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Monday, February 05, 2007

KNUCKLEBONES: For Board Game Enthusiasts

Board games, old and new, are the subject of Knucklebones, a bright bimonthly magazine from Jones Publishing in Iola, Wisconsin that debuted just over a year ago. A look through the new March issue shows that this baby has its act together.

The magazine takes its name from an old Greco-Roman board game that was played with sheep's knucklebones, as well as with more civilized bronze, ivory and silver pieces.

What I like about Knucklebones is its inventiveness, an essential quality if it is to appeal to serious game enthusiasts.

For instance, there's a regular column called "Quick Fixes," where readers share game tips and offer their own suggestions as to how to change a game's rules to make it faster, slower or just more interesting. I confess that I've tinkered with the sacred rules of Scrabble and Monopoly during my misspent past.

This issue reviews 19 new games for children and adults, and the reviews are enhanced with a helpful side bar of publisher name and Web site, designer's name, type of game (board, strategy, party, chess variant, etc.), number of players, length of play, age range, price, learning curve and degree of challenge.

That the designer's name is included with each new game review is significant, for Knucklebones is aimed at the game maker as well as the game player. The March issue carries a couple of stories about what it takes to create and test a game, as well as to successfully seek a publisher.

Ethan Goffman, designer of a word-play game to be published in mid-2007 called AmuseAmaze, writes of the many fanciful games he's invented in his head, such as "cheating the giant corporation you helped to build" and "being the most successful wino in a run-down city." He's only had one game previously published, "by a tiny Internet-only company." Goffman stresses that you have to have extraordinarily patient friends willing to test-play your game ideas, adding that "my first recommendation to a wannabe game designer is to find a faithful game-playing spouse."

I was interested to learn there's a Web site for game designers at, where you'll find the Board Game Designers Forum.

The issue contains a fabulous five-page introduction to chess by Bruce Whitehill, who summarizes the international origins and variants of the ancient game, its basic moves, a list of books on the subject, and a sidebar on live chess, in which real people act as the chess pieces. You may have seen live chess at a medieval fair.

According to Whitehill, the traditional beginnings of live chess go back to Marostica, Italy, which was part of the Venetian Republic. In 1454 two noblemen sought the hand of the daughter of the Lord of Marostica, and were about to fight a duel. The girl's father forbade the duel and decided the rivals should play a public chess game with live pieces to decide his daughter's mate. The town still holds that traditional chess game every two years, with more than 500 townspeople participating with lavish costumes, pageantry and parades.

I was fascinated by the lone book review in the issue. The book, titled The Turk, by Tom Standage, is about the famous chess-playing automaton developed in the mid-18th century, which, ludicrous as it sounds, is said to have impressed such notable figures as Ben Franklin, Napoleon, Poe and Charles Babbage. That less-familiar last fellow―perhaps inspired by the concept of The Turk―was to become known to history as "the father of computer science."

In keeping with that theme, the issue also contains an interview with Murray Campbell, one of the lead scientists in IBM's Deep Blue project, the chess-playing computer that defeated reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

This issue contains a nice account of Spiel, the annual game fair in Essen, Germany. During four somewhat chaotic days in October the public is invited by manufacturers to learn about, play, rate and buy their new games, as well as to enjoy beer and wurst. Knucklebones notes that one of the most successful games from the 2006 Spiel is based on Ken Follett's novel, The Pillars of the Earth. The game will be published in English later in 2007.

An annual subscription (six issues) to Knucklebones is $27.95 from the publisher; we'll send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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