By collecting some basic equipment and making your own boards, you can enjoy many playing many classic games on the cheap. Also, it's easy to find the rules for time-honored games in books or on the web.
Read on for some advice in making your own sets. Some of the specific games we've made are described as well.
There are many variations on stones, men, or what have you. In most games, all you need are markers of different colors. You can use almost anything.
The glass beads used for counters used by collectable card game players work pretty well, but can be quite expensive, and are often a little too small. We got two hug jars of flattish glass beads (no holes) in two different colors at the craft store for about $2.50 each. They are a little larger than glass counters on average, though less uniform in size and shape, but work well for most applications.
I also have a number of wooden "men" purchased unfinished at the craft store. I stained some of them dark and used a floor finish on them. The folks at a paint or hardware store can be very helpful if you have questions about what products you should use.
In a pinch, coins can serve as markers, especially if (Warning: Sexist comment ahead!) the man of your house has a habit of accumulating change in his pockets like ours does. Coins are also great for games improvised on the backs of restaurant menus.
There's no end to how fancy or how cheap you can make your own game boards, and they can be made from a variety of materials. My grandfather made me a beautiful go board using his wood burner. We've been known to pass the time or try out a new game by playing on a board quickly sketched on a plain old piece of paper. Of course, mancala was often played by digging pits right in the dirt. Inspired by a published version printed on fabric, I drew a hnefatafl board on a tanned rabbit hide for an authentic Nordicy feel, but later had trouble getting the pesky thing to lie flat.
In making boards, I've discovered one important rule: simpler is better. While one can find impressive examples of decorated game boards, the less cluttered the board, the easier it is to play. You can also make a simple board quickly and get right down to the serious business of gameplay, and if it turns out that the game is kind of lame, you're not out much. If you find you truly love a game and you want to invest time, money, and effort to build a really nice board, knock yourself out, but if it's really a great game, it'll be just as good on a plain board.
There are a few other things to keep in mind:
For many reasons, I recommend with boards drawn with on corrugated cardboard. It's not to hard to find, either flat, or in box form, and it's fairly easy to work with if you have a stout pair of scissors. It is also quite sturdy, but if it does fall victim to a spilled soda or the family dog, you're not out much, and you can make a new one quickly.
Plan your board on scratch paper. Remember to consider the size of the pieces you will use in planning the size of the board. Cut the board out of cardboard. Use a pencil and a ruler to draw the board design, then draw over it with a permanent marker. (Sharpies rock my world -- they have a nice fine point, they take eons to dry out, they come in all the colors of the rainbow, and they smell funky.)
Dice are handy things to have lying around. I have philosphical problems (some would call it anal-retentiveness) about "borrowing" dice from, say, your Monopoly set, so I think it's worth while to buy a few six-sided dice to have in your games bag.
Some games call for other oddments. Hnefatafl requires a one larger "king" piece. Senet, played authetically, uses "casting sticks." In most cases you can make do with substitutions, but if it's a game you'll be playing a lot, you might want to look in craft, hardware, or gaming stores for items that fit the bill.
Well, okay. "Game, game." Here are two games in the public domain (hey, that rhymes!) and what you'd need to get playing.
Hnefatafl is an ancient board game played by the Vikings. It's chess-like, but much less complicated. There are many variations, but to play tablut, the simplest and best-documented version, you need a board with 9x9 squares, 16 playing pieces in one color, 8 in a different color, and a "king" piece that matches the other eight.
Remember, even if you're playing tablut, you should call it hnefatafl, both to avoid confusion with the Roman game also called tablut, and also to set up the classic "Hnefatafl?"-"Gesundheit!" joke.
This Egyptian game is a precursor to backgamon. It's played on a 3x10 board with some specially-marked squares and requires 5 pieces each of two different colors, and 4 casting sticks or a six-sided die.
The casting sticks are rounded on one side and flat on the other. You can see them in action in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments in the scene where Moses plays hounds and jackals with Nefretiri. The sticks are rolled out of the hand, and the number of flat sides that are up is the number of squares you may move. If no flat sides are up, you move 6 squares (or 5, depending on the rules you're using.) It's suggested that if you don't have casting sticks, a six-sided die be used, with fives rerolled. This gives a 1:5 chance of rolling any number. With the sticks, you have a 1:4 chance of rolling a one, a 3:8 chance of rolling a two, a 1:4 chance of rolling a three, and a 1:16 chance of rolling a four or a six. (That's assuming the sticks have a 50-50 chance of landing flat or round side up, but I haven't yet confirmed by experiment whether that's true.) Using a die definitely changes the dynamics of the game. Plus, it's not nearly as fun.
We made our casting sticks from 5/8 inch half-round molding, from a hardware, lumber, and kitchen-and-bath-type store. They were nice enough to cut it into 4-inch lengths for us.
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