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Trivial pursuits

As skill-testing social games like HQ take hold, antique parlour games help while away the winter in more artful style

When children gathered in the 1800s to play Game of the Goose, a distant precursor to Monopoly, they wouldn't use dice. The devil's device was too strongly associated with gambling. Instead, players shook and spun carved wood pieces adorned with numbers or letters called teetotum. Although games of the time involved some element of chance, moral distinctions of the era sought to distance children from gambling and educate them instead.

Now, Georgian and Victorian Board Games: The Liman Collection meticulously reproduces 50 rare and beautiful British examples of how leisure time was passed from 1790 to the mid-1800s.

The book (Pointed Leaf Press, $88) opens with a group of young people playing Every Man to His Station by candlelight. The 1825 game included educational elements such as depictions of everyday occupations (sailors, soldiers, and doctors) and an instruction book written in rhyming verse.

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Georgian and Victorian Board Games: The Liman Collection (Pointed Leaf Press, $88).

"I think [this image] highlights the mission of these games for parents and children, which were considered an alternative to schooling," says artists and philanthropist Ellen Liman, who put the collection together. "Schooling was spotty in that era, and it's remarkable when you look at every level of erudition that's required to advance and win," she adds. "And, it's visually gorgeous."

Surviving historical examples from this early English period by the artistically important publishers of the day – Darton and Spooner, for example – are exceedingly scarce and with iconic games such as the Game of the Goose and the Adriatic Ostrich, to the more obscure astronomy and science boards, this book assembles as definitive a catalogue raisonné of vintage children's games as exists.

Cross Roads to Conqueror’s Castle.

Liman wrote the book's descriptive material based on research she spent decades collecting with her late husband Arthur Liman, the noted American litigator. "Arthur was very aggressive, and he brought that personality to finding these games," she says. "It was a challenge like winning a case, and one that we shared."

The Wonders of the World.

The collection began, Liman explains, more than 40 years ago when their son, Doug, found a game for $10 in yard sale. After they learned how old it was, they began looking for more. The "little hobby" of searching for games became a "challenging addiction," and the family collection grew – all without any acquisition plan, besides the thrill of the hunt.

Majestic Game of the Asiatic Ostrich.

"We shopped at fancy antiques stores and modest yard sales, at auction houses, flea markets, fairs all over the United States and internationally," she recalls. "We were always the earliest in the morning to arrive, often in the dark, with flashlights in hand, to beat out any competition."

The Circle of Knowledge, a New Game of the Wonders of Nature, Science & Art.

After her husband's death 20 years ago, Liman came across something Arthur had written on the subject in a drawer. That document serves as the book's preface. "In the age before radio, television, the phonograph, and motion pictures, families had to provide their own home entertainment," he wrote. "Rare because they often perished at the hands of children, [the games] have become among the most prized, least known, and interesting artifacts of the emerging middle class at play in England."

There are no trivial pursuits in this book: From imaginative and detailed narrative vignettes of Indian history to science and social etiquette, each parlour game has some sort of educational component. The knowledge-based ones focus on history, morality and mathematics, as well as visually elaborate aspects of science and astronomy. They also offer armchair travel to significant geographical, architectural and archeological sites from Australia and South America, to the leaning Tower of Pisa and the pyramids of Egypt. These sites were particularly relevant during the Industrial Revolution when Britain was promoting itself as becoming more international.

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While her husband was "really much more enthusiastic because of the historical content," as a painter, Liman says she appreciates their artistry – the intricacy, colour sense and visual complexity of favourites, including the Wonder of Art and the Wonders of Nature, or the Elephant and Castle, especially. "They're wonderful illustrations and they're universal."

"The originals, in mint condition, are really rare works of art," she adds of the games' engraved, etched and hand-coloured lithography printed on linen or board, many of which are displayed as fine art in archival frames around Liman's Fifth Avenue home. The museum-quality artifacts are a promised gift to the Yale Center for British Arts in New Haven, Conn. But, Liman says, "it's important for me to be able to share this with as big an audience as possible."

Accordingly, the lavish book is designed in the spirit of the games it showcases – to be as scholarly as it is entertaining. While the avid collectors never played the games themselves, reproductions rendered in 2/3 size and with five full gatefolds mean readers can.

They are windows into another era. "The games reflect the biases of their times," Liman says, including aspects of player comportment that today seem quaint. In the Mansion of Happiness, published by Laurie and Whittle in 1800, for example, a player who landed on the square of Piety, Honesty, Sobriety, Chastity, Charity or Humility advanced, while Audacity, Cruelty or Immodesty required the player to lose a turn or to move backwards. "In one of the games there was a reference to somebody flirting – you'd get a demerit." Liman adds. "There's these hugely strong moral virtues and vices, if you're virtuous you win, with vices you go backwards. You lose!"

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