Great Board Games of the Ancient World

Board Games of the Ancient World cover Great Board Games of the Ancient World
Tristan Donovan
Journalist and Nonfiction Writer
$24.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
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or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

This series was different from my usual video course selections in that it was not an academic subject and that the instructor was not a college professor. It was interesting nonetheless.

Tristan Donavan, the presenter, is a journalist and gaming enthusiast. He has a fascination with games of all kinds and is knowledgeable about the rules and the evolution of board games throughout human history. The course title is misleading in that Donovan does not limit himself to ancient games; he gives plenty of attention to the modern incarnations of those games as well.

A few themes run through the various games Donovan discusses. One is that there are games of chance and there are games of strategy. There are also games that combine the two. The other is that the rules of games can be quite complex. We learn that there are families of games: games that have similar premises and rules, but which vary considerably across geography or time.

There is plenty of history in this course to provide context for the origins of the various games. For example, Donovan describes how the kings of England and France, overwintering with their troops on their way to one of the crusades, became distressed by the high stakes gambling in which their troops were engaging while playing an early form of backgammon. He explains how a precursor to chess arose in the Gupta dynasty on the Indian subcontinent, which lasted from fourth century CE to the near the end of the sixth century. He outlines how we lost details of an Aztec game called Patolli because the Catholic Spanish conquerors thought it to be sinful.

It is interesting that some games survived while others did not. The ancient Egyptians had a game called Senet that did not survive. The same was true for the Royal Game of Ur, played in ancient Mesopotamia. Yet chess, having evolved from its earliest form in perhaps the sixth century, is still highly popular today. (The game has been in the news of late on account of an apparent cheater among the ranks of the professionals.) A game played in India called Pachisi, which goes back many centuries, sees its modern-day form in the commercial board game Parcheesi. The British adopted (and adapted) the ancient Jain or Hindu game of Snakes and Ladders, Christianizing it in the process. In the United States Milton Bradley got rid of the snakes and created the commercial success they marketed as Chutes and Ladders.

Donovan is neither charismatic nor dynamic in his presentation. He also sports a Don Johnson Miami Vice-style day’s growth of beard, which I found distracting. But he is knowledgeable and the material he presents is entertaining. There was certainly a lot of information about board games of which I knew nothing. I haven’t played board games since I was a youngster, but I enjoyed this course.

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