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Board Game

Entry updated 11 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.


Term used to describe games played with physical pieces on a (generally flat) board or map, as with Chess. Clearly this definition can overlap with that of Wargames; this encyclopedia has categorized games descended from the board and counter Wargame Tactics (1954) designed by Charles Roberts and sharing its preoccupation with realistic simulation as Wargames, and all other games using similar components as Board Games. The design of such games generally concentrates on enjoyable gameplay rather than a detailed depiction of any specific scenario. Board Games are among the oldest forms of game known; early examples include Senet, in which two players raced pawns across a grid in ancient Egypt as early as 3500 BCE, the Royal Game of Ur, played in Mesopotamia before 2600 BCE, and several objects resembling game boards excavated from the site of the third-millennium BCE Jiroft civilization, located in what is now Iran.

Several attempts have been made to develop a scheme for the classification of Board Games, beginning with Harold Murray's A History of Board Games Other Than Chess (1952). The most thorough is probably that in David Parlett's Oxford History of Board Games (1999), which defines four fundamental categories: race games (in which the players must move their pieces to their final destination before their opponents), space games (where the goal is to get all of the pieces into some special configuration), chase games (which are distinguished by their asymmetry, meaning that players start the game with different sets of pieces and objectives) and displace games (in which the aim is to capture the opponents' pieces). Parlett also makes use of a fifth category, "theme games", by which he means modern proprietary games which have a specific theme or frame narrative (see Interactive Narrative), in contrast to traditional games which are in the public domain and are generally abstract in nature, such as Chess. While this is a valid distinction, the issue is somewhat confused by the fact that many games which are currently abstract in nature appear originally to have had themes; the Japanese game of Go, for example, may have begun as a representation of military tactics. In any case, all sf games are of necessity thematic, so this entry will employ only the first four of Parlett's categories, but use them to classify examples of thematic rather than abstract games.

Various sf Board Games were produced in the 1930s as spinoffs from other media; one example is Buck Rogers (1934 Lutz and Sheinkman), licenced from the Comic Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (from 1929). The first original sf game, however, may have been Art Widner's Interplanetary (1943). This is essentially a race game set in the solar system, with the requirement that (as in many Space Sims) journeys to distant planets must be funded by profits made by mining closer, more easily reached destinations. As with the first sf Wargame, Lensman (1969), and the first Videogame, Spacewar (1962), the design is influenced by E E Smith's Lensman sequence; in this case players must avoid a "negasphere", an object whose properties combine those of Antimatter and Black Holes. This game was never commercially sold, being a product of science fiction Fandom rather than commercial development. By the early 1950s, however, such traditionally science-fictional ideas as Space Flight and Nuclear Energy had emerged from dreams into reality, spurring major games companies to release genre games of their own. These products were generally fairly simple, with mechanics adapted from existing efforts and given an sf theme. Early examples include Blasto (1959 Schaeffer), a version of the traditional naval guessing game Battleship using nuclear weapons and rocketships, and the race game Space Pilot (1951 Cadaco-Ellis). In the 1960s many more games were created based on the competition between the US and Soviet manned space programmes, including Solar Conquest (1966 Atech Enterprises) and the UK developed Blast-Off! (1969 Waddingtons Games). The self published Hyperspace (1967) designed by Allan Calhamer is a more interesting example, based on the exploration of a planet with four physical dimensions; in Parlett's terms, it is perhaps best described as an exotic form of race game. Major companies such as Hasbro have continued to produce sf games based on such standards as Monopoly (1935 Parker Brothers) designed by Charles Darrow, Elizabeth Magie, frequently licenced from popular films and television series.

Prior to the 1970s, sf Board Games had generally been created by professional developers who had been assigned the task of creating a game with a science-fictional theme, but who had no special interest in the subject. In that decade, however, designers appeared who were sf and fantasy enthusiasts, and wanted to develop commercial games in the genre. This caused a surge in sf Board Game production, associated with the 1970s boom in sf Wargames and the early years of the Role Playing Game industry. Typically, these works were created by the same US and UK companies making genre Wargames and Role Playing Games, and often employed similar mechanics. Many examples, such as Cosmic Encounter (1977), represent significant innovations in design; Parlett describes such games as having introduced new ludic genes, or "ludemes". Notable games of the era include The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (1979) and the fantasy-based displace games Titan (1980 Gorgonstar; rev 1982; rev 2008) designed by David Trampier, Jason McAllister and Wiz-War (1983 Jolly Games; rev 2011) designed by Tom Jolly. The designers of Cosmic Encounter produced another game with a similar background concept (the idea of having a basic set of rules for all players plus special additions and changes for each player) based on Frank Herbert's Dune sequence – Dune (1979 Avalon Hill [AH]) – as well as Darkover (1979 Eon), licenced from Marion Zimmer Bradley's eponymous series and vividly remembered for its use of dares and bizarre mind games to simulate Psionic combat. Other works in the same tradition include the UK developed 2000 AD licence Judge Dredd (1982 Games Workshop) designed by Ian Livingstone and the slightly later Arkham Horror (1987).

One notable subform appeared during this period: the paragraph system Board Game. This combines the board and piece based spatial gameplay of a Board Game with the narrative flow of a Gamebook, enabling designers to create enjoyable experiences for a solitary player. Perhaps the most influential early example was Voyage of the B.S.M. Pandora (1981). Other significant sf games which used the same approach include The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat (1981 Simulations Publications Inc) designed by Greg Costikyan, based on Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat sequence, and Star Trek: The Adventure Game (1985) (see Star Trek Games). Despite having given birth to such well known works as the Arabian Fantasy Tales of the Arabian Nights (1985 West End Games; rev 2009) designed by Eric Goldberg, however, the form has now largely died out. It seems likely that, as with its contemporary the Gamebook, it was eclipsed by Videogames, which offer similar possibilities for solitaire play but can employ markedly more complex algorithms to simulate an opponent.

Meanwhile, Board Games had become highly popular in Germany during the late 1970s, leading to the development of a school of design which emphasized playability (through, for example, the use of mechanics which break up players' turns into smaller, interleaved phases, so that participants are never idle for long), sociability (by such means as awarding compensation to losing players so that no individual can build up a commanding lead) and the physical quality of the components. These games are very popular in Europe, and have become something of a cult phenomenon in the US and the UK. While they typically have themes rather than being purely abstract, less emphasis is placed on the fictional background than in the tradition exemplified by Arkham Horror and The Awful Green Things from Outer Space, and the designers have shown no special interest in the sf and fantasy genres. The form became relatively well known outside continental Europe with the release of Settlers of Catan (1995 Kosmos; 2006 rev vt Simply Catan) designed by Klaus Teuber, in which players compete to colonize the eponymous newly discovered island. Another popular example is the medieval city building game Carcassonne (2000 Hans im Glück) designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede; both this and Settlers of Catan are essentially space games in Parlett's sense of the phrase. An sf example is Starfarers of Catan (1999).

US and UK designers continued to create interesting science-fictional Board Games after the collapse of the board and counter Wargame market in the mid 1980s, including Roborally (1994) and Merchant of Venus (1988 AH) designed by Richard Hamblen, a whimsical interstellar trading game with gameplay resembling that of the seminal UK railroad management simulation 1829 (South) (1974 Hartland Trefoil) designed by Francis Tresham. However, many recent works have sought to incorporate the innovations made by German designers, as in the 2005 edition of Twilight Imperium. Other currently available genre Board Games include Risk 2210 AD (2001), A Game of Thrones (2003 Fantasy Flight Games [FFG]; rev 2011) designed by Christian Petersen, licenced from George R R Martin's eponymous fantasy novel; Dust Tactics (2010 FFG / Dust Games) designed by Paolo Parente, Olivier Zamfirescu, set in an Alternate History where World War Two has been intensified by alien technology; and the displace game Nexus Ops (2005 AH; rev 2012) designed by Charlie Catino, which borrows from Wargame design in its depiction of a future conflict on a distant moon. Zombie-themed games include Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game (2014), The Walking Dead (2012), Zombie 15' (2014) and Zombicide (2012).

While the Board Game form has produced a number of interesting sf games, its connection with science fiction has always been somewhat peripheral, in part due to the small number of examples and in part to the strong emphasis on gameplay over fiction which characterizes the form. It seems likely that this situation will continue in the future: novel and intriguing sf games will be created, but Board Games and science fiction will not become intimately linked, as Role Playing Games and sf have been. [NT]

see also: Quintet.

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