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May the Best Player Win: Geographical Board Games of the Past

Board games have been played around the world for millennia. One of the oldest board games known to exist, named Senet, appears in an Egyptian hieroglyph from about 5,000 years ago! The late 18th century saw a rise in the creation of board games in Europe, many of which were educational, designed to be an entertaining way to teach children. Many of the first game publishers were also cartographers, leading to geographic board games becoming a popular pastime of which there are many interesting examples within the collections of the Library’s map division.

One such game board is seen below, published by J.N. Mauborgne in Paris in 1795. Mauborgne, a geography professor, created this game to honor the government of the National Convention during the French Revolution. Each space on the board is one of the 83 departments which were set up by the revolutionary government in place of earlier historical provinces. The players start at the outside of the board and travel around  France counter clockwise until reaching the center, ending on the island of Corsica. The complete rules are found in the center of the board, but the overall objective is the same as most games; the first to the end wins!

Jeu géographique de la République Française : présenté à la Convention Nationale. Created by J.N. Mauborgne, 1795. Geography and Map Division.

Jeu géographique de la République Française : présenté à la Convention Nationale. Map by J.N. Mauborgne, 1795. Geography and Map Division.

The spiral format of the game above gave way to a more popular format, the creation of a game board out of the map itself. High demand for these games swept through continental Europe and Great Britain in the early 19th century. The game below, titled Middleton’s new geographical game of a tour through England and Wales was made in 1820 and is two games in one as it is also a jigsaw puzzle, also called a “dissected” map.  Starting in Greenwich, the player spins a totem (a type of spinning top, as dice were associated with gambling) and moves from city to city around the board. The board is accompanied by text giving facts about each city that must be read at each stop which at times requires the player to stay a little longer. For example, a stop in Southampton which is “a charming sea bathing place, and noted for its port wine” means “the tourist must therefore stop one turn to take a bottle.”

Middleton's New geographical game of a tour through England and Wales. Map by M. Middleton, 1820. Geography and Map Division.

Middleton’s New geographical game of a tour through England and Wales. Map by M. Middleton, 1820. Geography and Map Division.

The board game craze crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made its way to the United States in the early 19th century. Setting out from their father’s bookstore in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Frederick and Roe Lockwood,  moved to New York City in the late 1810s to start their own publishing business. There, in 1822, they published the earliest known board game made in the United States, The traveller’s tour through the United States, seen below. In the following years, with the success of their first game, the Lockwoods published expanded boards of both Europe and the world.

Very similar in structure to its European counterparts, the game depicts the United States, including the fairly new states of Missouri and Maine, as well as the large unorganized territories in the west. Like previous geographic games, the player must follow a path around the country where on the arrival at a new city, the player must correctly name the place and, in this case, its population, or lose a turn and try again. The first player to make it to the city of New Orleans wins the game.

The traveller's tour through the United States. Published by F. & R. Lockwood, 1822. Geography and Map Division.

The traveller's tour through the United States. Published by F. & R. Lockwood, 1822. Geography and Map Division.

The traveller’s tour through the United States. Published by F. & R. Lockwood, 1822. Geography and Map Division.

Geographic board games continued to be a popular form of entertainment throughout the 19th century with the details growing more sophisticated as printing technology improved. The game below, Rambles Through Our Country- An Instructive Geographical Game for the Young, is a beautiful chromolithograph, made in 1890, made using a colored printing process that was developed during the second half of the century. On a close inspection of the illustrations on the map, there are many fascinating details to be found about the cultural perceptions of the time. The accompanying rules and instruction booklet is 113 pages! Fortunately, the booklet is available online from the Internet Archives.

Rambles Through Our Country – An Instructive Geographical Game for the Young. Chromolithograph published by Schaefer & Weisenbach, Litho., copyrighted 1890. Prints and Photograph Division.

Rambles Through Our Country – An Instructive Geographical Game for the Young. Published by Schaefer & Weisenbach, Litho., copyrighted 1890. Prints and Photographs Division.

By the late 19th century, board games were a fixture in most American homes. However, the focus of board games shifted away from scholarship and education to espousing the American dream of becoming rich and successful, as evidenced by the popularity of Monopoly, made in 1935 and one of the best selling board games of all time. While these games are probably not played much today, they still offer a fascinating glimpse into a piece of the world in the 19th century.

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