A new show at the V&A Museum of Childhood examines the origins and developments of a variety of board games spanning thousands of years. 

BY DAN DURAY

"A homemade Beatrix Potter-themed game of Snakes and Ladders from the 1930s." (Photo: Courtesy Virginia and Albert Museum, London)"

"A homemade Beatrix Potter-themed game of Snakes and Ladders from the 1930s." (Photo: Courtesy Virginia and Albert Museum, London)"

 "The set for the game Mousetrap manufactured in the 1990s by American company Ideal Toy Co. (Photo: Courtesy of Amy King and the Virginia and Albert Museum, London)"

 "The set for the game Mousetrap manufactured in the 1990s by American company Ideal Toy Co. (Photo: Courtesy of Amy King and the Virginia and Albert Museum, London)"

For most who played board games growing up, it’s a reasonable assumption that any greater truths they reveal stop at family politics. Yet there is information to be gleaned about our collective history as well. Such is the premise of a show opening today at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, “Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered” (through April 23). The show features some 120 games from around the world, the most recent of which are new enough to incorporate electronics, while the oldest, dating to 1550 B.C., is the Egyptian game of Senet, an ancestor of backgammon. Also on display is a 19th century English set of the Game of the Golden Goose, a descendent of 16th century Italy’s Il Gioco dell’Oca. That game introduced the premise of players racing to finish an imagined journey (think Candy Land). Separately, an entire section of the exhibition is devoted to chess sets. In her research for the show, assistant curator Esther Lutman became interested in how board games reflect the societies that invented or embraced them. Games from 18th-century Britain were often produced by map makers and publishers, who crafted them into beautiful design objects, but their aim was moral instruction. Consider how the karmic implications of Snakes and Ladders, which originated in India up to 2,000 years ago, appealed to British colonizers, who brought the game back home, ever-so-slightly rebranded to suit Victorian-era Christianity. Today, popular strategy games like Settlers of Catan are geared more toward entertainment, but this, too, is worth considering. “The idea that adults in a contemporary society are allowed to play is a new idea,” Lutman said. “Our parents lived in an era where you grew up, got married, got a job, and then old people had hobbies. But now, with young people, play is allowed.” Finally: a museum show that celebrates adult immaturity.