Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Counting to 74

Post 6 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
I recently came across this nice little set of coloured counters on Etsy during one of my occasional prospecting missions looking for interesting bits of gaming paraphernalia. This is a dangerous habit to get into, but slightly less dangerous to my wallet than trawling actual boardgame sites as long as I stay away from the vintage mahjong sets, so I let myself get away with it every now and then. These little guys drew my eye for three reasons.

The first is that they're obviously handmade and imperfect, and I've always been attracted to that sort of thing. Each has their own flaws which give them character and stories, this one has an overly large head, this one seems to have had a run in with the teeth of a small child, this one seems to have lost part of its base. They're in the sort of condition that my boss would call 'very East Oxford'. 

The second reason is that there's a little bit of a puzzle because they come in an odd set. There are eighteen each of the yellow and green pieces, and nineteen of the red and blue ones. Presumably there were once even numbers of each of the colours, but if so, how many are missing?

The only game that I can think of that would nineteen pieces per player would be Halma, a game invented in the 1880's that has largely been superseded by its successor, Chinese Checkers (it's neither Chinese, nor Checkers, discuss), though the original apparently retains some fans in Europe. I learnt the game of Chinese Checkers at daycare as a small child, where I was regularly crushed by a wizened chain-smoking grandmother who spoke little or no English, and as even then I disliked losing intensely I have never really liked it, and retain an inability to identify and take advantage of the jumping patterns in similar games to this day.

If you're familiar with Chinese Checkers, then thinking of Halma as a four-handed version of that played on an oversized chessboard is pretty accurate. It has the same jumping movement (though in 8 directions rather than 6), the same lack of captures, and the same goal of filling your opponent's home base with your pieces. In literature from the early 20th century, Halma is synonymous with boredom and time-wasting, and given that we're talking about a game-consuming public that thought that Monopoly was a rollicking good time, it's fair to say that if sitting down to a game of this it's best to lay on provisions.
Image copyright Retroactive-Vintage-Games.com
Sure enough, a little Googling reveals that there's a Gibson and Sons version of Halma from the 1950's with very similar pieces, but while it had 19 of two colours, it only had 13 of the others, since the four-player version is usually played with reduced numbers in order to attempt to reduce playing time. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that these were originally a Halma set, potentially from another publisher, since copyright on games was a bit of a different beast back then. 

That feeds directly into my third reason for purchasing these pieces, but since it definitely deserves a post of its own, so I'll leave the discussion there for now. At the moment I have 74 pawns of four different colours that I could do with finding a use for, so if you have any suggestions for games that I could play with them, particularly if they're games that don't have a reputation for putting their players to sleep, do let me know below. If you have an alternative theory for the provenance of the pieces, I'd love to hear about that too!

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