Dif­fi­culty Switch

A lux­ury backgam­mon set has Ian Bo­gost pon­der­ing pre­sen­ta­tion

EDGE - - CONTENTS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

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

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