Why do we play board games? Let’s ask these nice medieval Celtic literary characters.

[This is the first of a few blog posts in which I try and workout why my two loves Celtic literature and games often leave me cold when they are combined. Before we can start talking about the games we play now, I think we should start with how games were thought to be played in the literature.]

I want you to imagine each hex produces brick, lumber, wool, grain, or ore. Now where are my dice?

Impulse Control.

Have you ever wanted to stab your friend over a game of monopoly? Smash their face into the Risk board? Shove the thief from Settlers of Catan somewhere unmentionable? You are not alone. Games can end very badly in medieval Irish literature.

A year before these events in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Bricriu had come from one province to another begging from Fergus, and Fergus had retained him in his service waiting for his chattels and wealth. And a quarrel arose between him and Fergus as they were playing chess, and Bricriu spoke very insultingly to Fergus. Fergus struck him with his fist and with the chessman that he held in his hand and drove the chessman into his head and broke a bone in his skull.

(Táin Bó Cúalnge Recension 1, ed. and trans. by Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin, 1976), p. 237)

I have been thinking recently about why I play board games. Why I spend so much time and money with cardboard and plastic and the most polyhedral of dice. As the quote above shows the medieval Irish also spent much time playing board games. Maybe they can offer some answers to the question of why we play. At the very least I have taken this opportunity to collect some examples of board gaming from medieval Celtic literature. So that’s nice.

Passing the Time.

Maybe I play because I am bored. Certainly games are used to pass the time. Cú Chulainn and his charioteer play games of fidchell while Cú Chulainn is guarding the border of Ulster from the men of Ireland. War is mostly waiting, after all.

Like this, but with more blood
Playing board games is also a common background scene. Cú Chulainn upsets Fergus and Conchobar having a game when he chases the boys of Emain Macha through the palace. The scene is reversed in Aided Celtchar when Celtchar chases Blaí into Emain, interrupting Cú Chulainn and Conchobar at a game.

Celtchar also went until he was on the floor of the royal house. There were Conchobar and Cú Chulainn playing a game of fidchell; and Blái the Hospitaller’s chest was over the play-board between them. And Celtchar plants a spear through him so that it stuck in the wattle of the wall behind him, so that a drop (of blood) from the point of the spear fell upon the board.

‘Forsooth, Cú Chulainn!’ said Conchobar. ‘Indeed, then, Conchobar!’ said Cú Chulainn. The board is measured from the drop hither and thither to know to which of them it was nearer. Now the drop was nearer to Conchobar, and it was the longer till revenge. [blogger’s note: that means Conchobar is the one insulted and has to take revenge. It is longer because Cú Chulainn has a habit of killing people on the spot]

(The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes, ed. Kuno Meyer (Dublin, 1906) pp. 24-25)

But this can’t be the whole picture. It’s not just a response to boredom, it has deeper meaning. It can reflect the power plays at work in society on the micro-level. That is why it is important that Láeg beats Cú Chulainn every second game and that the ridiculous image of two great heroes of Ulster arguing who should take responsibility for the crime by resorting to “You touched it last” “Yeah but you’re closer” has serious mortal consequences. We cannot be satisfied with the pastime answer, so let’s have a look at the power angle.

Power! The Absolute Power!

There are two things to address here. One, if board games are about power, maybe they tell us something about society, maybe we like seeing daily struggles performed in a safe arena. Two, if board games are about power do we enjoy the power that comes with winning?

Feels good to be the captain. Or king. Or nobleman in general.
Board gaming is a pastime of the rich. Today you can spend inordinate sums on games and boards and medieval Celtic literature has many a description of a board whose squares are gold and silver and whose playing pieces are bronze. But even the ability to play board games is tied to class. One of the skills taught to the sons of nobleman was board gaming. This skill, like horse riding, was not taught to the sons of free-men. Board gaming was also one of the three ways the legendary king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, was said to spend his day:

This is how Conchobor spends his time of sovereignty: one third of the day spent watching the youths, another third playing fidchell, another third drinking ale till he falls asleep therefrom.

(Táin Bó Cúalnge Recension 1, ed. and trans. by Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin, 1976), p. 136)

That would get boring after a while but it does have its temptations. We can agree that board games can be objects of beauty to delight the eye, but I don’t think anyone plays board games today to assert their class superiority. But humanity is inventive in the ways it will let you down.

What about the sheer joy of winning? Much is wagered and won by Midir in Tochmarc Étaíne ‘The Wooing of Étaín’. Through complex, magical ways the Otherworldy being Midir has lost his wife, who has been born again as wife to king Eochaid of Leinster. Over the course of a few nights’ gaming Midir tricks Eochaid into gambling away his wife:

‘Shall we play at chess?’ said Midir. ‘What shall the stake be?’ said Eochaid. ‘The stake that either of us shall wish,’ said Midir. That day Eochaid’s stake is taken. ‘Thou hast taken my stake,’ said Eochaid. ‘Had I wished I could have taken it before now,’ said Midir. ‘What wouldst thou from me?’ said Eochaid. ‘My arms around Étaín and a kiss from her,’ said Midir.

(Tochmarc Étáine, ed. Osborn Bergin and R. I. Best (Dublin, 1913) p. 181)

The king opens the episode by saying how good at fidchell he is, which would be expected of a lord. Yet he cannot win the final game because right is not on his side, the power struggle between these two men has shifted onto the game board. That Eochaid then meets his loss with actual violence, is something we need not dwell on.

midir meme
There should be more Middle Irish memes
In Welsh literature, the theme of violence displaced onto a board game is found in Breudwyt Rhonabwy ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’. Rhonabwy has a dream of the Arthurian court and a long passage of the tale describes a game of gwyddbwyll played by Arthur and Owein. While they play various messengers come to Owein to say that his ravens are being harassed and killed by Arthur’s men. When he asks Arthur to call the men off Arthur merely responds with “Your move”. Eventually the ravens get the upper hand in the battle and when Arthur asks Owein to call them off, the knight responds “Your move, my lord” and they play on. This is how the piece ends:

[The rider] asked him to have Owein call the ravens off. Arthur asked Owein to do so, and he squeezed the gold men on the board until they were nothing but dust; then Owein ordered Gwres son of Rheged to lower the banner, and when this was done there was peace on both sides.

(The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz (Penguin, 1976) p. 189)

The game parallels the fighting and hides Owein’s overt violence and power play against the king. Whatever the full meaning of the dream the game played in it is not only a game.

No Fun Like Organised Fun.

Although men and hyper intelligent ravens die in Breudwyt Rhonabwy the competition is a bit of a farce. It is funny and board games are funny. At the very least they should be fun. In Celtic literature humour is never far away from the death and bloodshed and games often create a space for it. There is fun is Midir’s tricking wordplay. The image of Fergus shoving a gaming piece into Bricriu’s skull has slapstick intensity. It is while playing fidchell with his charioteer that Cú Chulainn gets a slam in about Fergus’s “empty scabbard”, if you know what I mean.

Everything is, or can represent, a penis

At that time Cú Chulainn was playing draughts with Láeg: the back of his head was towards them and Láeg was facing them. ‘I see two chariots coming towards us,’ said Láeg. ‘There is a tall dark man in the first chariot. He has dark bushy hair. He wears a purple cloak in which is a golden brooch, and a hooded tunic with red insertion. He carries a curved shield with a scalloped rim of white gold. In his hand he holds a broad spear with perforations from point to upper shaft. Across his thighs a sword as long as a boat’s rudder.’ ‘That great rudder carried by my master Fergus is empty,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘for there is no sword in the scabbard, only a sword of wood. I have been told,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘that Ailill came unawares upon Fergus and Medb as they slept, and he took away Fergus’s sword and gave it into the keeping of his charioteer, and a wooden sword was put into its scabbard.’ At that point Fergus arrived.

(Táin Bó Cúalnge Recension 1, ed. and trans. by Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin, 1976), p. 161)

Games and gaming create a humorous space that the literature takes advantage of and that we would all be better off bearing in mind the next time we end up take Risk too seriously.

The Final Throw of the Dice.

I think we all know that it is for all these reasons and more. That board games work so well, entice so many, waste so much time because they are a magic combination of fun, competition, card, and people. A board game on its own is nothing, but the presence of people to play it with breathes such life into the inanimate object which, in turn, gives so much joy to those people.

We have seen that most of the games played in medieval Celtic literature are about more than the game. Arthur and Owein play the game but also play with the lives of their followers. Midir plays a long con to get his wife back. I could not talk about board games and subtext without mentioning The Thomas Crown Affair and even this has a parallel in medieval Irish literature.

thomas crown
Fergus is sleeping with Medb, Ailill’s wife. Ailill knows about this and has one of his servants steal Fergus’ sword while he is otherwise occupied with Medb. In its place Fergus now has a useless wooden sword. The two men discuss infidelity, impotence, and who is really in charge over a game of fidchell. You can tell the conversation is tricksy and allusive because of all the poetry:

“Now sit down,”Ailill said, “and we will play fidchell. You are very welcome

You play fidchell and buanbach

with a king and queen

ruling the game

their eager armies

in iron companies

all around them

not even if you win

can you take my place

I know all

about queens and women

I lay first fault

straight at women’s

own sweet swellings

and loving lust

valorous Fergus

coming and going

with cattle bellowings

and huge forces

all over Finnabair’s

rich places

in kingly form

with fire of dragon

hiss of snake

blow of lion

thrusting out in front

Roech’s son Fergus

grandson of Rus

the king of kings

(The Táin, trans. Thomas Kinsella (Oxford, 1969) pp. 105-106)

Any play of any game is a complex combination of what is in the box and what each player brings to the table. Now you can bring these images and anecdotes to whatever table you end up at. Will this make your game better? I don’t know, but probably, yeah.