The story of board game development throughout the history is truly fascinating. It took a lot of effort and evolutionary development over many generations before we ended up with modern board games and more recently world conquering real-time strategy simulation games.
This series of articles present interesting and critical developments in history that eventually led to the creation of Risk, the great game we play today. We will travel across thousands of years and over many empires and explore the quest of mankind for the ultimate board game!
The story of board games goes a long way back, around 5500 years ago. The oldest modern board game, backgammon goes back 5000 years ago. Archaeologists found a set of backgammon with 60 pieces in the rubbles of the legendary Burnt City in ancient Persia which is now situated in Sistan-Baluchistan province, South-Eastern Iran.
The backgammon set uncovered in the Burnt City contains an engraved serpent coiling representing 20 slots. The engraving were artistically done showing that the makers of the set were masters of their craft.
This set is the oldest backgammon set found on Earth and is really astonishing that 5000 years later the game is still played, sometimes against virtual computer opponents! Just imagine the people who lived 5000 years ago, who returned from hunting to play a game of backgammon at the end of a day. You may wonder if they had a league or some city wide championship.
Although the game was played at this time, it wasn’t until 4000 years later that the modern backgammon was exported to the rest of the world. Before getting to the fascinating story of this exportation, we need to look at another critical development which took place around the same time.
A familiar piece in board games is a set of dice. The most common type is the six sided cube. The oldest dice was found with the same backgammon set from 5000 years ago discovered in Burnt City.
It is assumed that dice in general were developed independently by different civilisations throughout history. Some civilisations in ancient time believed that the throw of the dice was not based on luck but controlled by Gods. As a result, casting dice was used for many purposes in everyday life. Some used it to divide their inheritances, predict the outcome of important contests or even choose rulers. Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and daughter of Jupiter, was believed to determine the outcome of a dice throw. She was also the goddess of fate. So, remember next time you are losing in a game, it might be Furtuna who is deciding your fate!
“Fortune only rules one half of men's fate, the other half being of their own will.”
Beautifully captured by Machiavelli in “The Price”, he reminds us that Fortune is a woman and she favours a strong will. She favours the young, the bold, the more aggressive and those who are willing to take risks and not those who are timid and old.
Dice are perfect to present randomness in games. Considering that a lot of what we do, how we are shaped and progress through life depends on our random environment, it is easy to see why dice had a certain appeal in games. Randomness brings lucky moments which can be exploited. If perceived randomness can be predicted, say by using strong memory in card games, player’s can start to compete with each other over a range of skills.
Hence, early games such as backgammon and others that relied on dice were mainly based on fate. As human nature goes, perhaps people enjoyed playing games that symbolised life. In the early history of humans, fate had a significant role as people didn’t have much control over their environments. As their technology progressed, they learned to control their environment and realised that fate alone was not a good representation in their games. They wanted to make a decision and hopefully improve their environment or at least control their fate.
To be able to play a game over and over again and still enjoy it requires more than just luck. You need to make decisions, or in fact a series of decisions in order to win. Formulating a series of decisions leads to creation of a strategy and it is thinking about the strategy that makes games exciting.
It was time for humanity to symbolise their decision making in games…
From Dice to Risk: The Burnt City (Part 2 of 3)