The Oxford History of Board Games
Sunday, 6th October 2013
For lovers of traditional board games, H. J. R. Murray's A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess, and R. C. Bell's Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, were the two classic works on the subject. Then in 1999 a third book appeared, that could claim to equal them: The Oxford History of Board Games by David Parlett.
The Oxford History of Board Games covers much the same territory as Murray's and Bell's books. It has a different character; it attempts to be as readable as Bell's book but has Murray's emphasis on historical accuracy. As much accuracy, that is, as is practical for a book covering hundreds of games; the research for this book, like the others, is wide and shallow rather than narrow and deep.
Hnefatafl gets eight of the 386 pages to itself. The section begins with a general description of the game covering, in greater depth than Murray, the variations between games. But it still states that the king is captured when surrounded on all four sides, in spite of the evidence of Robert ap Ifan which is examined later in the account.
After the lengthy description of the rules, archaeology and literature are covered. The historical discussion achieves a similar depth and detail to Murray's book, but benefits from more recent research. For instance, the 9x9 board from Jarlshof was not known to Murray.
The Oxford History of Board Games, like the other two classics, give proper references to aid further research. Many of the documents referred to are available now on the web. The book is also interesting for the introduction of at least one board layout, if not two. An elaborate 13x13 layout for 49 pieces appears in the volume, which the author confirms "was my conjecture.", and continues, "But it has been severely criticised, and I think improved upon, though I've forgotten where." The 7x7 layout for 25 pieces may have first appeared in this book too; I have not yet found an older source for it.
The book is now out of print, and very hard to obtain at a reasonable price, at least in paper form. I was lucky enough to get mine cheaply almost a decade ago, when it appears that the last stocks were being sold off. David Parlett offers an electronic version on his web site (http://www.davidparlett.co.uk/).
For eight pages on hnefatafl the book would be barely worth buying, even at a reasonable price; one would more profitably seek it out at a library. But for people interested in a variety of board games it has better value, and can stand proudly beside Murray's and Bell's works on the book shelf.