A luxury backgammon set has Ian Bogost pondering presentation
The webpage urges me to “Behold the Hector Saxe paparazzi magnet. It’s like a short-cut to superstardom.” As it turns out, Paris-based Hector Saxe doesn’t design and manufacture exotic cars or handbags. Instead, it makes luxury backgammon sets.
The “paparazzi magnet” is a “parma” purple-and-black python-leather-surfaced backgammon suitcase. It opens to reveal an arctic-white leather field, inlaid with black and rose-pink leather points (that’s what those triangular backgammon markers are called). The stones are high-gloss mother of pearl, one player in pink and one in black. Sleek, white leatherette dice cups complete the look. If Hollywood Regency glam is what you’re looking for in your ancient table games, it can be yours for about £1,200.
Backgammon is as old a game as any, dating back some 5,000 years. In its modern form, backgammon is nearly identical to the Byzantine game tabula, which first enters the historical record around the fifth century AD.
Backgammon doesn’t have the cultural cachet of other ancient folk table games, like chess and go. Perhaps that’s because backgammon introduces chance, whereas chess and go rely entirely on strategy. Even so, the game is hardly determined by luck alone – knowing which tactics to deploy given specific rolls in particular situations is central to an effective game. In this respect, backgammon offers the mysterious intrigue of poker with the ancient simplicity of go: fortune is tested, but its spoils are made flesh through the handling, movement and placement of stone on surface.
The ancient nature of folk boardgames automatically connects them to the history of decorative arts. The best way to turn an ordinary object into a treasure is just to add age, the more the better. Among the most famous examples of decorative game art objects are the Lewis chessmen, a 12th century set of medieval Norwegian or Icelandic pieces discovered in 1831 that are displayed at the British Museum.
But closer to home, backgammon, chess and go offer an opportunity for modern design and craftsmanship to exert force on a design that hasn’t changed in millennia. And backgammon offers the perfect invitation to possess such a set: the game is a balancing act between chance and strategy, making it appealing as a possession to a large number of people. That’s why we get specimens like the Hector Saxe paparazzi magnet.
Of course, you don’t need to blow a bag on a backgammon set to enjoy fine, longlasting craftsmanship. Even inexpensive velour sets offer a designerly air, and for a tenth the price of a paparazzi magnet you can buy a leather or wood inlaid model in innumerable colours, materials and designs, from walnut to wenge, crocodile to calfskin.
Backgammon isn’t likely to change in the next five millennia any more than it did in the past five, and there’s plenty of depth of gameplay to last you and your family far beyond the nights you have left on Earth. In the meantime, by transforming the folk game into a decorative object, its play becomes connected with preening, display and the other virtues (and vices) of material objects.
Few videogames have attempted to create similar decorative versions of themselves for general use. In part, that’s because few videogames have the longevity of go or backgammon, a feature endemic to media driven by fast-paced technological progress.
Some examples do exist. There’s Tristan Perich’s Kill Jet, a game that runs on custom electronics built into the casing of a small, portable CRT television, and the ten-player indie arcade game Killer Queen, with its cabinet customisation options. Swedish designer Love Hultèn’s Pixelkabinett 42 is a series of handmade, stained-wood arcade cabinets that contain MAME emulators (you can get one for the price of a few paparazzi magnets). I’ve made such an object myself, a limited-edition leather-boxed book and Atari VCS cartridge set of my game A Slow Year.
All these examples have one thing in common: they are self-contained, but refer to or draw on technological and gameplay patterns established long before they were created. Not all games suit a treatment as decorative design object, but more could than receive one. Accomplishing such a feat means doing just the opposite of the silly, “limited edition” console game with ghastly resin figure. It means creating an object that is aesthetically appealing apart from the game, and one that can continue to be played and enjoyed for years (or even millennia) hence.
The best way to turn an ordinary object into a treasure is just to add age, the more the better