Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Roll the Dice and Move Forward

QUESTION: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved playing board games. The neighbor kids and I would sit for hours on one of our porches playing one game or another during the summer. In the winter, we did it less often but games kept us occupied on weekends. I have several games from when I was younger, but I’d really like to seriously begin collecting them. What can you tell me about the history of board games and how I might go about starting a collection.

ANSWER: Lots of people love to play board games. In fact, they were the primary source of entertainment from the 1880s to the 1920s. Some families still have a “family game night” where the entire family plays board games instead of watching T.V. or talking or texting on their cell phones. Collecting them is easy. When you have three or more games, you essentially have the beginnings of a collection. However, to truly be a games collector, you’ll have to know more about their history so that you can be on the lookout for some unusual ones.

The oldest board game known to man is a game called “Senet.” Ancient Egyptians in played it during the  Predynastic Period, dating it to around 3100 BCE. The Romans played Ludus Latrunculorum, a two-player strategy board game in which they called the board the “city” and the playing pieces “dogs.” The pieces, each of one of two colors, enabled players to take a piece belonging to their opponent by enclosing it with two of their own. Sounds a bit like chess?

Essentially, a board game is one played on a tabletop that involves counters or pieces moved or placed on a pre-marked surface or "board", according to a set of rules. While some games are based on pure strategy, many contain an element of chance. And some are purely chance, requiring no skill.

Games usually have a goal that a player aims to achieve. Early board games represented a battle between two armies, and most modern board games are still based on defeating opponents in terms of counters, winning position, or accrual of points.

There are many varieties of board games. Their representation of real-life situations can range from having no inherent theme, like checkers, to having a specific theme and narrative, like Clue. Rules can range from the very simple, like Tic-tac-toe, to those describing a game universe in great detail, like Dungeons & Dragons – although most of the latter are role-playing games where the board, which serves to help visualize the game scenario, is secondary to the game

In 17th and 18th century colonial America, the agrarian life of the country left little time for game playing  The Pilgrims and Puritans didn’t help matters with their negative views of game playing. They preached that dice were the instruments of the Devil.

Traveler's Tour Through the United States, published by New York City bookseller F. & R. Lockwood in 1822, was the first board game published in the United States.

As the U.S. shifted from agrarian to urban living in the 19th century, the middle class had more income and more leisure time. The American home became a place of entertainment, enlightenment, and education. Mothers encouraged their children to play board games that developed literacy skills and provided moral instruction.

Commercially produced board games in the mid-19th century featured monochrome prints hand-colored by teams of low-paid young factory women. The development of chromolithography, a technological achievement that made bold, richly colored images available at affordable prices, enabled commercial production of inexpensive board games. Games cost as little as US$.25 for a small boxed card game to $3.00 for more elaborate games.

In 1860, The Checkered Game of Life rewarded players for mundane activities such as attending college, marrying, and getting rich. Daily life rather than eternal life became the focus of board games. The game was the first to focus on secular virtues rather than religious ones and sold 40,000 copies its first year.

The rags-to-riches game of the District Messenger Boy, published in 1886 by the New York City firm of McLoughlin Brothers, was one of the first board games based on materialism and capitalism. The game is a typical roll-and-move track board game that encouraged the idea that the lowliest messenger boy could ascend the corporate ladder to its topmost rung. Such games insinuated that the accumulation of wealth brought increased social status. Players move their tokens along the track at the spin of the arrow toward the goal at the track's end. Some spaces on the track advanced the player while others sent him or her back. Competitive capitalistic games culminated in 1935 with Monopoly, the most commercially successful board game in U.S. history.

Many board games require some level of skill and luck. Game makers introduced luck into their games using a variety of methods. The most common is the use of dice, which dates back to ancient Rome.  A roll of the dice can decide everything from how many steps a player moves their token, as in Monopoly, to how their forces fare in battle, as in Risk, or which resources a player gains as in The Settlers of Catan. Other games employ spinning an arrow or hooking a game piece, as in chess, as a way of introducing luck into the game.

Randomness is also an element that promotes luck in many board games. The game of Sorry! Uses a deck of special cards that, when shuffled, create randomness.  Scrabble does something similar with randomly picked letters. Other games use spinners, timers of random length, or other sources of randomness.

But there’s also a cultural element to board games. The game of Monopoly wasn’t the first to have a “greed is good” theme. In 1883, Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall St. The The game promised it would make players feel like "speculators, bankers and brokers" and featured cartoons of railroad barons Jay Gould and William Henry Vanderbilt.

Many of the games are also beautiful works of art, with bold designs and bright colors, featuring fanciful characters or outrageous cartoons, often based on nursery rhymes, fairy tales or stories plucked from the headlines.

Old and vintage board games are probably one of the most common items found at garage and yard sales, church sales, and flea markets. As kids grow up and leave the nest, parents either sell their games or give them away.

Collectors often focus on the history of one game, such as Monopoly. There have been so many versions of it produced over the years, that a person could collect only that game and no other. Of course, collectors also focus on role-playing games, buying and selling games, economic stimulation games, educational games, and many other categories.

 To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Ancient Game of the Mandarins

QUESTION: My grandmother looked forward to getting together with her lady friends at the Jewish Community Center on Wednesday afternoons to play Mahjong. When I was little, she took me with her several times, but I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.  But I was fascinated by the colorful tiles they used to play the game.  Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to own a set, not of the inexpensive new ones, but a beautiful older set. I’d also like to learn to play the game. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Mahjong has been played in China for over 3,000 years, originating in Canton  during the Qing Dynasty before the days of Confucius. Only Mandarins played it, and the early tiles were handmade from ivory.

In 1911, when China became a republic, the game became popular with all classes of people. Mahjong maers produced tiles of bone and bamboo, or just bamboo, which was cheaper and easier to obtain than ivory. The British brought the game from China to England, and eventually to the United States in the early 1920s.

As a game of skill, strategy, and calculation, Mahjong became the rage. Soon there were as many variations to the rules of the game as groups of people playing it. During the Roaring `20s its popularity soared, but that didn't last long because no one could agree on which rules to follow. The National Mahjong League standardized the rules in 1937, but by this time most players had gone back to playing bridge.

At first glance, the game of Mahjong may seem confusing, even chaotic, especially if the players are experts. They use strange terms, and the rapidity of calling and discarding tiles appears maddening. The goal of Mahjong is to complete as many levels as possible until at least one player has no more moves left. At that point the game ends.

Players use a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. Some variations may omit some tiles and/or add unique ones. In most variations, each player starts out with 13 tiles. In turn, player each draw and discard tiles until they complete a hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four melds, or sets, and a pair, or eye. Players follow standard rules when drawing tiles and robbing pieces from other players. Standard rules also apply to the use of “simples,” or numbered tiles, and honors, winds and dragons, the kinds of melds allowed, how to deal the tiles, and the order of play.

Mahjong tiles are divided into five groups—suits, dragons, winds, flowers and jokers. There are four winds—north, east, west, and south, and four pieces of each. Three dragons are green, white and red, and there are four of each color. There are three suits—dots, craks and bams, and each suit is numbered from one to nine, with four tiles of each number. Each set also includes eight flower tiles and, depending on the manufacturer of the set, these may depict flowers, mandarins, or seasons of the year. Eight jokers complete the pieces.

Players follow procedures. Each builds a wall 19 tiles face down, two tiers high, in front of each other seated around a table in positions set as points of a compass—North, East, West, and South. The player designated as East starts the game by dealing out the tiles to the others. Players pass the tiles between them In a specified sequence before the game begins, as each player gets rid of unwanted tiles, and hopes to receive pieces which fit a combination in his hand. The game proceeds with drawing and discarding tiles until one player completes a hand which contains 14 tiles in a specific combination, then that player calls "mahjong." Combinations include hands similar to a game of rummy—three of a kind, four of a kind, consecutive runs, etc. Each combination has a listed value for scoring. Sometimes, players draw all the tiles before anyone gets mahjong. It ‘s important for participants to play defensively so that other players don’t complete a hand. Only one player can mahjong.

Finding a complete antique set of tiles requires some perseverance. The completeness of a set depends on the variation of the game being played. As with a deck of cards, it’s essential that all tiles match. Early sets contained 144 tiles, a pair of dice, betting sticks which were used much like poker chips to represent money for wagers, markers portraying the seated players, a counter reflecting the four winds which the “bettor,” a fifth player, used to indicate his or her choice of the winner, and some kind of suitable box in which to store all the pieces. Craftsmen made these boxes of fine, carved woods, inlaid with mother of pearl or fitted with silver or brass handles. Sets made after 1923 often came with a small instruction book.

"Old Hong Kong Mahjong" uses the same basic features and rules as the majority of the different variations of the game. This form of Mahjong uses all of the tiles of the commonly available sets, includes no exotic complex rules, and has a relatively small set of scoring sets/hands with a simple scoring system.

By the early 1900s, Mahjong had become a craze in the United States. The first Mahjong sets came to America from China. Some came in handsome rosewood boxes with separate drawers for the stones, wind, flowers, and other Mahjong tiles. The best of these had fine joinery and ornate brass hardware and dice, but many sets came packed in handpainted cardboard boxes. While tiles in less expensive sets were wooden, those in deluxe sets could be ivory or jade.

Mahjong’s popularity continued into the 1950s, then waned in the second half of the 20th century, but surged again in the 1990s after the publication and film version of Amy Tan’s "The Joy Luck Club."

NOTE: There won’t be an antiques blog next week. Please look for the next one the week of Oct. 15.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.