Friday, May 10, 2019


The Boardgame Book by R. C. Bell, 1983.

I love board games!  I like playing them and collecting them and learning about new ones.  Throw in the history of board games, and it's even better.  This book has all of these things because, not only does it tell you the history and rules of board games, but the games are also playable.  The book contains a special sheet of playing pieces that you can use to play on the provided boards.  R. C. (Robert Charles) Bell was an authority on board games and their history and wrote other books on the same topic, but this one is a favorite of mine because of the playable boards.

The book begins with a section about the general history of board games.  It explains a little about different types of board games, like those that are based on pure chance, those based on strategy, and those that include a combination of the two.  It also describes other categories of games such as race games and battle games, and it explains the evolution of these types of games.  For example, race games, in which players compete to progress on a track toward some kind of goal, come in a great variety today but are all based on the oldest known game of this type, which is the Game of the Goose.  There are many children's games patterned after this game, and if you've ever played Candy Land, you would recognize the basic format.

There are games from around the world in this book, although the author notes that he wasn't able to include certain types of games because they wouldn't fit the format of the book very well.  Specifically, the Mancala family of games would be difficult to put into a book like this in a playable form because they require cups or pits for holding playing pieces.  (I have seen a playable Mancala game in a book from the Klutz series for children, but I do see the difficulty involved in having room for all of the necessary pieces on a flat board.)  However, the author does describe some of the history and variations of the Mancala family of games, and although he doesn't provide a playable board, he does explain the rules for two versions.

The history section of the book also discusses how variations of some popular games have been influenced by world events, like how Asalto evolved from Fox and Geese during the "Indian Mutiny" and how chess sets can have different styles of pieces to represent real-world conflicts.  It also explains the connections between religion and board games.  A number of board games, especially ancient ones, have religious connotations or were used for religious teaching.  For example, the classic children's game Snakes and Ladders was derived from Moksha-Patamu, which was used to teach the principles of virtue and reincarnation on the journey to Nirvana in Hinduism.  Some games, both ancient and modern, have also been used for fortune-telling.

There are also explanations for how certain games changed over time, including the evolution of Chess and its pieces from its original form in India, when it was known as Chaturanga.  The picture below shows different types of dice that have been used in different countries and for different types of games over the years.  Among the earliest known dice are two-sided stick dice (used by the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks, they can land either face up or down, and the combinations on landing for different numbers of sticks might have different meanings), cowrie shells (used similarly to the stick dice), and astragali (the knuckle bones of animals, precursors to the modern cube dice).

Each of the sections for the playable games explain more about their history and evolution.  Most of the oldest games have undergone many changes as they were carried from their countries or regions of origin, popularized, and spread around the world.

The playable games with rules are:

Chess and Maharajah - Explains its origins in India and how it has changed over time.  Maharajah is a Chess variant, one of many.
Gala - A German Chess variant, probably Medieval in origin.
Chinese Chess - Different playing pieces from modern standard Chess. Developed c. 800 AD.
Draughts/Checkers – with a few variants - Developed from much older games, using a Chess board with Backgammon style pieces and moves like the moves in Alquerque.  It probably reached its modern form c. 1000 AD.
Halma - Invented in England around 1880, the precursor of Chinese Checkers
Nyout - from Korea, c. 1000 BC.
Tablut - similar to Fox and Geese, from Medieval Lapland
Zohn Ahl - from the Kiowa tribe of North America
Fighting Serpents - Zuni Indians of New Mexico, 16th century, variation on Alquerque
Agon - Late 19th century
Mu Torre - from the Maori of New Zealand
Palm Tree - Ancient Egyptian, c. 2000-1788 BC
Hyena - from Sudan
Liar Dice - from Mexico
Fox and Geese - from Iceland, c. 1300 AD
Asalto - variant on Fox and Geese, India in the 19th century
Solitaire - played on a Fox and Geese board, invented in 18th century France (some say it was during the French Revolution, but other sources indicate that it is older)
To Bed with Venus - Ancient Greece and Pompeii, it appears to be a risque gambling game
Tablan - from India
Pentalpha – with variants - from Ancient Greece
Cows and Leopards and Lau Kati Kala - from Southern Asia
Sixteen Soldiers and Tiger - from India
Rebels - from China
Faro - gambling game, probably from Italy originally
The Hare and the Tortoise - Game of Goose variant based on the Aesop's fable, from England in 1849
Up to Klondyke - race game, probably from late 19th century United States
Craps - gambling game that developed from the Medieval gambling game of Hazard
Seega and High Jump - similar games from Egypt and Somalia
Senat - Ancient Egyptian, an ancestor of Backgammon
Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum - Ancient Roman
Chasing the Girls - from Iceland
Backgammon and Doublets - Backgammon evolved from other ancient games, but may have reached its modern form in Persia, Doublets is a variant from Iceland
Sugoroku - Backgammon variant from Japan
Puluc - from the Ketchi Indians of Guatamala
Surakarta - from Java
Siege of Paris - from France in the 1870s
The Game of Race - from 19th century England
Bizingo - from North America in 1850s
Shut the Box - from the Channel Islands in the 18th century
Patolli - Aztec
Pachisi - from India
Ludo - from the UK, 1896, a Pachisi variant
Crown and Anchor and Chuck-a-Luck - from the UK
Ringo - origin unknown
Jungle - from China
Coiled Snake - Ancient Egypt
Snail - from 19th century England
Go – with variants - from Ancient China
Conspirators - from France
Pope Joan - from early 19th century England
Konane - from Hawaii
Snakes and Ladders - originally from India, adapted into the modern children's game by the English in the mid-19th century
Rithmomachia - in the Eastern Mediterranean region, developed before the 11th century
Music Masters - from 19th century Germany
Game of Goose - from Italy, c. 1574-1587
Nine Men’s Morris – with variants, including Tic-Tac-Toe and Noughts and Crosses - from Ancient Egypt
Alquerque - from the ancient Middle East
Zamma - from North Africa
Fanorona - from Madagascar
Dablot Prejjesne - from Lapland
Chinese Checkers - variant of Halma, developed in 19th century United States (the Chinese connection was a marketing tactic, this game was also originally called Hop Ching Checkers)

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Crystal Skull

The Crystal Skull by Richard Garvin, 1973.

In the 1920s, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges and his adopted daughter, Anna, discovered a mysterious skull made of quartz crystal in the ruins called Lubaantun in Honduras. Since then, people have speculated about the origins of the skull and what its purpose was. It has been the inspiration for many books and movies, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This book in particular was the inspiration for a children's mystery/fantasy story called Dance of the Crystal Skull by Norma Lehr.  (I haven't reviewed this particular book on my children's book blog, but I am familiar with the series that it is part of.)

It's possible that the skull was part of a hoax perpetrated by Mitchell-Hedges, but it could also have been an object of worship for the ancient Mayans. Some of the people who have studied the skull have described its hypnotic effect on viewers and even claimed to have seen auras around it and visions inside it.  The book gives some history of the Mayans and Central America but also much speculation about the skull's occult significance and psychic phenomena, including Mitchell-Hedges's personal belief that it was connected to the lost continent of Atlantis.

The section I found most interesting was the study of the skull in the labs of Hewlett-Packard, which processes crystals for use in electronic devices. Their conclusions (keeping in mind that this study was done with 1970s technology) were the that the skull and its detachable jaw were formed from the same unusually large piece of clear crystal. The skull appears to have been shaped first by chiseling and then by the use of tiny pieces of sand and crystal as an abrasive. This effort, done by hand, would have taken about 300 years to complete, even assuming that it was a full-time project. It also appeared to them that the makers did not try to take the natural axis of the crystal into account in their carving, which means that it was amazing that they didn't shatter the crystal by accident. However, none of the people who studied the skull were unable to determine definitely the makers or origin of the crystal.  (According to National Geographic, the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution drew different conclusions from their studies of crystal skulls.) The book also includes some nice black-and-white photos of the skull, comparing it with other, more crudely-shaped crystals skulls found in Central America.

Personally, I don't really believe that the skull has any particular psychic powers or any connection to Atlantis, but having seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and read the children's book that centered around the idea of crystal skulls and psychic abilities being linked, I was curious to read about the skull that inspired the stories.  Although I don't believe some of the more occult speculations about the skull, it is still a fascinating piece of art, and I can enjoy imagining the possible stories behind its creation.

This book is out of print, and I haven't been able to find a copy on Internet Archive, but there are still plenty of used copies available through Amazon.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

It Was a Dark & Stormy Night: The Final Conflict compiled by Scott Rice, 1992.

This book is actually a fairly recent acquisition of mine, but it's fascinating, not so much for what it contains but what it's part of.  Basically, this book, which is part of a series, contains the winning entries/best entries from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  I had never heard of this contest until I found this book for 50 cents.  (I know the tag says it was $1.00, but if you go to the VNSA Book Sale on Sunday, the books are half off.  This is a large part of the reason why my book collection is so big.)

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest appeals to me not just because I like writing but because the aim of this contest is to write badly.  Specifically, you have to pretend that you are writing the first sentence to a very badly-written book, and the winner is the worst one.  There are quite a lot of contenders, which is how they are able to publish books full of past entries.  The namesake of the contest is Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who has sometimes been credited with originating the hackneyed opening line "It was a dark and stormy night ..." (although that expression had actually been around before Bulwer-Lytton used it).  This line was the inspiration for the contest and is part of the title of each compilation of past entries.

Naturally, when I discovered the existence of this contest, I sent in about half a dozen entries myself.  I won't tell you what they were because this year's contest is still being judged.  I've often thought that worrying about the quality of my writing has kept me from writing as freely as I'd like, but writing to be intentionally bad has its own challenges.  Is it possible to have a sentence that is well-crafted to be especially bad?  After a fashion, I think it is.  I don't know what my chances of winning the contest are, but I tried as awfully hard as I could to be terrible.

If you would like to see some past entries from the contest, you don't have to buy one of the books; there are past winning entries listed directly on the contest website.  (The website mentions that the book collections are out of print, but it has a link to places to buy used copies, if you would like to have your own.)

There are so many gems, it's difficult to pick just one favorite from the past entries, but one entry that I liked from the book I own is:

"As Maria walked along the beach, the clouds grew angry, the sea raged, the wind howled, and the sand was just plain irritated."
-- Jeff Kruse, Van Nuys, California