Games people play

Posted on: 5th February, 2014

Category: A West Cork Life

Contributor: Tina Pisco

As I sit writing this on a grey, damp day, another ‘killer storm’ is winging its way across the Atlantic. This one is called Brigid and should reach our shores by the Saint’s feast day. St Bridgid’s day, also known as Imbolc or Candlemass, celebrates the awakening of the land, the first spark of Spring. The daffs are poking out of the ground, but the camelia’s buds are still tiny and tight. They look like they have no intention of waking up for a few weeks. In fact, far from awakening, the land looks more like a grumpy teenager who doesn’t want to get out of bed yet. That’s fine with me. I’m not really ready for the mad dash of spring. The spuds are chitting in the garage and I’ve a few hopeful seeds in trays on the porch, but that’s really all I’m in the mood for. I can feel the land changing, but it’s so slow that it’s easy to ignore. Far from ‘springing’ into action,  I think I’ll just press snooze and happily doze for a while longer. In any case there are more storms on the horizon, and even the chance of some really cold weather. “There’s a big freeze on the way,” is how it was put to me yesterday by Chicken George as we chatted on bank corner. I hear you, Gerry.

This is a time to read all those books I got at Christmas, dream of holidays I might take this year, and have quiet nights in with good company. (Please note: All you readers who think that this is the perfect time to go hill walking, surfing, or any other outdoor pursuits — fair play to ye. Personally, I think you’re nuts.)  I was therefore delighted to see that next week Clonakilty is having its first Games Festival — and it’s pretty much all indoors! What an appropriate festival for the wet and windy month of February.

Playing board and table games is one of those things that differentiates us from our primate cousins. Humans have been playing them for thousands of years. It’s what we do. In fact humans have probably been playing board and table games way before we ever invented boards or tables. The oldest board game is commonly held to be backgammon. The Egyptians played a game called Senet that is a precursor to backgammon and several sets were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. In fact, backgammon is more accurately the oldest game that we still know how to play. Last summer, archeologists in Turkey found a beautiful carved game in a tomb complete with small animals, pyramids, dice and circular tokens. It is believed to be around 5000 years old. The problem is that they didn’t find the rulebook. No one knows how to play it…Chess seems like a mere stripling next to backgammon, having been first played in India around 1500 years ago and becoming popular in Europe in the 15th century. The Vikings played a similar, if chunkier, game called Tafl where players try to advance and capture each other’s kings.

Games were not always for fun. Snakes and Ladders started life as a 16th century Indian game for spiritual and moral edification. You went up the ladder with good deeds and fell down the snakes for your sins. I looked up the history of Monopoly and was surprised to find that it too originated as a game for our edification. In 1904, a young woman named Elizabeth Magie created ‘The Landlord Game’. She was inspired by ‘Progress and Poverty’, a book by Henry George. Elizabeth designed the game to be a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’. Parker Brothers, the game manufacturer turned her down. I guess ‘The Landlord Game’ didn’t sound like a barrel of laughs. Ironically after the Crash of 1929, Parker Brothers developed Monopoly, a cutthroat game of land-grabbing, the goal of which is to become the richest player. Today it is the most popular game in the world. Which got me thinking: Maybe the world is ripe for another edifying game based on an economic crash. We could call it ‘Bailout!’, or ‘Boom to Bust’. Players could include the Irish Government (a harp), the Developer (a shovel), the Troika (a gold dubloon) and the Banker (a shiny ring). Who knows — if I start working on it now, I might have it ready for next year’s Games Festival.

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