Nolan Bushnell, the video game pioneer who invented Pong in the early 1970s, explained the game's runaway popularity by noting that it was "very simple to learn, difficult to master" [source: Singleton]. But Bushnell's theorem, as that principle came to be known in the electronic entertainment industry, actually was no more than a reflection of wisdom that predates our gadgetry by thousands of years.
In an ancient Assyrian carving now in the British Museum, for example, palace guards are shown passing the time by playing the Game of Twenty Squares, invented in the city of Ur in southern Iraq about 4,600 years ago [source: BBC]. That same game is still played today, as are scores of others in which humans toss dice, shuffle cards, and move pieces around boards in pursuit of what might seem to be the simplest of objectives -- but which, if one's opponent is sufficiently skilled and wily, often turn out to be maddeningly difficult.
That seeming paradox is what makes classic games, from chess and checkers to the Asian game of Go, so perennially appealing. As author Jesse Schell explains in his book "The Art of Game Design," such games have what he terms "emergent complexity," in that their simple rules allow players the flexibility to create a multitude of intricate scenarios. At the same time, these games also incorporate small, measured amounts of what Schell calls "innate complexity" -- that is, subtle restrictions that make them more difficult.
Here are 10 prime examples of these seemingly simple, yet delightfully complex, games.
There's a legend that, instead of fighting an invading army, an ancient Buddhist ruler of Tibet avoided bloodshed by challenging the leader to a game of Go. Whether or not that actually happened, Go, which may have originated in China, has been a popular pastime in Asia for some 3,000 years.
At first glance, the game appears beguilingly simple. Two players -- one equipped with white stones, the other with black ones -- sit down at opposite sides of a board consisting of a basic 19-line-by-19-line grid, and take turns placing stones on the vacant intersection points. A player wins by claiming more intersections than his or her opponent and /or by surrounding and capturing more of the opponent's pieces than the opponent takes.
The tension between those two different ways of scoring, and the seemingly endless strategic and tactical options that arise, are what makes the game so appealing. While it looks easy to play, in practice, Go is so challenging that, so far, no one has been able to program a computer to play the game more skillfully than the best human masters [source: International Go Federation].
Backgammon is one of the world's oldest games. Archaeologists discovered a board and pieces beneath the rubble of the ancient Burnt City in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province, which dates back to 3000 B.C. [source: Payvand Iran News]. It also was played by the Romans, who called it Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum ("the 12-sided game"). And it became a popular diversion among American college students in the 1970s.
Backgammon's appeal, in part, lies in its symmetrical minimalism -- two players, each armed with 15 pieces called stones -- try to move them in opposite directions around a board divided into quadrants, along a path of 24 points connected by lines, and then remove them all from the board. The number of points a player can move a stone is determined by the roll of the dice, which gives backgammon the appearance of being a game of luck. In truth, chance determines the outcome only when two players are of identical levels of ability, according to the enthusiasts' Web site Backgammon.org, which offers an extensive library of articles on backgammon tactics and strategy. The ability to perform mathematical calculations in one's head and analyze the impact of various options is one thing that separates the best players from dabblers [source: Simborg].
In the West, Shogi is sometimes called "Japanese chess." It was invented around the same time -- the oldest known pieces were found in a temple built in Horyuji in the 7th century A.D. But it developed separately from the version of chess that became popular in Europe.
There are some obvious similarities between the two games. Shogi and chess both have the same basic object -- to checkmate the enemy's king -- and they both are played on boards that are grids of alternating squares, with rows of pieces that symbolize medieval armies (though the Japanese game denotes the pieces with written characters, rather than carvings of figures). And both games are played by young schoolchildren and adults alike in elite competitions.
But that's pretty much where the similarities end. Shogi's rules are very different from Western chess and are designed to allow opportunities for a player who seems to be losing to reverse his or her fortune. After taking an enemy piece, for example, a player can add it to his or her army and place it on any space on the board. (Ownership of a piece is denoted by the direction in which it is facing.) Additionally, pieces can receive battlefield promotions once they reach certain squares, which gives them additional abilities. As gaming author Jack Botermans notes, "You can never be sure you are actually winning until you capture the enemy king" [source: Botermans].
The origins of the domino -- a small, flat, rectangular block of wood or bone, with one blank side and the other usually marked by an arrangement of spots, called pips -- is a bit murky. The oldest known domino set, found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, dates back to 1355 B.C., and the medieval Chinese apparently played dominoes, as well, before they showed up in Europe sometime in the mid-1700s [source: Armanino].
Today, European and American domino sets generally have 28 pieces, each marked with a different configuration of pips, such as 6-5, 4-0 or 3-1. They're used to play a variety of different games -- for example, Muggins, the most popular American game. Two to four players are involved. The dominoes are shuffled facedown on the table, and players draw for the lead, with the "heaviest" piece -- that is, the one with the most pips -- winning the chance to go first. Each player than randomly draws the number of pieces required for the game (in American games, usually seven). The lead player then lays down a piece, usually the one with the most pips. The other player or players have the opportunity to match it with a similarly valued piece, or to pass. The laying down of pieces continues until someone plays all of his or her pieces; the winner gets a number of points equivalent to the pips on the pieces remaining in the other players' possession. The first player to 50 or 100 wins.
While most casual players probably assume that the outcome of a dominoes game is mostly the luck of the draw, hard-core dominoes enthusiasts develop complex strategies, based on intricate mathematical computations that they perform in their heads, which dictate when to play pieces with various pip counts [source: Yates].
What could be simpler than a game that requires no equipment, except for a set of limbs, facial muscles, and a mouth, tongue and vocal cords for shouting out guesses? Charades is a game in which one player wordlessly pantomimes a word or phrase drawn from a hat -- often the title of a book or movie -- for teammates to try to guess.
The origins of charades are a bit obscure; the name may come from the Italian word schiarare, which means "to disentangle," or schiarato, which translates as "clear" or "unraveled" [source: Cantab]. But by the late 1800s, it had become a popular pastime among affluent ladies' luncheon groups and gatherings of male artists and intellectuals alike. An 1896 dispatch published in The New York Times bemusedly describes a club of young male intellectuals in Chicago who staged regular public events, in which they pantomimed current events suggested to them by members of the audience [source: The New York Times].
But while the rules of charades are relatively simple -- basically, you can't speak what you are trying to convey, or use gestures to spell it out -- the game can be devilishly difficult, if it's played by competitors who delight in filling the hat with exceedingly complex or obscure words or phrases, or ones that are too abstract to portray visually with ease.
Like dominoes, checkers -- also known as draughts -- dates back at least several thousand years to Egypt, where archaeologists have found familiar-looking round pieces and boards marked with grids of squares in ancient tombs [source: Walker]. In 360 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato also mentioned the game in his book "The Republic." He asks, "But is the just man or the skillful player a more useful and better partner in the game of draughts?" [source: Plato]. The game survived the decline of the Hellenic world, and eventually resurfaced in Renaissance Europe, where the first checkers rule manual was published in 1549.
Today, there are different versions of the game, including Standard American checkers, which is the one played in the United States. In the American game, players face off on either side of a 64-square board, each armed with 12 pieces. The game's object is to capture all of the opposing player's pieces by jumping over them, or to leave him or her with no legal moves. Initially, a piece can only move forward diagonally, until it reaches the row closest to the opponent, which is known as the "king's row." At that point, a piece is "crowned," and can move either forward or backward [source: American Checker Federation].
Rules-wise, checkers is so simple that even U.S. tournament-level completion has just 16 relatively terse regulations. But that's deceiving because elite players use tactics and strategies with names such as "the double-ended trapping trio trick" and the "forced capture policy" that rival chess masterminds' gambits in complexity [source: Checkers-strategy.com].
The origins of this board game are enveloped in murky Victorian-era miasma. By some accounts, Reversi was invented in 1870 by an Englishman named J.W. Mollett, who originally called it the Game of Annexation [source: Wood]. But another Englishman, Lewis Waterman, claimed to have invented the game as well. In 1887, he registered the name "Reversi" as a trademark, and then obtained a court injunction against Mollett's publisher, F.H. Ayres. Ultimately, Waterman lost his case, when an appeals court decided that the name, which apparently was borrowed from an earlier French card game, was not a "fancy" (i.e., original) word under British law, and thus could not be trademarked [source: Law Times]. To make things ever more confusing, in 1971, a Japanese salesman named Goro Hasegawa invented a similar but not quite identical game, Othello, named after a Shakespearian character that undergoes a dramatic reversal of fortune [source: Time, Associated Press].
Fortunately, compared to its tangled history, the basic game concept is much more straightforward. It's played on a grid with 64 spaces, exactly the same number as the total pieces (each player gets 32). Once the game starts, the players take turns adding pieces to the board, with the restriction that they can only place them on squares that are adjacent to one of their opponent's pieces, and there can only be one piece on each square. In addition, a player can only place a piece on the board after capturing an opponent's piece, by trapping it between two of his or her own pieces. Captured pieces can change sides multiple times during the game as well [source: Botermans]. That simple-yet-complex format allows skilled players to develop elaborate gambits, such as simultaneous multiple captures, and makes the game a favorite among brainy college math and science whizzes.
In the Indian game of Pachisi, two to four players move pieces known as pawns around a cruciform board and reach their home square, or charkoni. The game dates back to approximately the 6th century A.D. and is closely related to another Indian game, chaupar. The name is the Hindi and Urdu word for 25, which is the highest number that players originally could roll with the cowrie shells that they once used as dice [source: Botermans].
The 16th-century emperor Akbar was a fanatical devotee of the game. When Akbar built a new capital for himself at Fatehpur Sikri, he included a giant stone board, on which he played marathon games lasting as long as three months, using slave girls dressed in colorful costumes as live pieces [source: Abram]. A century or so later, English travelers brought the game back from India to Europe. The game's concept was so appealing that it inspired clones such as the English game Ludo and Americanized versions such as Parcheesi, which was first copyrighted by E.G. Selchow and Co. in 1869, and is now made by Hasbro [source: University of Waterloo].
On a superficial level, pachisi seems simple to play, but skilled players use complex tactics and strategy, such as using pawns to erect barriers for opponents and capturing an opponent's pawns, forcing them to start over. Another factor that adds complexity is that in the four-person game, players form partnerships. Even after a player's pawns have reached the charkoni, he or she will continue to assist the partner, running pawns on additional laps and teaming up to form barriers for the other two players [source: Botermans].
In Scrabble, one of the most popular board games of all time, players use tiles with letters on them to spell out words on a grid, crossword-puzzle style. The idea is so clear and simple that you'd think some sage would have dreamed it up in antiquity. But in fact, the game originated in the 1930s, when an unemployed architect named Alfred Mosher Butts passed the time by creating a new word game.
Butts' inspiration was to combine the vocabulary skills required for crossword puzzles and anagrams with the additional element of chance. The methodical inventor studied the front page of The New York Times, and tabulated how often each of the alphabet's 26 letters were used. (Among other things, he discovered that vowels appear far more often than consonants, and that the vowel "E" was the most frequently used of all.) Based upon letters' frequency, he assigned different point values to them, concocted some simple rules, and then used his architectural drafting equipment to draw a board for a game that he initially called Lexico and then Criss-Cross Words, before he took on a partner, entrepreneur James Brunot, who helped him come up with a catchier moniker, Scrabble [source: Hasbro].
The game's enduring appeal is that while its concept is easy to understand, it's challenging to play because coming up with word combinations from a random assortment of letter tiles requires both intellectual agility and a big vocabulary. According to a 2004 New York Times article on the Scrabble subculture, the game's elite -- the 100 or so top tournament players -- have working vocabularies in excess of 120,000 words, which is three to four times that of the typical college graduate. As one top player noted in the article: "You can't really compete at the top level without knowing every word between two and nine letters" [source: Smith].
Chess, a stylized simulation of warfare that probably first originated in India in the 7th century A.D., may be the most universally popular board game ever created -- and one of the most addictive. As David Shenk recounts in his 2007 book "The Immortal Game," the French painter Marcel Duchamp, one of the most influential figures in 20th-century modern art, gradually became such an obsessive chess player that by his early thirties, he had virtually stopped producing art, so that he could devote virtually every waking minute to playing. "Everything around me takes the shape of the knight or the queen, and the exterior world has no other interest for me other than its transformation to winning or losing positions," he wrote [source: Shenk].
Chess has been an object of fascination and obsession for so many over the years because it embodies Bushnell's theorem; on the most basic level, it's so simple that elementary-school children can learn its rules, such as the diagonal-only movement of bishops and the king's ability to move only one square at a time. At the same time, that simple structure gives virtuosos the ability to conceive and perform complex strategies. While chess is often thought of as a mathematical game, experts say the real contest is often a psychological one, in which players scrutinize one another for subtle cues and tendencies that predict behavior and reveal weaknesses. As Soviet chess trainer Mark Dvoretsky once noted: "The opponent makes an apparently innocent move, but for some reason or another, he rouses our vigilance and promptly we discover the cunning that is concealed" [source: Avni].
Backgammon is a game of strategy and luck. Test your knowledge of the board game with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
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- Abram, David. "Rough Guide to India." Rough Guides. 2003. (July 27, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=kAMik_6LbwUC&pg=PA275&dq=pachisi&hl=en&ei=-g0wTtOoINT1gAf65IixAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=pachisi&f=false
- Armanino, Dominic C. "Dominoes: Popular Games, Rules and Strategy." Worlddomino.com. Undated. (July 26, 2011) http://www.worlddomino.com/history.htm
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