survey of positional board games, but extending the story to modern and proprietary games whenever they can be shown to advance or expand on a traditional idea," Parlett explains (p. 7). He suggests that "the power of involvement of its underlying abstract structure" determines, no matter the label, its abstract content or representational surface, the success long-term for a theme game. "What makes people want to go on playing a game once its theme is past its sell-by date is the fact that it remains engaging and exciting despite its outdated appearance and loss of topicality." For example, we do not go into battle with elephants, take counsel with bishops, or ride as knights into the pawns that comprise the enemy's ranks-- yet we still play chess with these pieces.

As Parlett cautions in his lively introduction, this erudite yet accessible survey's not meant to be read front-to-back, although I did so, at least to get the gist of it all. Its nineteen chapters range widely as they investigate varieties of race, chase, displace, and space games. Theme games conclude this compact yet dense enough volume. While not submerged by descriptions, those unfamiliar with specific games may find this better suited for reference about one's chosen pastimes; I found for my own interests those on "tafl" or Northern European strategy games and the section on chess most engaging. After a while, relying on print rather than observation, your mind bogs down in details, inevitably, of games that elude your easy comprehension when locked into words and a few illustrations, however instructive.

The reason it's a reference rather than a chronological narrative? It's likely you'll skip to the type of games here most appealing to your own sensibility. He breaks them down into roughly theme games and four related forms of chase, displace, space, and race! As an inventor ("Hares & Tortoises") as well as historian (he also publishes on card and word games), Parlett brings an enthusiasm for the process of how games evolve and how new ones appear I found contagious. Not that I'll ever figure out the game of "Go" any more than chess at my advanced age, but it's instructive to ponder how we tend to gravitate towards passing the time with imaginary hunts, wars, chases, captures, and climbs, no matter the culture or terrain we live in.

I've heard that such criss-crosses, dots, squares, and lines as cave dwellers made show these deeply grooved patterns in our minds. Parlett's brisk survey, often acerbic and well-written, takes you into the mystery of how such games mutate and shift as new ones appear while only those that speak to a lasting need for meaning and shape beneath the holiday season's latest movie tie-in or promotional throwaway fade.

It might have been entertaining to include games that have been conceived of on boards but that exist in speculative fiction. What about "Das Glasperlenspiel", the "Glass Bead Game" of Hermann Hesse's Castalia, for example, or fantasy games played only in novels? However, as there's plenty of more easily obtained real games in these pages to ponder, the scope of this book may have precluded such forays into the imaginative realm of pursuits. There's enough deserving ones to locate out there on the shelves. Or, to make up, as Parlett shows.

Mancala, chess, checkers (or draughts), go, backgammon: in many forms across many lands, what drives people towards these time-tested winners? They transcend trends, and outlast fashions. They coax from us, as Parlett documents neatly without too much withering detail, long-lasting satisfaction as we mimic our ancestors dashing about the savannah-- or substitute more safely for the hazards of the battlefield.

Photo, with Thomas Rowlandson's great illustration: David Parlett's website
(Book's PDF available from author at this URL. Review posted to Amazon US today.)

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