Metaphorical Board Games

My younger brother got a backgammon set for Christmas; the nature of the game provoked in me some questions which I will not convey, regarding the nature of traditional board games. Specifically, what is the action of the game a metaphor for? What I mean is, since each game is a microcosm, we must ask, what is the movement of the pieces, the goals of the different sides, etc, supposed to represent in terms of the real world? What follows is an exploration of this question with regards to various different board games:

  • Draughts (a class of games of which American checkers is a specific type) is one of the simplest of the well-known traditional board games. Its metaphor is clear and uncomplicated: two sides are fighting each other, your goal, as the leader of one side, is to kill all the soldiers of the other side. Most of the other rules have to do with making the game playable, and do not develop the game’s metaphor. A possible exception is the rule for getting a king when a piece gets to the opponent’s side; this seems to represent how experienced soldiers are more powerful. These games are among the oldest known board games, originating before 3000 BC in Sumeria, and mentioned in Homer; men have always fought each other in war.
  • Then there’s chess. The game is similar in many ways to checkers – indeed, it’s played on the same type of board – but it adds differentiation between the pieces. The battle here is not between two crowds of people, but between armies, with footsoldiers (pawns), well-equipped warriors (knights, bishops, rooks), and a queen and king. The king also adds an interesting dimension to the metaphor; the player is no longer a vague presence directing his army, he is physically present on the board; the king is the player. So the game doesn’t end with the destruction of the entire army; it ends when the king is captured. As one would expect, since it involves combat between complex armies with specialized tasks, chess is a significantly newer game than draughts, originating in India in the 6th century AD, and making its way to Europe by the 10th.
  • Another interesting group of board game in this general theme is the Tafl games. There are different because they are between uneven forces, and while one player’s goal is to kill the opponent’s king, the other’s is to have his king escape. The metaphor seems to be that a king and his loyal bodyguards are surrounded on the battlefield, and the guards must sacrifice themselves in order to help the king escape from the opposing army. It seems fitting that these games are Scandinavian in origin, since the lord-thane relationship is of such importance in those cultures.
  • Another board game that I’ve played very little of, but which is one of the most popular in the world, is Go. The metaphor here, as I understand it, is of controlling territory; the individual pieces do not matter as much as the land they are on, and the goal is to be the one with the most board space at the end. And again, I find that this seems somehow appropriate for its origins; it is an East Asian game, originating around 400 BC in China (though legend traces is back to 3000 BC). Oriental society has always seemed to me more interested in the societal group than in the individual, as opposed to Western civilization; thus Go fits them quite well.
  • The Tables family of games (of which backgammon is a member) is the final game I’m going to talk about. These all involve moving around a board past the opponent and trying to be the first to get all your pieces to the finish; the metaphor, then, might be one of racing. But this doesn’t make all that much sense. Neither does war, though; in what kind of war is the goal not to kill the opponent, but to send them back home? It might have something to do with merchants and trade, but I really haven’t figured it out. Backgammon is one game whose metaphor I can’t unravel – perhaps because it seems to mix them. I do know it is one of the oldest board games, being dated to before 3000 BC; perhaps, then, whatever the story was intended to be, it has been lost.
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3 Responses to Metaphorical Board Games

  1. peterwaffles says:

    Man chess is by far the best “lo fi-video game” ive ever played. I used to console a lot until chess came about. thanks for sharing and happy xmas!

  2. Update: Three more interesting ancient board games, two of which I found while browsing Wikipedia and the third of which I simply forgot to mention in the above post:

    Senet, an ancient Egyptian game, has as its conceit the journey into the underworld. Both players race along a track and the first to get all their pieces to the end, wins. According to Wikipedia this is an even older type of game than draughts and its variants; I suppose that makes sense, as death is even older than war.

    Nine Men’s Morris is a game of uncertain origin, but dating back at least to the Roman Empire, 1st century AD. This is another game whose metaphor isn’t really clear; the goal is to line up pieces in rows of three, at which point you can take off one of your opponent’s pieces, and thus eventually eliminate all of their pieces, which is called “milling.” From what Wikipedia has to say about a related game called “Ludus latrunculorum,” it sounds like it is a game of military tactics, but I’m not sure exactly how the game rules convey that metaphor.

    Mancala, an ancient African board game from around the 6th century AD, is still played today, and my family has two sets. I ought to have included it above. Anyway, according to Wikipedia, is called a “sowing” game; the goal, to collect more pieces than the opponent, seems to be a metaphor for gathering in crops. There is no direct conflict in the game, rather each player is competing for resources. Thus, I suppose, this is one of the first economic rather than military games.

  3. playdo says:

    There’s more than one way you can look at backgammon as metaphor. My favorite one, and one of the reasons I love this game, was already described in the old Jewish (I think) verse: “man plans, God laughs”, that remind us that our well built strategies for our can fail due to the randomness of the dice.

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