Story: Cards, board games and puzzles

Page 2. Games in colonial society

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British origins of games

In the early 19th century working-class adult Britons played a variety of traditional board games, especially in public houses (pubs). These games included shove ha’penny, nine men’s morris, dominoes, backgammon, draughts and cribbage. Wealthier Britons were more likely to play ‘parlour games’ in their own homes, especially chess and card games such as whist (a forerunner of bridge) and vingt-et-un (also called twenty-one, and later pontoon), and solo games such as solitaire and patience.

The earliest European migrants to New Zealand, such as seamen, traders and missionaries, brought their favourite games from their homelands. Some of those games are no longer found in New Zealand but others, especially draughts, chess and card games such as patience, remain popular in the 2000s.

Shipboard games

The many thousands of immigrants to New Zealand in the mid-19th century faced a long and boring voyage. Games made shipboard conditions more enjoyable, and card and board games could be played even under the worst sailing conditions. Gambling on board the immigrant ships was forbidden but, nonetheless, widely practised. Passengers on the Boyne, which sailed to Lyttelton in 1878–79, gambled on card games from breakfast to night.

Precious chess

In 1884 Archdeacon Henry Harper learned that a prospector, John Davies, had been found drowned, holding ‘a chess board, like a small backgammon board, closed, with the men inside held in their places with pegs’. Archdeacon Harper remembered that he had met Davies years earlier in Hokitika, where ‘he asked me to teach him chess. I happened to have a small closed board, fitted with men, which I gave him’. Davies told Harper, ‘be sure if anything happens, wherever I am picked up, this chess board will be found on John Davies.’1

Games in colonial homes

Settlers in the young colony found that opportunities for recreation were limited and card and board games remained popular with all ages. In many colonial households a box containing a variety of board games, known as a compendium, was a well-used possession. Those games included some still played in the 21st century, such as snakes and ladders, ludo, chess and draughts, and others that became rare, such as parcheesi, halma and quartettes.

Card games were just as popular among children. Colonial favourites included old maid, beggar my neighbour, grab (or snap) and animal grab. Older children and their parents might play vingt-et-un, cribbage, euchre, whist and, from the 20th century, bridge. Several of these games are still widely played in New Zealand, often in electronic versions.

  1. Henry W. Harper, Letters from New Zealand 1857–1911: being some account of life and work in the province of Canterbury, South Island. London: Hugh Rees, 1914, p. 217. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Cards, board games and puzzles - Games in colonial society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013