Game Development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Category: Historic Games

Play Tabula

tabula thumbnailOne night in 480 CE, the Roman Emperor Zeno was winning a game of Tabula.

Then he rolled a 2, 5, and 6, and, because of exactly how his pieces were arranged on the board, he lost.

He was so very annoyed that he wrote down, in complete detail, how he had been wronged.

Thus the game of Tabula was preserved; here is a link to a printable board, with, I hope, full instructions– in English. It’s an ancestor of Backgammon, a child of Senat, but it itself was played all over the Roman Empire for hundreds of years.

Old Games: Clerk’s Naval Tactics

Plate VI, Part I. p.52, Fig. 3 from Clerk's Essay on Naval Tactics

John Clerk was a Scottish businessman who studied many things, among them, naval warfare. His book, “An Essay on Naval Tactics,” changed how the British Navy fought Napoleon, and contributed to his defeat.

It was written without naval experience, but with a good understanding of how ships can move and damage each other. So: accurate movement restrictions, realistic measurements of giving and taking damage– it’s a game. It changed the world.

Google Books has an original edition of the book, as a PDF, free for download, at : This version was printed in 1827.

“Social Game” by Milton Bradley

portrait of M. Bradley

M. Bradley

There really was a Milton Bradley, and he received patent #53,561 on April 3, 1866, for a board game, in which one strives to avoid various character flaws and reach “Happy Old Age.”

From the drawing provided in the patent application, you could make a pretty authentic board. Here’s the link.

The Smithsonian is going to do a “History of Video Games” show

It will open in 2012. It will be 6000 sq ft. The two project leads presented during a session called “How the Smithsonian is Embracing Games”– and they are.

I remember how wound up people got about Fonzie’s jacket.

Plans include a video game festival on the national mall. Think the Obamas will go? Of course they will. I hope Joe Lieberman goes and gets yelled at.

The Age of Original Documents

a game board from an old patented game

So, I’m reading A Gamut of Games (Sid Sackson), and it mentions in passing that thousands of board games were patented in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

And child-of-the-80’s Neal’s subconscious pipes up with, “too bad; it would cost a mint to track through all that microfilm to find the good stuff.”

Waitaminute! The internets! Is there a way to find expired game patents from 100 years ago? Why, yes, and its URL is:

As Mr Sackson noted, many of these games stink, are racist, or are about baseball. Also, these are legal documents, so making the rules clear is not their primary goal.

Gamut includes “Blue and Grey”, a nice checkers variant, that Mr. Sackson found in a patent search, in the seventies. He lived in NYC, so he had access to the patent library via the public library there. They were probably on microfilm reels– here’s the process: look through the (30-pound book of) title lists and keywords, jotting down reel reference numbers, then check out (one at a time) reels with possible matches, then use a Xerox kinda thing to get prints of good ones ($.15 a page), then go home and figure out that they’re all crappy games– repeat twice a week for your whole life, get 20 games.

The graphic from this post is from a 1902 patent awarded to L. B. Gaylor.

The age of original documents is upon us. When I was in school, you acquired expertise in an area by finding books that anthologized the best books in the field. Usually, the books you found did a their jobs poorly, or only in service to the editor’s agenda, or were limited by the editors’ own poor document access.

Now, most original documents are available to everyone with a computer. That’s not everyone, but it’s a billion more than it was. Usually, it’s via Google, and that will eventually be a problem.

Gamut also mentions the Young Folks’ Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports, a long-out-of-print treasure trove of games and rules– again, at the time, available only to book collectors or scholars with crazy library privileges. Here’s the link to the PDF:

This book, and all these patents, and all their games, belong to everyone– they are in the public domain. All we need to do is find them.

I intend to find a lot of them.

(Microfilm? Really, subconscious? When did we become a geezer?)

Learn Morris

As part of my “History and Theory of Games” class, I have students learn and play old games.

The oldest document that gives the rules to Morris is dated 1414 (according to Murray’s History of Board Games other than Chess), but the board’s pattern goes back to classic times.

I am making PDF’s for old games– rules, boards, and history. Here’s one for Morris: link