In an era before screens, people turned to other forms of entertainment to keep themselves occupied. In 18th- and 19th-century England, that meant board games. These were not the mass-produced games you find today–each was truly a work of art in itself.
A new book catalogs one of the foremost collections of these rare board games so you can see in detail the attention that went into creating each one. With 50 spreads, many of which are large enough to use as a makeshift game board if you’re so inclined, Georgian and Victorian Board Games: The Liman Collection is a fascinating look at the moral values of a bygone era–as seen through its entertainment.
“As much as video games are groundbreaking today, this was groundbreaking at the end of the 18th century,” says Ellen Liman, a painter and interior designer who collected the games with her late husband Arthur by hunting through flea markets, yard sales, and online auctions. “The beauty and sophistication and content were a reflection of what was going on universally at that time with the Enlightenment.”
In the U.K., board games generally emerged during the 17th-century soon after children’s books became mass-produced in England because publishers could use similar technology to create games. That meant board games were relatively inexpensive to produce and a growing middle class could afford them. Board games became educational tools for young people, teaching them about the British view of the world (and the culture’s strict moral code, which praised modesty and charity).
Until 1850, most of the games were made using engravings; a steel plate, which could produce up to 5,000 copies, each of which then had to be colored in by hand. They were truly works of art; for instance, a game called British Tourist is a race game made of 65 individual, miniature engravings of landmarks and landscapes around Britain.
Many of the games during this period have the same format–a race, where players rolled some kind of dice and advanced with their marker along a path–making the design of the game itself the most compelling element. There’s an entire category of games that are in the shape of animals, with a race track embedded inside their form. The oldest game in the book, from 1794, is in the shape of a snake, and later games take the forms of elephants, ducks, hares, and even ostriches. Other games are played on top of maps of the U.K. and far-off places like the Americas and India, which act as the dominating visual motif. There’s even a geographical map that takes players to all the wonders of the world. These games cemented children’s conception of Britain’s place at the center of the world and extolled the value of education.
Many of the games are meant to be educational–and so difficult that you might need the help of Google to get anywhere. “They’re easy to play but you have to be really smart,” Liman says. “Pretty much all of them except for the ones in an animal format required deep knowledge of each illustration to advance.”
Games tested people’s knowledge on astronomy, arithmetic, art, and great discoveries. They also taught morals. A game from 1800 called Mansion of Happiness had values like piety, honesty, sobriety, charity, and chastity on game squares–if you landed on those, you could advance. But if you happened to land on audacity, cruelty, or immodesty, you might lose your turn or move backwards on the board.
For Liman, collecting the games isn’t really about playing them. Instead, she views them as visually stunning in their own right–pieces of history worth framing and hanging on your wall.
See more in our slideshow above.