It would be easy to line up behind other reviewers and offer a ringing endorsement for David Parlett’s The Oxford History of Board Games (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-212998-8). After all, as the inventor of Hare & Tortoise and author of The Oxford History of Card Games and A Dictionary of Card Games, Parlett has a respectable pedigree. And truthfully, it’s not a bad book per se. It is, however, a lousy history book.
Parlett starts by setting up a group of broad classifications for games— race, space, chase, or displace. He then tackles each in turn, further subdividing them into game families and tracing their development from simple to complex.
Detailed rules are given for most games, often to excess. Pages upon pages are taken up with rules for minor variations of the same basic game— this one allows an extra move on a throw of five, that one on a throw of one, the other on any throw but a two— with no discussion whatsoever on the significance of these variations and why we should care.
The book concerns itself mostly with “classic” folk games, devoting a scant 28 of the book’s 373 pages to a chapter on modern games and discussing a very few others such as Twixt and Thoughtwave in other contexts. He does, however, allocate an entire chapter (albeit an exceedingly brief one) to Hare & Tortoise, the only proprietary game to receive such treatment. This struck me as a bit self-serving, as did his decision to discuss some of his own unpublished game designs.
The Oxford History of Board Games is a very dry read, and is exactly the type of book that turned me off of history in high school (an interest later rekindled in college). Parlett delves into pedantic detail on dozens of games, yet completely fails to provide an historical framework for most of them (Checkers, Chess, Backgammon, and Go being notable exceptions). The book creates no sense of progression in game types or forms, either temporally or culturally. Hardly any attention is given to the social impact or societal significance of games, nor does he try to put them into a larger context relative to other historical developments or concurrent events. There is no story here, only a dry series of facts with an extremely narrow focus.
Perhaps this is not Parlett’s fault, but reflects a lack of such information within the field. Parlett does at least try to fix each game in a culture and time period, but is often uncertain as to a game’s true ancestry.
This is less a history of board games than a survey of them. It reads like an academic paper with frequent citations from and references to previous works on the same topic. While this may be good form for a doctoral dissertation, it makes for lousy reading. I’d have preferred Parlett to synthesize the material from other sources and provide his own opinions, but it’s almost as if it was too much trouble for him. Nor does he deign to translate into English most of the French quotes he peppers throughout the book, apparently assuming his audience to be multilingual.
Viewed as a survey of classic abstract games, The Oxford History of Board Games delivers an abundance of useful reference material. Parlett gives ample information to construct and play dozens of folk games. Players who enjoy a particular game may find similar or related games which are unfamiliar to them. This is more of a reference than a reading book, however, and few people will find themselves curling up with it in front of the fire.
I have greater interest in modern games than in abstracts, and I was disappointed that the former were given such passing attention. I’d love to see a book which explores the evolution of modern proprietary games (eg, the “wertung” scoring mechanism which first appeared in Sid Sackson’s Venture later being adopted by Alan Moon for many of his games). Perhaps some of that type of analysis will be included in Mike Siggins’ forthcoming survey of European games, which will apparently take an alphabetical structure. No firm release date on that yet— at last check, Mike was still on “M”.