Backgammon game, foldable wooden box, Ivory and ebony inlay, maker unknown, early 19th century.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Silvia Thyzel

Brettspiele im Wandel der Zeit

Learn about the historical board games that are stored in our toy collection’s depot, inaccessible to the public.

Even in the digital age, board games are just as important when it comes to social interactions: played with family, friends and acquaintances, and often even with strangers, they’re a great way to combat boredom and bring us closer together, especially during the dark, winter months.

For as long as humankind has existed, people have been playing either alone, in teams or against each another. Game boards were present in different parts of the world from very early on. One of the oldest board games ever discovered was found in a grave in Ireland and dates back to the Bronze Age (approx. 2000 BC). In Egypt, for example, various game boards were found engraved on the roof slabs of the Temple of Qurna (around 1400 BC). Old board games, many of which we now only know what they looked like, have long been forgotten, some are still familiar to us, while others have been given new names.

When is a board game a board game?

Germany currently has the largest international “gaming community”. More than 200 new games come into the market every year. The best games have been awarded the “Spiel des Jahres” [Game of the Year] critics’ choice award since 1979 and the “Deutschen Spiele Preis” [German Games Award], which is decided by the public, since 1990.
“Asalto“, maker unknown, circa 1850. Asalto, also known as the “Assault Game”, was one of the most popular games of the 18th and 19th centuries. One team would have to defend the fortress, while the other would try to attack and occupy it.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Silvia Thyzel
Asalto games were sold by all leading game publishers well into the 20th century. Its origin lies in old, traditional board games. Over time, fox games, such as “foxes and geese” and “wolves and sheep”, became games featuring soldiers.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Silvia Thyzel
This abundance of forms, types and variants, of different materials and rules, doesn’t only relate to board games, but also countless card games and games of skill, as well as hybrid games, thus leading to a confounding medley of concepts. A look at the more recent history of games will help get us through this thicket.
Chess (here, made of wood with inlays) is considered the epitome of board games.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Silvia Thyzel

As early as the 19th century, when numerous new games for “the education and entertainment of both young and old” were created, the character of the games changed and numerous variations were created. The classic board games (such as chess, draughts, Nine Men’s Morris, Go, Pachisi, mancala, bagh-chal, backgammon, etc.) were joined by modern board games (such as Asalto, Halma, Salta, ” Volldampf voraus” [Full Steam Ahead], followed by ludo and “Monopoly”). In addition, games with a wide variety of forms and content are created, both with and without a game board, including simulation games and solitaire, table-top games, card games, tile-based games (including puzzles), games of chance, games of skill, ball games to name but a few.

From competition to collaboration

The classic board games are primarily games of strategy during which two teams usually move gaming pieces around on a game board. They battle it out with cunning, deceit and aggression, conquer, get rich and try to skilfully manipulate or subdue their opponent. Power struggles are fought out on the game boards, just as they do in the real world.

The “Kaiserreise nach Nord und Süd“ [The Kaiser’s Journey to the North and South] (1888) is a classic race game.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Silvia Thyzel
Another type of traditional board game is the race game, in which players compete against each other to get their gaming pieces to a given goal while overcoming obstacles. The outcome of these games isn’t primarily determined by intelligence, skill or other abilities, but also by luck.
Modern games, on the other hand, focus more on working together instead of competing against each other. The focus is usually no longer battling and competing, but rather setup, development and cooperation. In order to constantly invent new games, mixing different types of games together and adding and adapting new elements is inevitable. Questions have to be answered, cards drawn, pictures put together or strange activities performed.
Wilhelm II. Kaiserreise nach Nord und Süd“ [Kaiser Wilhelm II‘s Journey to the North and South], manufacturer’s mark AK, Nuremberg 1888
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Silvia Thyzel

What’s also interesting is that current topics and ideological views have always been the subject of games: Imperial splendour reigned around 1900, the Nazi regime propagated militarism, during the oil crisis players became “oil magnates” and in the 1980’s people separated – ” Ene mene Müll” [Eeny, Meeny Rubbish]  – waste paper from waste glass.