14 May 2023
In a hobby focused on playing games a handful of times before moving on, we investigate what it’s like to ‘live’ with traditional games

Words by Christopher John Eggett | Head over to mastersofgames.com to get your traditional game fix.



I suspect that if we haven't destroyed the planet in 200 years time, people will still be playing Go and Carrom but probably not Terraforming Mars

- James Masters


So much of this hobby is rushing about. We’re always looking for the next big thing, the next mechanical buzz that’s going to send our brains fizzing like a too-large Catherine wheel in a too-small garden. We want that feeling during play – and beyond – if it’s really good. In fact, I might say that we all as hobby gamers have this tension in our heads where we’re at once looking for the new thing and also looking for the game that’s going to live in our heads when we’re not playing it. Some might say Dungeons & Dragons is a sub-hobby of the actual hobby of thinking about your next session, your character, or if you’re the GM, the next big problem you want to reverse park in front of your players. Trading card games do the same, if you’re thinking about your next Friday Night Magic session, you’re probably also thinking about constructing that perfect deck that’s going to leave your opponents smashed to bits.

But in the hobby board game space, we move on quickly. Those that are designated ‘classics’ on some way, those games that are an important part of the ‘canon’ are relegated to being ‘gateway’ games. Pandemic? Catan? Carcassonne? Games you ‘move on’ from in the most part if you’re a ‘serious’ gamer. You’re looking for complexity and depth. Maybe a story. We’re never quite satisfied either.


So, to cure this feeling, I set about on a quest. How do we reset our expectations for playing games more than a handful of times before trading them in on the second hand market? How do we build a new relationship with games that feel like they live with us, in our normal lives, and not just unfolded on to a table of a game’s evening like a delicious but wonky pizza that’s calzoned itself on its bumpy journey? We’re looking for a hobby that’s nourishing through familiarity and consistency, not as a Kickstarter arrives two years late and collapses on top of you on your doorstep, concussing you into forgetting why you were excited in the first place. I decided it was time to return to some traditional games and explore their depth and compatibility with my life.




I wanted to play the same game or games every night. And that means that I couldn’t be boxing and unboxing 400 components tokens, legacy map and miniatures every day. They have to be nice enough objects to be displayed. They have to be easily located, quickly set up. I’ve often spoken of the Gigamic wooden games being something special for their ‘being an interesting art piece on the coffee table’ effect when not being played.


I reached out to Masters of Games, a well-regarded purveyor of the classics. They’re usually made from wood and have been around at least a bit longer than Catan. James Masters kindly offered to send me a Hnefatafl (Viking chess), Carrom (an Indian game of flicking discs that plays a bit like pool) and Go (the ancient Chinese game of abstract strategy). With these I was able to enact my plan. Every night me and my partner (and, when she wouldn’t go to bed, my daughter too) played one of these games.


Living with these games like this meant a couple if things. We were learning together, which isn’t unusual for a hobby game night, but there’s no expectation that you’re going to be comparably good at a game after understanding a teach here. And the other is that we became more obsessed with the depth of each game.


Carrom is a sport really. Players sit on opposite sides of the square board and flick a striker piece towards a bunch of discs in the centre of the board, hoping to pocket their colour. I say hoping because we never got very good at it. The times I lugged it to an evening where the drinks were flowing, tournaments broke out immediately. It’s a naturally competitive game and for anyone who has played any ‘bar sports’ before, it will click with your quickly. Also, you’re always going to have to put down more Carrom powder than you expect.


Hnefatafl is a game of attack and defence. With a chess-like feel – you’re moving pieces around a grid after all. The defending player starters in the centre and needs to move their king to one of the escape spaces in the corners of the board to win. Predictably, the attacking player needs to capture the king to win. Movement is case of traveling in any orthogonal direction (i.e. no diagonals) as far as you wish, and capturing is the amusing art of sandwiching your opponent’s pieces between two of yours. You can also sandwich with the escape spaces or the king’s start space – and to capture the king you’ll need to totally surround it. All of this leads to an interesting puzzle of space and placement, and does really feel like a companion to chess.

But it was Go that captured me particularly. In fact it made me wonder why we play a lot of the games we do when we could simply be playing go instead. We sat down to speak with James Masters, the owner of Masters of Games about how these traditional games work their ways into our lives, and our brains.



Hello! Can you introduce yourself to our readers please?

James Masters: I'm the creator and owner of Masters Traditional Games! I also moonlight as an independent games historian.


And what does Masters Traditional Games do?

JM: We sell the kind of games that I like to play – games that have been around for centuries – or at least consistently popular for a decade or so...  Our portfolio of games is wide and deep and we specialise in games that most other shops just don't have.  A brief glance at our website and you will see everything from high quality snooker tables to an eight by eight Rubiks cube, from Croquet to a Coconut Shy, from Giant Chess sets to Mah Jong, from Skittles to Spinning Tops and from Jenga to Risk.  Our specialisms include obscure English pub games, oriental board games, historical board games and classic table-top games from places such as Canada, Holland, France and India but we also sell all the popular games like Backgammon, Table Tennis, Darts and Scrabble.

What we don't do is licenced or faddy stuff.  You won't find the transient modern games that come and go within two years, the Transformers version of Monopoly or Tellytubbies Junior Scrabble. We sell many modern games but we carefully pick out all the best ones for our customers – recent classics and those that have won the 'Game of the Year' awards.


How did you get started? What was it that brought you into the world of traditional games?

JM: I've been interested in games and collecting them from a very early age.  I was playing old board games and reading books on medieval table games before I was ten and the fascination has never gone away. In 1997, I decided that if you really wanted to learn about something, you needed to write about it so I wrote a website about the history of traditional games (tradgames.org.uk) which is still maintained to this day.  As soon as that was out there, people started to email me asking where they could get hold of some of these old games.  That made me think that, in this time of video games and less socialising in pubs, there was a need for a shop to ensure that all these games continue to be available for the world to play.  I started by selling six traditional English pub games in 1999 but of course now we sell almost every game you can think of and a lot that you've probably never heard of too – but they're all good fun!


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If you had a manifesto, mission statement or motto for the business – what would it be? (or indeed, what is it, if you have one?)

JM: My goal was pretty straightforward – to become the world's best traditional games shop.  At this point in time, I don't know of a better games shop but let me know if you do and we'll see what we can do to get even better.


We’re talking in large part about Go in this article – and how traditional games like these feel like a ‘lifestyle’ compared to the hobby market (i.e. Catan). Do you have a theory as to why these games endure?

JM: Yes, games like these are successful over centuries because they are easy to learn and yet continue to be challenging, the more you play.  I love the modern games that have emerged since the turn of the century such as Carcassonne, Catan, Pandemic and even the more complex ones like Terraforming Mars but I suspect that if we haven't destroyed the planet in 200 years time, people will still be playing Go and Carrom but probably not Terraforming Mars.  If it takes more than 5 or 6 minutes to explain how to play a game, it's difficult for it to gather enough traction to endure and it will eventually be eclipsed by other more fashionable games.  Even Chess, that people tend to think of as complicated, can be wholly explained in under five minutes.


We’ve been playing Go nearly every night for the last few months, and it’s a completely different experience to playing the hobby games for a ‘games night’ – like it doesn’t interrupt the normal domestic ‘headspace’ or something. Do you have any thoughts on the way these games wiggle into people’s lives like this?

JM: Games nights are terrific and I thoroughly enjoy them.  But they need to be arranged in advance and have some time dedicated to them.  If I'm ever at a loose hanging around in the house with my son or a friend, what do we do? We reach for the Chess board or the Crokinole board. They're just always there, you can pick them up without planning, we know it will take less than an hour (actually usually less than twenty minutes these days for son to destroy me at Chess). Go and Carrom are the same – probably millions of Indian houses have a Carrom board hanging up somewhere and Go, well Go is something really special.  How can a game that has only three rules be the most complex and sublime board game in existence? People dedicate their whole lives to it and then also people play it at home in half an hour on a nine by nine board.  So the point really is that such games are easy to pick-up and easy to play and you socialise while you're playing them, without even really thinking about it.


Do you find yourself to live a life of these traditional style games? Do you play them often, or are you into something else?

JM: I play games of many types whenever I can, yes.  Depending on my current favourite games and who I'm with, I'm always asking people if they'd like a game of Skittles, Go, Chess, all sorts of modern games, Snooker or Croquet. I have regular modern board game nights with friends, am a member of the Hampstead Lawn Billiards and Skittles club (although haven't been since Covid unfortunately), get down to the local Snooker club when I can and occasionally enter a Crokinole competition.  


Any advice for people wanting to explore this gaming space who have come from hobby gaming?

You could do worse than start with the two games you selected.  A plunge into historical board games can also be a rewarding experience.  Try playing the Royal Game of Ur and imagine that 4000 years ago, people were playing the same game.  And then, since no-one really knows how the game was played exactly, see if you can come up with your own rules.  I recommend royalur.net to get you started...   If that wets your whistle, Hnefatafl, the game of the Vikings Nine Mens Morris, one of the most popular games from medieval times or Senet, the classic Egyptian game that existed in 3000BC might also pique your interest.


What’s your favourite game from your range?  

There are too many to pick one out but I can come off the fence if I do it by category. 
Pub game: Northamptonshire Skittles
Table Game: Snooker
Table-top game: Crokinole
Traditional Board Game: Go
Modern board game: Ticket to Ride
Modern abstract board game: Blokus
Ancient Game: Mehen
Gambling Game: Craps 
Card Game: Cribbage  


What’s next for you and the business?

I keep my games research entirely separate from the business, but I'm currently finalising an academic paper that has been accepted by The Journal of Interdisciplinary Egyptology.  It's about the ancient Egyptian game of Mehen and some remarkable archaeological finds that have been misinterpreted over the years. Mehen or the Serpent Game is probably the oldest board game in the world with evidence that goes back five and a half thousand years! I have another paper being reviewed by a different journal about how Mehen might have been played. At the same time, I am some way through the research for my next research project on the old game of Bagatelle. Everyone knows Pinball but what most people don't know is that Pinball is evolved from Bagatelle, a game that most European people's grandparent's certainly played and which in turn has its own ancestors – large table games that go back to before 1800.  It's a fascinating historical story and again, a lot has been written about it that is not entirely true. I aim to put that right.


For the business, we're trying to up our game in digital marketing with various projects on the go and we'll be adding to our range of historical board games this year. I hope to bring back the medieval game of Pigeon Holes before long and we will be producing an updated third version of our Pin bagatelle board and second version of our Bar Skittles game.




Out of everything we tried over these last few months, Go was the game that I became fixated on. For those that haven’t played, it’s simple on the surface. A board with a grid of points on it (19 by 19 at full size, nine by nine at its smallest), players take a stone of their colour – black or white – and place it on one of these points on their turn. Each gap around a stone is a liberty, and when they’re all filled in by the opponent, that stone is captured. A group of stones connected to one another (diagonals don’t count) are considered a group, and share all liberties. The player to have claimed the most territory at the end of the game  – gaining a point for each open space they control on the board, plus a point for each stone captured – wins. There’s rules about the handicaps and so on to even out the game, but that’s the principal.


But then you zoom out. Each placement stops being a person playing a stone to a board but an attitude of play. You’ll suddenly begin to read a placement of a stone as aggressive, or defensive, or even to feel like a trap. While chess might offer you a little of this, it simply doesn’t have the same range of narrative within it. Soon you start looking at the strong shapes to build and making calls on whether a territory is lost or owned. Your opponent will do the same – especially in our case as we learned how to play and developed our own styles. Coming from a culture more familiar with chess the idea of taking pieces begins as a central idea, but that has to be chucked away quite quickly. Famously Go is the greatest game for man to have discovered – it also feels like that to play. You are discovering the spaces that can be gently pushed against, enveloped, or stolen.


And that’s it – a whole new space of a game opens up before you, not like it does when a game ‘clicks’ in our hobby, but like seeing the ocean for the first time. There’s a scope to this game that, yes, you could attribute to its history, but I truly believe it’s baked into the game. It’s timeless and as such is the ideal thing to slip into your life with the idea you might still be playing it in forty years.


What it gave us, throughout this experiment, is a way to connect in a game space where learning and understanding the rules isn’t one of the core requirements for fun. Instead it is something we learned together. While we’re still rubbish, watching someone react to changes in your play style as you both become more adept is a great and fulfilling feeling.


So, with that, I’d like to offer everyone reading to take up this challenge. Take a game that you can let live in your living room and be picked up with a cup of coffee as easily as a biscuit, and make it available. You never know, you might learn to live with it.


Head over to mastersofgames.com to get your traditional game fix.



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