Board games are a hot item, even among the Generation N (as in “Nintendo”) crowd. Board game purchases were up 23 percent in 2000, and since then world events and tumultuous economic times have boosted their popularity. Parents, wary of electronic games and mass media, have begun to shy away from giving kids big-ticket gizmos in favor of simpler toys and books.
Humble board games have persisted through the centuries, tried and tested by young and old. A wall painting from 1500 b.c. shows Ramses III and a partner playing something that resembles checkers. Chess evolved in Persia 2,500 years ago. Even dominos, the national game of Cuba, is an import from Asia more than a thousand years old.
Devotees of these simple diversions know that the unpretentious appearance of the games belies their complexity. Checkers has 500 quintillion combinations of possible positions on the sixty-four black and red squares, and infinite variations of rules and boards exist worldwide. Chess, the intellectual king of all, boasts university-level and international matches; regular newspaper columns that hone strategy; an official club in all fifty states; and even competitions for grade-schoolers.
Sticks, stones, bones, and woven mats were the predecessors of the modern boxed board games. Many traditional versions are still made from natural materials such as wood and glass, sturdy enough to last through generations and beautiful enough to display as centerpieces. Ten Thousand Villages and Novica.com both sell exquisitely carved wooden boards from places such as Brazil, Bali, India, and West Africa. Playing pieces are fashioned from stone or wood, fired from clay and hand-painted, or collected from nature. The proceeds from these fair-trade sales support the artisans. MindWare offers a four-person version of mancala, a well-loved African game, as well as several other board games, made from sustainably grown rubberwood with glass “pebbles.” Rose and Pentagram Design uses industry scrap and thrift shop finds to produce one-of-a-kind game sets and tables embellished with elaborate Celtic art.
An investment in old-fashioned fun need not be expensive or come from an exotic importer, however. Kids can make their own checkerboards from paper squares, mancala sets from egg cartons and beans, or chess sets from found objects. Chinese checkers, usually consisting of recycled glass marbles and recycled paperboard, can still be purchased in discount stores, as during the game’s 1930s heyday. An unassuming deck of cards is the basis for thousands of different games, from go fish to pinochle. U.S. Playing Cards, the world’s largest manufacturer, uses certified sustainably harvested wood, Georgia clay, corn syrup, and cornstarch to make the classic Bicycle deck that has been a best-seller for 100 years. And the company recycles all of its scrap. Who knew that gin rummy could be so eco-friendly?