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A History of Play in Print

Research connects the material legacy of gambling in the Renaissance with contemporary board and card games.

Research  |  Aug 1, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center

This Milton Bradley, & Co. lithograph illustrates the Springfield Bicycle Club—Bicycle Camp-Exhibition & Tournament, Sept. 18-20, 1883. (Library of Congress)

Editor's Note: 

UNLV Center for Gaming Research Eadington Fellow Kelli Wood is an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan and a postdoctoral scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows. An art historian, she has researched the art of game play from the 16th century to modern day. She will deliver a colloquium, “A History of Play in Print: Paper Games from Cards to Candyland” at 2 p.m. Aug. 4 in the Goldfield Room, Lied Library. RSVP here.


For certain generations, Milton Bradley was synonymous with board games, famously producing hits such as Life, Chutes & Ladders, Battleship, and Candy Land well into the 2000s. Few, however, remember Milton Bradley as an artist or printer, with works like his colorful 1883 poster advertising the Springfield Bicycle club all but forgotten.

Moreover, and perhaps surprisingly to some, this modern material culture of games — including not only board games, but also gambling games — is rooted in a legacy of printmaking started during the Renaissance. The material history of printed games has impacted not only the distribution and economics of our games, but also their social, moral, and aesthetic significance.

Kelli WoodI take a look at the evolution from Renaissance cards to modern board games and what they tell us about how we play with storytelling, imagination, and chance. The combination of cards, dice, and game boards involving imagined journeys in our modern games is rooted in printed games from the early modern era. These games intertwine money and commerce; create fictional maps and worlds; and teach morality and strategy in relation to fortune and chance.

During my time at UNLV Special Collections, my research has made particular use of the Taxe Collection, which contains significant 16th- and 17th-century materials that shed light on both the practical and moral sides of gaming.

On the practical side are works such as La maison academique contenant les jeux (Paris: Chez Estienne Loyson, 1659), which describes the rules and mode of play for many popular printed games at the time, including card games such as piquet, and board games such as the game of the goose.

The moral side includes works such as a rare copy of a 1585 tract dedicated to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Del giuoco: discorso del padre m. Tommaso Buoninsegni (Florence: Giorgio Marescotti, 1585), which contextualizes gambling within a theological framework. Divine providence drives fortune, clearing the way for a popular court activity to continue.