The Oxford History of Board Games

Written by David Parlett
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN 0192129988
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

As I have read, enjoyed and repeatedly returned to David Parlett's seminal Oxford History of Card Games, to say this book was eagerly awaited would be a considerable understatement. What transpires is a mixed blessing: 360 pages of closely packed text on games by one of the hobby's most knowledgeable and entertaining writers can be nothing but welcome. The style is familiarly light and readable, though sometimes drifting off into academic verbiage, while the text is sprinkled with anecdotes, asides and astute observations. Overall, it is a pleasure to read, and enlightened and entertained by the first fifty pages, I considered my money well spent and anything else a bonus. On the downside, there is rather too much emphasis on abstract games and so much recent history missing that the modern hobby gamer seeking coverage of his favourite games will be left frustrated and puzzled.

I cannot hope to explain Mr Parlett's inclusion criteria, but broadly speaking the book covers ancient and traditional games in considerable depth, moving onto 'modern' boardgames only in a disappointingly slim final chapter less than 10% of the volume. A secondary qualification criteria may be that a game must be an acknowledged classic or at least 'English-speaking mass market' to be included - for instance, European games are barely hinted at and sports games are dismissed in but one short paragraph - singularly unfair treatment. This latter accusation holds true only if Mr Parlett is aware of Lambourne Games, of 3M/Sports Illustrated, of Statis Pro, of Strat-O-Matic. If he isn't, then his researches have fallen woefully short. Either way, it is a puzzling treatment. Yes, it hit a nerve!

The final chapter that should have been most of interest to me instead simply disappointed. It is very much a brief closing overview of a range of diverse game styles wargames, political systems, word games, business sims, detection/crime, fantasy and social games which are each given a couple of pages of commentary and analysis. Games are located into the history, and to an extent into the social background, but the sense is very much of a survey written both as an afterthought and from a time machine. This is a book rooted firmly in the 1970's, and seldom does a page go without a check on the calendar such is the dated feel. Do we indeed go into modern gameshops and see Diplomacy, Britannia, Risk and Scrabble as the prominent games? No, we see them as steady sellers but as just a part of the much wider range of games on offer which form a rich and varied selection. One wonders how a 1970's gamer would feel returning to the hobby after two decades in Chad - pretty excited at the choice and quality I should imagine. One therefore wonders if Mr Parlett has been in such a shop recently.

I could have understood all this if the chapter in question were not called 'Today's Games' or if Mr Parlett were completely ignorant of developments in the last few years. But no, Reiner Knizia and Klaus Teuber are mentioned in passing, Games & Puzzles Mk II is a quoted reference, and modern trends and titles are frequently hinted at. My read is that Mr Parlett pretty much stopped his research in 1980 (Trivial Pursuit, D&D and Squad Leader mark an emphatic conclusion) or (as seems more likely) decided that games after this date were not significant or appropriate to his survey. If the latter, that is sad, because while we have many books on chess, go and the mancala family, we have very few on recent games, and none that propose how and why these titles fit into the history of games. The deep irony of this is that Mr Parlett seems to take great delight in categorising games, and like me, cherishes new game mechanisms - or ludemes as he terms them - in which respect the last decade has proved decidedly abundant.

I suppose in Mr Parlett's defence, the book is a history of board games, and traditionally even modern history does not often cover the most recent era. Or, perhaps there is a conservative code at O.U.P. that says however popular or credible, a game only five or ten years old cannot be deemed worthy of a place in such a history. So hopefully the eighties and nineties are to be covered in a second edition, perhaps to be written in 2020 (!). I think this would be easier to take if there wasn't an omnipresent and self-satisfied sense of a world of gaming frozen in the 1970's: where the Parletts, Pritchards, Bells, Sacksons and Solomons were the main players; where radical game design meant Mr Parlett's own Hare & Tortoise (alluded to positively, perhaps more than modesty might reasonably permit); and where Games & Puzzles Mk 1 is considered the consummate publication.

Has there really been no progress since then that is also worthy of record? In one of my more ill-mannered moments I might suggest many of the interesting and positive developments in boardgaming (classic abstract designs aside) and its spin-off markets have been in the last twenty five years, and we won't even mention computer games, Magic or the Internet. Even if Modern Art or Settlers of Catan had been included to illustrate that there is little new under the sun, I would have been a happier customer. But these are the gripes of a man who was expecting more than the author delivered, and that is weak grounds for criticism. There is much excellent content here and anyone interested in games will find plenty to enthral and educate. Much like its predecessor, it is a book that you can read initially, and use as a reference source for years to come via the comprehensive indices - note though that there are few rules included, usually just a description of play or historical significance.

As far as it goes, there is little wrong with the book and it can comfortably join the classics on your gaming bookshelf, or, given the price, would be well worth a reservation card at your local library. Indeed, apart from RC Bell's many works (all powerfully soporific I am ashamed to say), and a couple of titles in German, there is nothing to rival it. When I ordered it, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be an important work, and it undoubtedly is. But I am left to wonder what might have been if the slightly stuffy attitude had been left behind at the editor's desk, if 'board games' meant more than the ubiquitous abstract games, and if the arbitrary portcullis hadn't been lowered in 1980. That indeed would have been a wonderful volume. As it is, this History is just a very good one.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell