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One could measure progress by the collective number of “free-time” hours available. For this evaluation, let’s define “free-time” as hours spent on activities pursuing fun free of obligations of survival, station, education, employment or parenting. Looking at progress this way, we are “more advanced” now because we generate more free hours than ever. What is exciting is the number of people choosing gaming for those hours.
Games reflect progress because materials, industry & commerce have always driven the spread of gaming. Basically, if you could make a game or game piece out of it, humans have. When there is a new advancement, game designers put it to use and sell it to folks with free time. Senet was a Roll & Move game from Egypt around 3500 BCE. The board was made of clay and the earliest versions used two-sided sticks instead of dice. Dice wouldn’t find their way into the tombs of the pharaohs until 2000 BCE (even though the folks of the Tigris & Euphrates had them as early as 5000 BCE).
Paper Beats Rock
The invention of paper was a game changer in 200 BCE China, and a thousand years later playing cards will hit the table. This invention (around 800 CE depending on sources) will permanently tie the advancement and spread of gaming and gaming culture to print technology & trade. People with “free-time” tend to have funds to spend on free-time activities. Decks of cards became luxury items and traded as such. Once traded, the idea of playing cards was easy to replicate. The earliest card game was a trick-taking gambling game played by the Imperial court of China.
By the 11th century, hand-drawn or block-printed decks (already with 4 suits of 12 cards each) showed up across the Middle East and in Egypt and were likely taken by the crusaders and brought back to Europe. Though there’s little record of what is being played during this time period, it is believed to be some sort of plain trick taking game without trump.
Gutenberg and the Master of Playing Cards
Plague ravaged the 15th century, but through all this turbulence Johannes Gutenberg managed to invent the printing press. Gutenberg wasn’t the only one working on this innovation and so he kept his efforts a secret. But from what historians have been able to piece together, the entire effort may have taken him 20+ years and his journey took him from Mainz to Strasbourg and back. Gutenberg had a few side hustles to keep his project funded across so many years. One of which was printing copper engravings with someone history knows only as the Master of Playing Cards. Because Gutenberg was on the down-low about his efforts and playing cards were often banned as being immoral, little is known about the success of their partnership, but selling things to the wealthy on religious pilgrimage was good business.
The Renaissance & social mobility gives free-time to an entire new class of people and one of the things those folks want to do is game. By the 17th century, card printing was now enough of an industry that King James ordered a duty stamp added to every ace of spades showing the printing house.
According to Hoyle
This proliferation of cards & card players paved the way for Edmond Hoyle’s A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742. Hoyle sold his pamphlet to the well-to-do he tutored in card gaming. His original print run quickly sold out even though he charged 1 guinea for what was basically a pamphlet (that’s $320 today.) This caught the attention of an investor who paid 100 guinea to own the rights to reprint. This business venture was great for Hoyle but terrible for the printer; the pamphlet was quickly undersold by fakes & copies. Eventually, the official version came with Hoyle’s signature (which he charged his partner for.) Hoyle’s name was tied to the standard of how games were played, taught and shared. Publications bearing his name are still being printed almost 300 years later.
The French Revolution was Aces
At the turn of the 19th Century, the French Revolution altered trick taking games. Again social mobility, advanced more people into the middle class and with them came the notion that the Ace rather than the king should be the highest value card. Since the 1600’s the French deck was the standard for iconography and suits and in the 1800’s, this spirit of the revolution upended the hierarchy of card value. The 19th Century also elevated Cornelius Vanderbilt, ruthless steamship & rail tycoon. His fortune would allow his great-grandson Harold Stirling Vanderbilt to evolve Whist to its ultimate form.
20th Century and Monopolies
While the offset press made board games a medium for the masses in the 20th Century, serious gamers were playing Contract Bridge. This next iteration of Auction Bridge, Vanderbilt wrote Contract Bridge while stuck on steam ships in 1925. If “free-time” is a measure of progress, how many Vanderbilt’s a society produces is one indicator of advancement. With Vanderbilt’s wealth & excitement, Contract Bridge became THE game of the 1930’s & 1940’s and remained popular throughout the century with even Sports Illustrated having a Bridge column.
There are a few issues with a game being as good, deep, and popular as Bridge. #1. No one dares write anything else (what can compare to 400+ years of game development.) #2. The communities that embrace that game raise the barriers for entry. The mid-20th Century is about Monopoly’s in gaming. As the planet recovered from two World Wars, innovations in gaming will come from the likes of the Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and Mattel who published Uno. Things will change later as mimeographs and photocopies will help spread games like Dungeons & Dragons, Nuclear War, and Battletech.
Just as cheaper access to printing & graphic design technology became more widely spread, gaming became an electronic medium. With Sovranti being a digital board gaming platform, the history of video games is pretty critical, but for today’s topic let’s just say humans had a new medium to make games out of and it brought more people to gaming than ever. The 90’s brought us Magic: The Gathering which benefited from desktop publishing and cheaper printing methods. MTG massively influenced drafting games, but we’ll skip ahead another 30 years for trick taking games to capture public excitement again.
The Credit Card Bust was a Boom
The turn of the 21st Century, brought about the .com era & the credit card boom. The boom generated a massive influx of commercial printing presses. The older presses they replaced ended up overseas and combined with crowdfunding lead us to today’s gaming Golden Age. More people are playing games than ever before, inspiring more people to want to make them. Because card games are approachable and relatively cheap to make, they are getting a lot of love from game designers – new & established. Folks like Grandpa Beck Games are reinvigorating classic trick taking games with titles like Skull King. The Crew is changing the genre entirely by making trick taking a co-op experience.
With worldwide logistics being a mess, the next iteration of games might start on domestic, short run digital presses from people like the Game Crafter or Artiforge. Indie game experiments manufactured by companies like these might hold our gaming future, but we’ll see. If retail sales are an indicator, 2020 & 2021 will be the biggest years in board gaming ever. Many folks choose gaming for their free-time because it’s a great way to connect with others and it’s those connections that help us most when we need them.
Rating Trick Taking as a Game Mechanic
Approachability 4: Trick taking is good for gateway gamers who grew up with classic card games and now it’s become more accepted in gaming circles. I would still get buy-in from your players before you drop it on the table.
Depth/Customization 3: Trick taking has 1200 years of game development behind it and it still has potential.
Utility 2: The winner-takes-all nature of a trick makes it hard to utilize other places. It is almost always the core player action in games that have it.
Uniqueness 1: After roll & move, trick taking is one of the most common game mechanics considering the length of its history.
Next in the Game Mechanics Blog series we’ll discuss Worker Placement!
About the Author
Jason Wright – Founder, Sovranti
Jason has been leading IT development organizations for 25+ years and “enabling” his weekly game night group for 15. His wife still hasn’t found all the places he hides the board games. These two great passions collide to form Sovranti, a new online board gaming platform.
This is a repost of original blog article for a wider audience.