Long before the era of Candy Crush and Neko Atsume, the games that captured our attention were often the ones that required just a board, a dice or two, and a handful of tokens. The oldest known printed board game was also the most popular and enduring, played across Europe for centuries and evolving all the while. Known as the Game of the Goose, the classic version simply consisted of numbered squares forming a colorful track contained in the figure of a plump goose. Players roll the die and move accordingly until someone reaches the end — the winning square always number 63. Trouble or good fortune, of course, might surface along the way, causing tokens to either move backwards or advance.
“Although the game may appear trivial to modern eyes, to the medieval mind it had profound symbolic meaning as a game of life, based on its significant numerology,” says Adrian Seville, who has amassed hundreds of versions of the Game of the Goose. “For example, the number 63 symbolized the final crux of a human life leading to tranquility and wisdom.”
Seville has curated the exhibition The Royal Game of the Goose: Four Hundred Years of Printed Board Games, currently on view in the Grolier Club‘s ground floor gallery. Around 70 examples of games are on display, almost all from his personal collection and the majority of them produced in Europe. The original Game of the Goose has roots dating back to 15th-century Italy, but publishers in France, England, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands produced numerous variants that altered traditional details to suit their respective cultures, target specific audiences, or even reflect certain political climates. These took on a variety of material forms, from woodcuts to broadside sheets to engravings to lithographs.
For those wondering why the game’s original creators chose geese in the first place, Seville suggests in an accompanying catalogue that the goose was meant as a Christian symbol, representing “spiritual advancement, presumably by divine help.” Geese, he notes, are also considered tokens of good luck in Italy; some also argue that the birds represent “plenty” — material fortune.
The goose, however, gradually vanishes from the examples on view in the exhibition, with games adopting different visuals over time. The birds do surface, whether in a small gaggle on a game square or as the playing tokens, but what really persists is the game’s format, which yields a rich and captivating array of elaborately embellished boards that at first glance all seem like different games.
In a number of versions, a menacing serpent replaces the charming goose, such as in one from 1820 illustrating British and foreign birds. Each of its spaces, fitted in the body of a yellow snake, shows a bird and has instructions that reflect an aspect of the avian specimen’s character. Space two, for instance, featuring a peacock, instructs players to “stop one turn to view the beautiful plumage of this bird, and to ridicule its vanity.” Many of these boards, although intended for use during parties, conveyed such messages of morality. Another notable example is the Swan of Elegance, meant for children: one of its squares illustrates “Gluttonous Helen,” who chokes from eating too many mince pies; landing on it sends a player back several squares.
Other games stand as documents of history, such as those that political parties distributed to encourage voter turnout before an election or a game that advertises Coke as a healthy drink, produced by the soda company’s Canadian branch (in which landing on a square of green apples will send you backwards). There are even board games intended to advertise merchandise, such as a French game from a gas mantle manufacturer that features anthropomorphic lamps in its squares. Today, we’re far from abandoning the board game solely for screen-based amusements, but the Game of the Goose and all its iterations stand out not only for their intricate designs, but as games that offer much more than a means to socialize or pass the time.
The Royal Game of the Goose: Four Hundred Years of Printed Board Games, continues at the Grolier Club (47 East 60th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 14.