Knowing I'm going to give a talk about race games, David kindly lent me the book Play the Game, compiled by Brian Love and published by Michael Joseph Ltd and Ebury Press in 1978. The book contains mostly Chad Valley game boards from the early 1900s, up to 1942, from the author’s collection. The large format book (over 25×35cm) had counters in a back pocket, so that the games could be directly played on the book.
Most games are simple variations of The Game of Goose, re-themed to fit the morals and events of the epoch, like the crossing of the Channel by plane, the ascent of the Everest, the Turkish-Russian war, the Crystal Palace Exhibition, the WWII air raids. There is also Ludo, Snakes & Ladders, Halma, Nine Men Morris (called Trencho and dubbed ‘the famous Australian War game’), some Fox and Geese-like games, and some dexterity games like The Tailess Donkey (aka ‘pin the tail on the donkey’).
One of the less uninteresting race games is Whirlpool, where it pays to be the slowest to reach the end position, because the last ship standing before being sucked into the vortex wins. Another off-beat game is Sinnet, played according to normal tennis rules, with rolls of the die determining in which of the pre-defined positions the ball lands. These two and most games in the book are completely dice-driven.
The book has a historical introduction illustrated with old game boards, several from the Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor, about the importance of map-makers and printers, and of The Game of the Goose, Ludo, Mah-Jongg, etc., for the establishment of boardgames as an industry. The author recounts in particular the beginnings of Chad Valley games, and concludes it was a golden age for boardgames and their graphical design.
The author could of course not foresee the real golden age of boardgames that was to come after the book’s publication. Nowadays, even simple race games (to stay with the book’s favourite game type) like Ave Caesar and Cartagena have far more interesting and elaborate mechanics. The graphic design of boardgames has also leapt in bounds from the simple layouts and illustrations in this book.
Nevertheless, when Play the Game was published in the late 1970s, the signs were already there. Alex Randolph and Sid Sackson had published several novel games, including the classic Twixt and Acquire in the early 1960s, and David Parlett published in 1973 Hare and Tortoise, a race game to become the first Spiel des Jahres winner the year after the book’s publication.
Although this book is intended to be played, the lack of variety of game types and the emphasis on luck-based games makes for a very poor gaming experience. As it stands, this coffee-table book is mainly a testament to the Chad Valley games and their graphical style, and an interesting historic tribute to the themes and events that captured the public’s interest in the first half of the 20th century. An account of the golden age of boardgames is probably yet to be written.