Im not even sure what I was looking for, but I found Damian on Twitter (I think). My best friend is a board game fanatic, so some text about “Traditional Board Games” caught my eye. As it turns out, I believe that I am a fan!! There is something cool about a strategy game that was played by the Vikings, or ancient Egyptians. Damain was kind enough to agree to an interview, and I think you will find it as fascinating as I do. Thanks a million Damian!! PS.. For our readers not familiar with the term “draughts” (me included), the word “Checkers” may be more familiar… So without any more bla bla bla…. Welcome to www.RenFestExperience.com Mr. Walker!!
1) What is your name, and what do you do?
I’m Damian Walker. I research historic board games, make and sell them, and write about them too. And when I need to pay the bills, I build web sites.
2) Tell us about yourself
I was born and grew up in Hull, a port in the English county of Yorkshire. Apart from a few short intervals in New Jersey, USA and in Manchester in north-west England, I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve been working in technology for most of my career, but recently branched out into traditional board games.
3) How did you get started?
About seven years ago I got interested in making my own games out of wood, for my friends and I to play. Since I don’t have a lot of money, I made the hobby self-financing: for any games that I enjoyed playing, I’d make a few more and put them on eBay. Eventually I built a web site, and it all grew from there.
4) Do you personally make each board game?
Yes. That’s part of what makes this fun, having complete creative control over the games that I make. I’m always trying to find time to make the process quicker, though. I stopped making my own pieces pretty early on, buying glass beads or pawns in for most of the games. And about six months ago I started buying pre-cut plywood boards, which saves time and looks a bit more professional.
5) How do you find historical games to reproduce.
I’ve been collecting good books on old board games, starting with the classic “A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess” by H. J. R. Murray, which I managed to get hold of while it was still affordable. Another good one still available is R. C. Bell’s “Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations”.
I sometimes find out about games on the world wide web, but I always try to find printed or academic sources for the games. So much on the web is made up from a mish-mash of imagination, wishful thinking and misinterpretation, and passed off as fact. I don’t want to be guilty of the same, so I tend to research these things more deeply till I can be certain the games are really historical and as accurate as possible.
6) Of all the games that you discover, how do you decide which ones to manufacture.
Since I run on a low budget, I look at whatever I can make cheaply, especially with parts that I order regularly. Until recently I’d only make games that would work with glass beads as pieces (i.e. no stacking), and they’d be restricted by the width of the wooden planks I can pick up locally.
I’m still picking games from a list defined by the leaflets I wrote over the past eight or nine years, the free “Traditional Board Game Series” that you can pick up from my web site (http://www.cyningstan.com). There are sixty leaflets, and the advantage of me sticking with that list, for now, is that I’ve already done the work of researching the rules and setting out the leaflets.
7) What was the first game that got you interested?
I was intrigued by the ancient Egyptian game, senet, at an exhibition in a Manchester museum back in about 2000. A couple of years later I found the game in a library book back in Hull (J. Botermans, The World of Games), so I checked out the book and was hooked. Because senet died out in A.D. 400, the rules were lost, but there are clues in religious and other texts, and tomb paintings. All of this gives the game an air of mystery.
8) What is your favorite?
My favourite has to be hnefatafl. I like the four-way symmetry of the board. Though it’s described as an asymmeetrical game because the two sides are different, they’re arranged in a very symmetrical manner around the centre of the board, which looks fantastic as an ornament.
It was more than its looks that got me addicted to it, though. The rules are usually quite simple, closer to draughts than to chess. But because all the pieces have long moves (like the rook in chess), the choices you have at any given time are usually more numerous even than chess. This makes the game very deep.
9) Do the historical games have anything in common with currently available board games?
Both groups are extremely varied, so there are many things in common between them. Socially they occupy similar roles in life, as a sociable entertainment. Some historic games rise a little higher than this, like chess and go, but some modern games have their serious championship competitions: Scrabble is an example I can think of.
As for the mechanics of play, things have diversified a bit nowadays and the parallels are less marked. So many modern board games have a strong theme to them, being set in a particular time or place. And the new abstract games strive to make themselves different from the old, with new and interesting but sometimes complicated or tortuous rules for moving the pieces around.
10) Is there regional similarities in games?
Some games have their local following, if you can use the word “local” to talk about an entire continent. Mancala games in Africa is a good example, as are the many four-player race games in India (pachisi, thaayam and chaupur, for instance). And in historic times hnefatafl was a European thing. Some games did spread from one place to another and develop variants in their new home; chess, draughts and backgammon have all gone through this process and have had their own regional variations.
Of course nowadays there are fewer barriers, especially with the rise of the world wide web. Go is played all over the world, and I’ve even heard about hnefatafl being played by kids in the streets of Swaziland.
11) Are most of the games strategy, or just entertainment?
There’s a combination of both, probably equal. On the one hand you’ve got chess and draughts, which are strategic enough to warrant tournaments. But there are also games like the Mayan puluc and the renaissance Game of the Goose, which are pure luck and give the player no decisions to make; these games are just there to pass the time. And there’s a third type of game too, snakes & ladders, which originated in India as a game of moral teaching, with the ups and downs representing rewards and punishments.
12) How long have you been researching, creating, and selling historical board games.
Since about 2002, when I spotted that Botermans book in the local library.
Being broke at the time, I was attracted to the idea of “making my own entertainment” with bits and pieces easily picked up anywhere, and the book was full of that sort of thing. The fact that these games were hundreds or thousands of years old added to the attraction, as I’m generally interested in history and our links with the past.
I spent the first few years researching the games, writing about them and also writing software versions of them in Java, before starting to make and sell them in about 2007.
13) Where do you see your board game activities going in the future?
Currently I’m running two web sites on historic board games. One is “Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings” (http://tafl.cyningstan.org.uk), dedicated to just that one game. It’s mainly informational, but has a little shop. The other is “Cyningstan: Traditional Board Games” (http://www.cyningstan.com) which covers a wider range of games, and was relaunched in March. I’m still in the process of building that site up, so some games have more coverage than others.
14) By the way, why two sites? Why not have everything in one place?
My interest and research into hnefatafl goes very deep, and I’ve got a lot of information on the game. If I put it together with the other games, hnefatafl would dominate: a bit like have a sports site that was 80% hockey with everything else crammed into the remaining 20%. I thought it more sensible to keep hnefatafl on its own site.
15) Parting words for our readers?
If you haven’t played much other than chess or draughts, have a look at some of the other games from around the world. You’ll probably find them being played at a Renaissance Fair or other re-enactment event, or on special days at a museum. But beware: you may get as addicted to them as I am!
Thanks a million Damian!! I think that I am going to order my own hnefatafl!! Hope that you ship to the States!!!!