board games are a universal language

The board game is a sort of universal language, recognizably familiar, bearing implications of play and interaction. Though we don’t always know the rules, we are often able to infer a great deal simply from the board.

This stone game board is nearly 5000 years old. It was found near Arad, Israel, and dates to the Early Bronze Age, 3000–2650 BCE. It was found with no rule book, yet we can still make a pretty good guess as to how it was played.

Designer Joe Kowalski plays on this idea with his Impossible Games, featured recently on BoingBoing, crafting a series of boards games that tell stories.

Joe says:

Last month I was asked to participate in an art show. I was told was that I’d be receiving some objects, and I was to craft a response to them using whatever medium I wanted. A week later, I received a package. It contained a cryptic telegram from the 1960s, a disc with an atom icon carved into it, and a metal ruler that measured days rather than distance.

I pondered these objects for a while. Each of them seemed to be designed to be part of a larger story. The disc in particular reminded me of a piece from a board game. And I started thinking of board games, and how the boards themselves are these weird, linear story maps. Presented without the accompanying rules or pieces, the viewer must try to infer what the game wants from those that play it.

Most games have pretty clear goals, pretty simple stories. Not these ones. They’re as much a mystery as the objects that inspired them, but they have their own stories.

Here’s the description I wrote for the gallery:

Impossible Games

Here are four unplayable board games. They are unplayable because aside from being mounted to a wall, they appear to be missing important pieces.

Closer examination reveals unusual, sometimes masochistic instructions.

These games tell stories using the language of board games. Each story is told both by what is present and what is not. Good luck.

What’s in the box?

What stories do you read in these mysterious game boards?


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