New to the Game

Clue, Monopoly, Mousetrap, Sorry!. Whatever you played as a kid, board games feel intrinsic to childhood. But a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art reminds us this wasn’t always the case. 

Instruction & Delight: Children’s Games from the Ellen and Arthur Liman Collection, curated by Elisabeth Fairman with Laura Callery, offers up a small but fascinating display of 18th- and 19th-century British board games. Collected by Arthur Liman, a 1957 Yale Law School graduate and namesake of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law, and his wife, Ellen, a painter, the games were among the first of their kind in Britain. These amusements were created as “parents and teachers [began] to embrace wholeheartedly a suggestion from the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) that ‘Learning might be made a Play and Recreation to Children,’” according to the exhibition’s introductory panel.

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The game boards—hand-colored paper engravings and lithographs mounted on linen—are lively and enticing, drawing the viewer in to examine their intricate details. The linen backings gave the playing surfaces durability as they were folded into packaging such as cloth slipcovers or book covers, which are also on display.

Learning as play is a common theme among them. In Why, What, and Because; or, the Road to the Temple of Knowledge, players must answer questions about the science of the natural world—covering topics such as “Thunder” and “Dew”— in order to advance. Crowned Heads, or, Contemporary Sovereigns: An Instructive Game focuses on history, including identifying “the reigning monarchs” (Queen Victoria is enthroned at the top of the board) as well as historic events of several countries. The New Game of the Multiplication Table is straightforward in its educational aim; you won’t advance far if you haven’t mastered that most dreaded memorization requirement of childhood.

Other games are less overtly curricular, many of them following a travel theme, such as Wallis’s Tour of Europe, A New Geographical Pastime, which takes players on a virtual European tour, and The British Tourist: A New Game, a journey through “castles, country houses and other tourist sites” that ends at “His Majesty’s Cottage, Windsor.”

Whether or not a journey is part of the narrative, many of the games are laid out using a journey motif with a race to the finish, the kind familiar to us today in children’s games like Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. In one common design, the path spirals into a large, winning space in the center of the board: The Magic Ring, The Circle of Knowledge, The Mansion of Bliss. Along the way, players meet with obstacles and rewards. In Fortunio & His Seven Gifted Servants, created in 1846 and based on a popular play of the time, players land on spaces with instructions such as: “Take 3 for blowing away the emperor’s army” (meant literally, if an illustration is to be believed), “Take 2, to keep up your courage,” “Pay 2 for vain pride” and “Pay 2 for a good drink.”

The oldest game on display, The Royal Pastime of Cupid, or, Entertaining Game of the Snake, from 1794, sends players on a journey along the body of a snake toward Cupid’s Garden in the center, involving convoluted rules like, “He that throws upon 5 where the Bridge is, must pay passage, that is, lay down as much as he staked at the first, and so he must goe forward to rest on the Chair at 12, till all the rest have played once about.”

The Royal Pastime of Cupid makes specific note of “having a pair of Dice” and deciding “what to play for, which is to be lay’d down,” suggesting play for money. Most of the games, however, call for the use of teetotums: toplike devices which, when spun, land with one numbered side facing up. Teetotums were “commonly used in early board games instead of dice to avoid the association with gambling, an activity considered inappropriate for children,” an object label explains.

Though we give children dice without a second thought today, in some ways these old games seem quite contemporary. I couldn’t help seeing the modern version of Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life in 1840’s The Paths of Life, in which, if things go well, players end up at “Happy Old Age Hall,” situated on an inlet of Peaceful Ocean. Beware: The inlet isn’t far overland from Sinking Sands and Bottomless Pit, where less fortunate players will end the game.

Like the games of our own childhoods, with their stepped-on boxes and banged-up corners and pieces gone missing down the hot air register, the games of this era, Arthur Liman wrote, are “rare because they often perished at the hands of children.” But the Limans’ game boards are pristine, beautiful objects. Of particular note is the fact that their instructions are intact, which helps curators “reconstruct the experiences of the original owners,” writes A. Robin Hoffman, a scholar of children’s literature and 19th-century British print culture, who calls the Liman Collection “an historical document in its own right.”

Donated to Yale mainly in the summer of 2018, the collection numbers 50 games in total, half of which are on display in Instruction & Delight. More can be seen in a beautifully illustrated companion book, Georgian and Victorian Board Games: The Liman Collection (Pointed Leaf Press, 2017). In that book’s preface, Ellen Liman remembers fondly the real-life journey of hunting down these rare finds in antique stores, yard sales, auctions, flea markets and fairs—a serious hobby that, at the same time, was “a form of a second childhood.” Adding another charming layer of intrigue to the collection, she writes, “We were always the earliest in the morning to arrive, often in the dark, with flashlights in hand, to beat out any competition.”

Though it might have been tempting, the Limans never played the games themselves. They were rare and “beautiful little works of art,” Ellen says, adding, “We were busy, avid collectors and we didn’t really have a lot of time to sit down and play them.” But game enthusiasts have their own opportunity try out some of these gems. Five are reproduced nearly full-scale in Georgian and Victorian Board Games. The original instructions are included and, like the players of yore, you can supply your own markers—Liman suggests peanuts or coins—and dice or, if you have one, a teetotum.

Just watch out for Smugglers’ Lane and Ruination Row.

Instruction & Delight: Children’s Games from the Ellen and Arthur Liman Collection
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through May 23, 2019
(877) 274-8278
www.britishart.yale.edu/…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images, cropped to fit, provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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