The Cultural Legacy of The Royal Game of the Goose

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The Cultural Legacy of The Royal Game of the Goose: 400 Years of Printed Board Games

Adrian Seville

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019

ISBN: 978-9462984974

The Game of the Goose is both a simple race game, played for stakes which are put into a pool at the beginning, with players adding further deposits when landing on hazard squares or on an occupied space, and also a game apparently designed according to complex philosophical and numerological principles.

“This book” writes Adrian Seville “is devoted to showing why the Game of the Goose can lay claim to being the most influential of any printed game in the cultural history of Europe” (p. 14).  It does exactly that, setting out a detailed history of the game in the first and most substantial part of the book, wherein 13 chapters, some 280 pages, discuss the development and significance of the game from its earliest origins, such as they are known, from its genesis in Italy, invented, apparently, “at the consistory in Rome” as some early British editions aver, although this provenance is contradicted by Pietro Carrero’s ascription of a Florentine heritage in his 1617 treatise on chess (Il Gioco de gli Scacchi), and the subsequent diffusion of the game across Europe.

The symbolic aspects of the game offer philosophical and numerological elements to consider in, for example, the length of the track (63 spaces) which may represent “the grand climacteric” of human life, an age deemed significant as a turning point or critical moment, as it is after we pass this critical point, measured in seven nonaries (7 x 9 = 63), that wisdom is achieved, along with the peace that knowledge brings. Goose squares, arranged on the board in two sequences, nine spaces apart (9 = 3 x 3, the trinity of trinities) which start at spaces 5 and 9, may represent spiritual advancement, although in game terms, landing on a goose serves to advance the player’s piece by the value of the throw that caused the player’s piece to land there.  If there is a spiritual aspect to the game in representing the advancement of the soul, the hazard spaces on the board—the bridge, the inn, the well, the labyrinth, the prison and death—are the profane obstacles found in the classic form of the game, which may represent the earthly temptations and difficulties that must be overcome in order to achieve spiritual advancement. 

The symbolic and numerological elements are associated with Renaissance Neo-Platonism and, as Seville explains, while there is no evidence that the philosophers Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) had any direct association with the Game of the Goose, the aim of which is to reach space 63, both Pico and Ficino were associated with the Medici court circle and, as is widely known, Francesco de Medici, as Grand Duke of Tuscany, sent a copy of the game as a gift to Phillip II of Spain. As Seville remarks, “both [Francesco and Phillip] were keenly interested in numerology and symbolism [and] the Medici court was a hotbed of philosophical activity in these areas” (p. 28).

After the initial discussion of the origins of the game and its rich symbolic properties, Seville’s study examines the variant games that evolved from the Game of the Goose, and different thematic interpretations of the game are discussed in national contexts: for example, travel-themed variations in Germany, morality-themed and educational games in England, while a broader range of themes were developed in France. The country-by-country treatment devotes a chapter each to games in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary France; an overview of British games; C17th & C18th British games; C19th British games; German games; later Italian games; Dutch and Flemish games; Spanish and Portuguese games; other countries; and board game links between Europe and the USA.

The second, smaller, part of the book (Chapters 14–17) examines the game’s legacy in the twentieth century, primarily in European games, with chapters on amusement and education; propaganda, polemic and satire; advertising and promotion. The final chapter, The Taming of the Goose, reviews the changing status of the game from a game for adults to younger players, to a family game for children to a fully-fledged children’s game.

It is difficult to do justice to the scope and depth of Seville’s study in a short review such as this, but it offers much useful material, providing en passant, for example, comments on reference material such as books, library and museum collections and digital resources. Some of the sources Seville surveys may already be familiar to those who regularly consult standard reference sources, research library catalogues and national collections, but it is a testament to Seville’s scholarship that the reader is alerted to so broad a range of primary and secondary reference material to follow up for deeper study.

The book itself is a solid library-bound tome priced, at €109, for university libraries and serious readers/dedicated researchers rather than those with just a casual interest in printed board games. A nice touch for a volume at this price point might have included printed end-papers and an integrated silk bookmark. However, the text, images (many in colour), checklist, tables and indices provide a very useful addition to the researcher’s bookshelf. The book will be of interest to those who study board games, as well as to social and cultural historians, and to those concerned with printing history and production techniques.