From the beginning of the nineteenth century, board games began to spread actively not just across Europe, but across Russia, becoming an important part of culture and leisure. Interestingly, board games almost immediately acquired a socio-political dimension and were able to serve as convenient means of education or propaganda in different historical periods.
This issue of V–A–C Sreda online magazine publishes a text on the history of board games in Russia by Leonid Moyzhes, a researcher at the Moscow Centre for the Study of Video Games and a lecturer at the Moscow Institute of Business and Design. The text traces the changes in the board game industry over two centuries and describes the ways in which these changes have reflected the social, political, and economic peculiarities of their time.
Chess, draughts, Monopoly, Uno, and simple games in which dice are thrown and pawns are moved around have been with us since childhood. Some of us have perhaps even tried to settle the imaginary island of Catan, to deceive comrades in Munchkin, or to guess cards by association better than others in Dixit.
Over the last two decades, the number and variety of board games in Russia has increased many times over, but attitudes towards this kind of entertainment have remained conflicted. Some see these games as purely childish, unserious activities, others are certain that in the modern, digital world, “analogue” games are no longer relevant. There are also those for whom board games constitute a new phenomenon of unknown provenance.
The Russian Empire was integrated into the common European cultural space, which meant board games in this period were often similar to and sometimes direct copies of games from Germany, France, and Great Britain. So, for example, the well-known Game of the Goose enjoyed great popularity across Russia: participants threw dice, moved pawns along the board and waited to see who would be first across the finish line. It is worth noting here that the highly suspicious attitude towards dice characteristic of Protestant England and America—where they were associated with gambling for money, which was strictly prohibited–was not so pronounced in Orthodox Russia. Rather than a dice, George Fox—a British writer, Christian moralist, and the creator of the educational game The Mansion of Happiness—used a spinning top to generate the numbers according to which players moved their pawns across his board, though this change had practically no influence on the gameplay. In the Russian Empire, however, there was no need for such tricks.
The goose games that came out over the course of the nineteenth century were dedicated to various themes, reflecting the interests and fascinations of society: from Game of the Goose and The Little Humpbacked Horse* to Sweepstakes or Steeplechase*, which included bets, to the educational Napoleon Bonaparte*. In the last of these, players moved pawns not across a game board but a large selection of “lucky” and “unlucky” cards that depicted well-known events in the life of the French commander. The principle, however, remained one and the same: throw the dice and hope the result brings you luck.
But it was not just goose games. The nineteenth century saw the active popularisation of chess—international tournaments were organised, the first chess associations formed, and modern rules definitively crystallised. A similar reconsideration of draughts as an intellectual sport took place at this time.
The logic of movement of figures characteristic of these games inspired independent developers to create their own variations, for example, Wolves and Sheep*. In the “folk” version of this game’s rules, still well-known to many today, a chessboard is used, on which each player controls four figures and attempts to drive the wolf into a corner. In the nineteenth century, this game was made on a beautiful board, with the wolf’s lair at the centre, surrounded on four sides by guard dogs. The game Napoleon* (1890) was structured in a similar way: one player chased another across a map from Moscow to Berezina.
There were also direct modifications of draughts, notably Siege*. Some of the players would take on the role of the defence of the redoubt, the others that of the attackers. Siege differed from draughts in the complex shape of its board and its asymmetrical rules of movement. The draughts of the defenders could move in all directions, but there were far fewer of them: in some versions of the game the ratio was 2:24, in others 3:50. The attackers were not required to slaughter all their йopponents—their aim was to occupy a particular area of the board. But the foundational mechanism of the game remained faithful to classic draughts: diagonal movement and capturing the opponent’s pawns. At the end of the nineteenth century, when Siege was released, it was often made in the image of one or another battle—the Battle of Moscow, for example, or the Siege of Pleven, which took place during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. Such alterations, however, did not affect the rules.
Board games in the Russian Empire were to a certain extent influenced by Prussia, where the ancestor of modern war games, Kriegsspiel, had first appeared. The version of Kriegsspiel developed by the German professor of mathematics Johann Helvis reached Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The game, which simulates battles in detail, was roughly based on chess, introducing new rules for various types of troops and environments.
Later, the officers George and Georg Reiswitz—a Prussian father and son duo—would place even greater emphasis on realism as they perfected Helvis’s development. Their game took place on topographically accurate maps and made active use of the newest achievements of statistics to reproduce the average chances of various types of weapons hitting on target. The game won such popularity in the Prussian court that Reiswitz the Younger was sent on a visit to Russia, where he introduced Grand Duke Nikolai Alexandrovich, the future Emperor Nicholas the First, to his development of the game.
Curiously, under Nicholas’s rule, Kriegsspiel became a part of officer training. Both in Prussia and in the Russian Empire, the game was not formally considered an entertainment, which makes it difficult to say to what extent it influenced the commercial board game industry that was developing in parallel. However, this did not prevent officers and noblemen from playing the game for pleasure. Indeed, the poet Lermontov was a fan of Kriegsspiel (and it is worth noting that he was not a civilian official, but the graduate of a cadet school and a military officer).
If in the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth the Russian board game industry remained integrated with the rest of the world’s, then with the advent of Soviet power the situation altered. In the USSR, the bet, where possible, was placed on self-sufficiency. This was all the more true in the case of products that carried meaning: books and films were to serve the purpose of educating “new people.” Particular attention was paid to children, the future builders of Communism.
The history of board games serves as a clear illustration of the new era. The aspiration towards the ideologically correct education of children, the industrial boom that allowed the production of goods in large quantities, and the mass literacy that allowed players to understand the rules—all this contributed to the fact that mainstream board games of the 1920s and 1930s were suffused with the new ideology.
A significant game of this period was Electrification*, released as a free insert in the Grandchildren of Lenin newspaper. Each player would take a location card (a village, aul, city, or port) with hidden images of lanterns. Cards with drawings of various objects (meters, wires, lamps) were then distributed, which players randomly pulled from one another. When an identical pair was formed, it was set aside until there were no more special, unpaired cards with lightbulbs left in players’ hands. These determined how far the process of electrifying the field of a given player was progressing.
One might also note of Electrification that players took almost no decisions and that in its foundational mechanics the game resembled the Queen of Spades* and Akulina* folk card games. This said, an educational component was more than explicit: young players memorised important concepts and were schooled to consider electrification a good thing that ought to take hold all across the country, from far away villages to mountain settlements.
An equally illustrative example is the 1926 For a Healthy Life* game. This game was similar to goose games but based on the rules of hygiene: landing on one or another square, players would miss a turn or move to another. Landing on “dry cleaning,” for example, sent a person to the wet cleaning square, which reminded players of the necessity of washing their floors. Images on the board were supplied with commentaries on the correct way of living, for example: “Spitting should be done in a spittoon.” Like Electrification, this game was intended more for educational purposes than it was for competition or amusement.
As they had done before the revolution, many thematic goose games came out during this period: Let’s Give Raw Materials to Factories*, for example, centred around the collection of waste paper and scrap, Revolution* drew a global map of the worldwide movement towards Communism, Flight from Moscow to China* enumerated the achievements of Soviet industry. There were also ideologically neutral games of this kind—for example, in the 1920s, a re-edition of the Sweepstakes or Steeplechase game mentioned above, which had first been released during the Russian Empire. Thematic lottos, such as Politlotto. With Illustrations in Colour*, also enjoyed great popularity.
It would be wrong, however, to think that all games in the early Soviet Union were extremely simple. The tradition of serious war games, which had existed since the nineteenth century, was preserved. In 1926, Konstantin Ivanovich Samoilov, a civil war veteran and naval theorist, released the rules of his Battleship*—not, of course, the one that comes to mind today, but a far more complex simulation of naval battles that was first published in Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1928.
In 1939, a year before he received the rank of rear-admiral, Samoilov wrote a whole manual on how to correctly organise such ludic exercises. In 1930, the Soviet military specialist Nikolai Shananov released the game Combat Squads*, which was designed to train Red Army soldiers.
There were also “in-between options,” that is, war games intended more for entertainment than for training but which borrowed elements from more serious war games. There was, for example, the 1931 game Fight of the Reds and Blues*, which was recommended at once for ordinary soldiers, for officers, and for civilians. But such complex games primarily intended for adult players seem to have been the absolute minority. This might be explained with reference to their comparatively higher production costs, and to the fact that children’s games had greater educational potential.
The obsession with chess that supplanted almost all intellectual games for adults in the Soviet Union may also have had a role to play in this. Love for chess had a clearly pronounced political dimension—victories in international tournaments were thought to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet education and culture. This was clearest of all in the famous match between Bobby Fishcher and Boris Spassky in 1972. Clearly, war games did not enjoy even a hundredth of chess’s authority.
During the post-war period, games became more closely associated with childhood. A decrease in ideological intensity meant that there was no longer so urgent a need to educate the population. This was also something in which the USSR differed little from the United States, where the calm and stability of the 1950s and 1960s created demand for quiet family pastimes, and this demand was well satisfied by unpretentious children’s games.
In America, this process was balanced by the fact that at precisely the same time an important tradition of commercial war games was also forming, from which, in the 1970s, the tradition of tabletop role-playing games would then emerge. In the USSR, board games remained relatively simple, and increasingly put emphasis on flashy design and additional elements, such as rhymes and riddles or tests of attention and coordination of movements.
At the same time, popular Western games began to be released in the USSR—Scrabble, for example, was released under the name Erudite* in 1975. But this was only the beginning, a herald of the flood of legal and, more often, illegal translations, clones, and reimaginings of Western board games that would become available during the perestroika period.
Historically, a very short period saw both the board game market on the territory of the USSR and the way in which this market was approached become almost unrecognisable. As had been the case in the first decades of Soviet power, the period from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s coincided with a variety of factors. Game publishers suddenly received great, if not complete freedom—the necessity of ensuring their financial self-sufficiency and of meeting the demands of the population remained before them. Developers and players became acquainted with foreign games to the extent that the gradually opening borders allowed the movement of people, ideas, and goods.
In parallel, everyday life was changing: new Western films and books were distributed, inspiring new developments and stories. If we note here that many Soviet people sincerely did not understand the concept of copyright in its modern, Western form, it becomes clear why this period proved at once productive and very bizarre.
The game Manager* might be termed a symbol of this era for the board game industry. Manager was actually a clone of the famous Monopoly, which had first been developed in the nineteenth century. Monopoly received its trademark style in the United States in the 1930s: the task of participants lay in bankrupting their rivals and becoming rich themselves, which meant this kind of game could not have been released in the USSR. Even if Monopoly was not formally prohibited, releasing the game in the country was impossible, and bringing it in was difficult.
The perestroika period, however, opened up new possibilities, and in 1988 the Petropan publishing house simply copied the mechanics of Monopoly, altering the design of the board to reflect Soviet realities. In the process, its rules were slightly altered—for example, where one would traditionally expect to find railways, one found “Surprise” squares, which would bring about random events similar to the traditional “Chance” squares in Monopoly (this said, the gameplay remained easily recognisable). Participants threw the dice, moved their pawns, bought the ventures on which they landed, gathered collections of same-coloured companies, and attempted to bring ruin upon their opponents.
Another Monopoly clone was released in the same year—NEP*, a game that referenced the concepts and realities of the Soviet New Economic Policy. Over the following years, variations on Monopoly would continue to come out, until legal literacy and the presence of Western game industry giants brought an end to this lawless freedom.
Another economic game appeared in the Soviet Union under similar circumstances—Exchange*, which was based on the American Broker of 1961. Participants began with a set number of shares, which they could sell, buy, and alter the prices of through the help of special cards, all with the aim of finishing with the highest winnings. Exchange won great popularity after the publication of its rules in the journal Science and Life, an event which in itself illustrated the changes taking place in Soviet society. Game developers, publishers, readers, and players sought to keep up with the new era.
The matter was not limited to games intended to acquaint Soviet citizens with changing economic realities. Entertainment remained the goal, and from the end of the 1980s, as censorship eased, this became particularly noticeable. All successful developments that could be reached were cloned and adapted.
Battle*, a game set during the Napoleonic Wars, was released in 1989. The game was based on Stratego, which had originated in Holland but come to the USSR through the United States. Like its original, Battle was a kind of development of chess, with each player controlling a variety of figures. These figures differed not in terms of their movement but their fighting power: the higher a figure’s fighting power, the greater its ability to attack opponents. This said, players were not shown the strength of their rivals’ soldiers at the beginning of the game, creating a “fog of war” effect. It was only when your figure attacked an opponent’s that their strength would be revealed and compared to that of your figure’s. The possessor of the figure with the greatest fighting power would win, while their opponent would do their best to remember the position and power of the winning figure.
One of the most unusual transfers of Western games to Soviet soil would be The Enchanted Country*, released by the Autumn cooperative* in 1990. The Enchanted Country seemed a relatively free interpretation of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, but given they had not been acquainted with such a game format before, its rules remained unclear to many people. As in the original Dungeons and Dragons, participants created characters that travelled a magical kingdom in search of adventure. One of the players would take on the role of leader and describe the reaction of the world to the action of the heroes. This said, The Enchanted Country’s gameplay was more strictly regulated in places than Western tabletop role-playing games of that period.
The Enchanted Country resembled the earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons, which had been similar to war games, except for the absence of one determining characteristic: movement and manoeuvres on a clearly drawn out map, which took into account the distance between opponents. The Enchanted Country did not resemble a Dungeons and Dragons clone so much as an attempt to reproduce the experience of participation in such a game with original additions, innovations, and ideas.
The rules contained much that was difficult to understand and a number of unclear details. This is not surprising if one considers the fact that The Enchanted Country found a roundabout way to the Soviet Union: Dungeons and Dragons was first translated to Polish, and only after this into Russian. Both translations were the work of amateurs, causing the games to seem somewhat unprofessional. But this did not prevent the new game from gaining popularity and coming to be considered the forerunner of tabletop role-playing games on the territory of the former USSR. To a certain extent, the game retains its popularity to this day. The most recent post on the The Enchanted Country forum, for example, was made in 2023—though this said, present-day interest in the game is likely to be primarily historical.
All the same, it would be wrong to think that game designers only copied during perestroika. In parallel with Manager and Exchange, the economic game Conversion*, dedicated to the USSR’s integration into the world economy, came out during this period. Players would receive starting capital and decide where to invest it: in the extraction of raw materials, production, or transportation. At every turn, players would choose from a number of available economic actions, depending on their plans and the availability of one or another asset.
Two economies played an important role in the game: dollars for the world economy, where one sold the goods one produced, and rubles for the domestic one, where raw materials and machine tools were acquired. This allowed developers not only to diversify the game, but to attempt to reflect new economic realities in its gameplay.
As well as acquainting the public with established foreign games, the release of Soviet products that had previously gone unpublished became possible during perestroika. In the 1990s, the board games Pirates* and Capture of Colonies* were released, both of which had been created by the artist Vladimir Golnitsin in the 1930s. These games went unnoticed during his lifetime: this was partly the result of their improper adventurous theme—the battle of great powers and pirates for American gold and land in the seventeenth century—and the origin of their author.
It would be wrong, of course, not to mention the popular Mafia, which was structured around social deduction. The game was developed at the end of the 1980s by Dmitriy Davidoff, a scientist at the Faculty of Physics of Moscow State University. It quickly gained in popularity—crucially, it had come at the right time. The weakening of the Iron Curtain and Mafia’s clear, understandable rules allowed it to be taken out of the USSR by students visiting Western countries. In new regions, the game swiftly acquired local variations as well as particular themes—so, for example, in the United States, Mafia is well-known as Werewolf. Both the success of this game and the unpredictability of its distribution are good illustrations of the chaos that reigned in the board game industry at the time.
The distinctiveness of the perestroika period laid the foundation for the situation that would occur in the 1990s, when contact between the Russian board game industry and Russian players with the West was, on the one hand, constant, on the other, utterly unsystematic. During this decade, many Russians became acquainted with the universes of popular Western board and tabletop role-playing games—Battletech, Warhammer 40000, Forgotten Realms. Often, however, this introduction took place through video games and books such as R. A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy. Many of the new Russian fans of these imagined worlds lacked the opportunity not just to buy the original games but to know that what they had before them was something that referred to something else.
The Russian market in this period existed according to its own laws and formed its own trends, largely ignoring global processes. In the United States, the board game industry of the 1990s was characterised by a change in approach to war games brought about by the game We Are the People, a boom in collectable card games launched by the famous Magic: the Gathering, and, closer to the end of the decade, the popularisation of so-called Eurogames.
Eurogame refers to a popular approach to board game design that has its roots in the German tradition and often opposes the American one. As a rule, this genre gives a lesser role to chance and a greater one to the indirect interaction of players, reducing conflicts and directing attention towards the plot of the game. The Settlers of Catan (today simply Catan) is among the most well-known examples of a Eurogame, and the one that saw the trend spread to the United States.
In the 1990s and at the start of the noughties, the Russian board game industry was ruled by its own atmosphere. Publishing houses and studios actively released their own games on the basis of glimpsed Western mechanics, the Soviet heritage, and their own ideas of perfection. Often, from the point of view of game design, these projects remained relatively superficial and reproduced the unchanging mechanic of “throw the dice, move the pawn,” compensating or, more accurately, masking randomness and one-dimensionality with additional elements, illustrations, and spectacular worlds.
The 1992 game The Monster of Djio-Djanga might be called a symbol of its era. With the help of a dice, participants would set off on travels through a sinister world where they would encounter dangers, fight monsters, and use special cards to simulate the creation of audio and video. All trophies obtained could be sold to improve equipment. The simplicity of the gameplay and the randomness of chance were compensated for by an abundance of content—a variety of unique monsters, and cards with descriptions of adventures and diverse equipment (which ranged from inflatable boats to pith helmets to carbines with optical sight).
This approach to game design reflected a perception of board games as a leisure activity meant for children and younger teenagers. Such a perception was supported by both the Soviet legacy and, most importantly, by the absence of a clear alternative audience. Even in the United States, where a large number of games first appeared, board games had not yet acquired a particular popularity, and the “geek” subculture had only begun to form. One might also add that producers of children’s toys and books had the necessary resources, knowledge, and contacts with illustrators and technologists.
The Tehnolog company*, founded in 1987, provides an illustrative example. By the 1990s, the company had established production of soldiers and created a mould technology that made it possible to produce detailed miniatures. At the end of the decade, the company released one of the first Russian war games—Fantasy Battles*, with bright design and simple rules. Artillery fire was not simulated through abstract calculations or dice throwing, but using small mechanic cannons.
Such an approach to the representation of artillery was present in a few Western war games of the beginning of the twentieth century, but had gradually given way to mathematical solutions. However, for Technolog, a company that produced games and miniatures and was oriented towards a child audience, these small cannons were a perfect fit. This project, along with many others, prepared audiences for the increasingly far-reaching distribution of Western board games in the noughties and 2010s.
The noughties consistently brought Russian board games closer to the Western market. This was made possible by greater economic integration, which required careful attention to copyright, the ever-increasing mass reach of the Internet, and Russian players’ increasing knowledge of the English language, which allowed them to become more actively involved in world communities.
New companies appeared. As well as the already mentioned Tehnolog, there was Zvezda*, which produced prefabricated models of equipment and exists to this day. Studios aimed at localising foreign projects also began to appear. In the first years of the new century, the Smart company released a full range of Western hits—Catan, Carcassone, Munchkin. The popularity of Munchkin was unhindered by the fact that the basic rules of the game and the majority of its cards parodied stereotypes about tabletop role-playing games which many Russian players were unfamiliar with.
Tabletop role-playing games quickly grew in popularity as a hobby. By 2000, the first full-fledged domestic tabletop role-playing game, Age of Aquarius, had been released. And when the first official attempt at localisation of the rules of Dungeons and Dragons was made in 2005, there was mass criticism of the new translation by fans—a sad fact, but a revealing one. Part of the new game’s potential audience was already familiar with its rules thanks to books brought from abroad and pirated copies downloaded from the Internet.
From the second half of the noughties, and, in particular, in the 2010s, the Russian board game industry integrated itself into the world-wide one in order to fit with common trends. Board games became important features in the offices of companies that wanted to cultivate openness and progressiveness. Anti-cafes with their own libraries of board games opened everywhere. Western-style conventions were held: in 2011, the first large meeting of role-players, Rolecon, took place in Moscow. Previously, fans of tabletop role-playing games had attended the Zilantcon and Volk festivals, but the main focus had been on live action role-playing games (LARP). In 2014, the Board Game Developers Guild, which had been formed shortly before, organised the first Granicon. A hobby that had seemed marginal and childish a couple of decades before had evolved significantly.
Over the course of their long history, board games have served as means of propaganda, education, and upbringing. They have acquired and lost cultural, political, sometimes even religious significance. They have changed with the country, and they themselves have changed their players, acquainting them with new realities and concepts. They have covered a long path from goose games and variations on draughts to complex contemporary projects that simulated the work of corporations in detail or allowed players to try themselves out in battles for whole regions where political, economic, and military factors intertwined. Such diversity might be frightening, but now is the time to try different things — after all, amidst all the variety, anyone can find something to their liking.
Translated by Charlotte Neve
Berserk is the story of a CCG. DTF: https://dtf.ru/boardgames/29265-berserk-istoriya-odnoy-kki
Donovan, T. 2017. It's all a game. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Fantasy battles - the history of the creation of the first Russian war game: https://pikabu.ru/story/bitvyi_fantasy__istoriya_sozdaniya_pervogo_rossiyskogo_vargeyma_8634186
Ivan Prosvetov. Board game strategy. Forbes. https://www.forbes.ru/svoi-biznes/predprinimateli/68931-strategiya-nastolnyh-igr
Kostyukhina M. S. 2013. Detskiy orakul. Po stranitsam nastol'no-pechatnykh igr [Children’s oracle. Through the pages of board games]. Moscow: Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye.
Kostyukhina, M. S. 2013. Voyennyye nastol'nyye igry v russkoy dosugovoy kul'ture i vospitatel'nykh praktikakh XIX nachala XX veka [Military board games in Russian leisure culture and educational practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries]. Trudy Karel'skogo nauchnogo tsentra Rossiyskoy akademii nauk 4: 56–67.
Peterson, J. 2012. Playing at the world. San Diego: Unreason Press.
Propaganda board games of the early USSR. Leningrad graphomaniac: https://dzen.ru/media/grafoman/propagandistskie-nastolnye-igry-rannego-sssr-5f460a58403bad6d22de1d0d
Samoilov K. I. 1939. Voyenno-morskiye igry, 2-oye izdaniye, dopolnennoye i ispravlennoye [Naval Games, second edition, enlarged and corrected]. Moscow: Voyenno-morskoye izdatel'stvo NKVMF SSSR.
Smart company: https://boardgamer.ru/Intervyu-s-rukovoditelem-kompanii-Sm
Sonina E. S. 2019. Nastol'naya igra dorevolyutsionnoy Rossii kak forma populyarizatsii otechestvennoy istorii [Board games of pre-revolutionary Russia as a form of popularisation of national history]. Sbornik materialov Mezhdunarodnogo nauchnogo foruma. Saint Petersburg: Saint Petersburg State University Press.
“Fantasy Battles”- remember this first Russian tabletop war game? DTF: https://dtf.ru/retro/969076-bitvy-fantasy-pomnite-etot-pervyy-nastolnyy-rossiyskiy-vargeym