CLOSE
Original image

5000 Years of Board Games (Part Two)

Original image

This week, Keith Law is taking us though the evolution of board games. If you missed yesterday's installment, you might want to read that first.

While modern western board games trace their lineage through Europe to the Middle East, Asia has its own long history of board games, dating at least back to 300 A.D., where we find the earliest references to a Korean game called Nyout, first described in English by Stewart Culin in 1895. Nyout, one of the earliest of a style of game now known somewhat pejoratively as “roll the dice, move your mice” games, involved a game board with a circular track circumscribing a cross, where the goal for any player was to have his or her pieces (called “horses”) make complete circuits around the outer track. Horses can be captured by another player's horses should they land on an occupied space. Although the game itself is Korean, Culin argued that its roots were Chinese, and early Nyout boards included Chinese characters. Within Korea, the game was associated with gambling and considered plebeian.

Go (I-go) is a classic Japanese game of placement, originally known in China as wéiqí, and is described by Parlett as the oldest extant board game in the world, with its rules nearly unchanged for several thousand years. In go, each player places stones with an eye toward surrounding as much space as possible. While the earliest reference to wéiqí appears in 548 B.C., the game's popularity in China soared during the T'ang dynasty of 618 to 906 A.D., as Taoism rose in importance. [Image credit.]

A similar traditional game called mig-mang or ming-mang, meaning “many eyes,” is played in Tibet; the board is 16x16 and all pieces start on the perimeter, with each player occupying two adjacent sides of the square.

Wéiqí moved to Korea some time in the second century B.C., when the Han Dynasty expanded into the Korean peninsula, where the game, called baduk, remains extremely popular. Go arrived in Japan in the 5th or 6th century A.D., and by the end of the first millennium was an essential part of Japanese culture, factoring strongly in two great Japanese novels of widely different eras: The Tale of Genji, which was written around 1000 A.D.; and The Master of Go, written in 1951 by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Go became a favorite game of the learned classes of medieval Japan, as well as of warlords and military tacticians. When Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun in 1603, he created a government office for the regulation and development of go (as well as one for shogi, or Japanese chess). His first principal, Honinbo Sansa, also known by his Buddhist name of Nikkai, established a nationwide system of rules and four major go “houses” or academies, one of which, the eponymous Honinbo, lasted until 1940.

At first glance, the go board resembles a super-sized version of Reversi, but go is played on the vertices of a 19 by 19 square surface, and pieces are captured not through a line but by surrounding them on four sides, or on two or three sides at the board's extreme corner or edge. Any piece that is not yet surrounded by the opponent's color is said to have “liberty,” and thus the object is to take liberties from – rather than with – one's opponent. Due to its simple rules, zero-sum nature, and extremely high number of legal game positions – about 2.08 x 10170, roughly the estimated minimum number of atoms in the known universe squared – go has attracted attention from mathematicians and game theorists, and even led to the creation of an arithmetic continuum called the surreal numbers.

In India, Pachisi – bastardized in name and form for westerners as “Parcheesi” - is considered the national board game, due to its long history and mention in the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. The name Pachisi comes from the Hindi word “pachis,” meaning twenty-five, the highest possible score that a player can achieve by throwing the cowrie shells used as a sort of binary dice. [Image credit: Micha L. Rieser.]

The game board resembles the cross found on Parcheesi boards, but pachisi is a four-player game involving two partnerships, as in bridge. Players attempt to move their pieces around the entire perimeter of the board and back into the board's center, with victory going to the partnership that has all eight of its pieces complete the route first. The board is similar to that of Nyout, and Parlett theorizes that the games may have shared a common ancestor.

Chaupar is a more complex variant of pachisi using different dice substitutes and giving players more flexibility in using the results of their rolls; chaupar was seen as the rich man's game, while pachisi was the peasants', although the popularity of both games has declined in India in the past century. Further simplified versions of the game called Ludo and Sorry! have found commercial success in the West, although they bear only a superficial resemblance to their grandparent.

The most popular game, or more properly style of game, in traditional African cultures is mancala. The game's name is derived from the Arabic word naqala ('to move'), where two players attempt to capture neutral pieces from a playing board of two tracks of cups or containers. Like go and mig-mang, mancala games involve no luck or chance, but unlike contestants at go, mancala players move quickly. The earliest Western reference to mancala came nearly 500 years ago, although the game is likely much older than that, with mancala-like boards appearing in Egyptian temples and pyramids, on Neolithic tablets found in Kenya, and in once-fertile areas of the Sahara that may date back to 3000 B.C.

Although hundreds of varieties exist up and down the continent and wherever African slaves were taken, including Wari/Woro of West Africa and the Caribbean and Endodoi of Kenya and Tanzania, the basic principle involves taking all of the stones in one hole/cup and moving them forward, dropping (or 'sowing') one stone per cup. The rules for capturing the stones in any cup vary depending on the game, but may depend on how many stones were in the cup at the point of sowing, or whether the cup across from it was empty, but the objective remains the capture of the majority of the pieces on the board.

Tomorrow: Backgammon, Scrabble, and more!

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

Get 15% off our new game when you use the code SPLITDECISION!

arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

arrow
language
6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
Original image
Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios