Where to put games. In the tech section? In the culture section? In the kid’s section? Or how about this: let’s put them between the invention of farming and the invention of pottery. The neolithic! This is where the first games are found. Mankind lives in walled environments, someone’s in charge, and these game boards are being created, flat slabs with two parallel lines of holes in them.
These extremely early sorts of games are not directly present in 51 Worldwide Games, a Switch compilation that has had me completely spellbound for the last few weeks. Even so, I like to think it’s all connected, which means that this reasonably priced compendium of dice and board and card games, of mechanical games and paper games and good old bowling, has sort of been in development for at least 5000 years. No wonder it’s such a treat to play! No wonder it’s such a confident, comprehensible thing. It puts Valve Time and Blizzard Time in the context of deep time.
I can make it sound quite bewildering if I talk about how it works. 51 Games supports single-player and multiplayer. Some games like Solitaire variants are single-player only, as the name suggests. Most are multiplayer. Many – mainly excluding card games where you need to keep your hand a secret – are multiplayer on a single Switch, some allowing for touchscreen controls, some allowing for Joy-Cons and many allowing for both. Then there’s local play, which only requires one version of the game, and online multiplayer where everyone needs their own copy. (Online multiplayer’s quite neat incidentally: you select three games you’re interested in and then you can play solo while you wait for matches.)
In reality, this stuff is incredibly simple, because it’s all dictated by the game. Multiplayer air hockey with one system? Touchscreen affair, the Switch laid flat and two people moving the pieces with their fingers. Bowling? Joy-Cons and motion controls and it’s Wii Sports all over again. Think about how the game works, and you’ll almost certainly be able to understand how it works here.
In fact, 51 Worldwide Games could not be more straightforward. Pick a game from the list of 51 and you get a brief skippable introduction, a quick version of the rules – and some hints – and then you’re off to play it. The presentation is clear and sharp and the UI gets itself out of the way.
Maximum effort – all carefully concealed – has been put into tactility. The cards have a lovely purr and snap as they’re shuffled and dealt. Chess pieces come down with a felt-cushioned thock. Bowling balls rumble ominously towards pins. Mancala beads ping delightly into their pockets. I could go on! But I won’t because there are 51 of these things and they’re all worth playing.
At one end we have paper games – there’s a grid and you take turn drawing lines to connect dots. Whoever makes a box gets to own it and then take another turn, and the big question comes down to who makes the most boxes. Then there are board games. Connect Four, but also stuff like Mancala, which is absolutely captivating with its beads and its planting and its tidal change back and forth as the pieces go round.
Actually, stop for a second – a word here about Mancala because it gets to the heart of this collection and what makes it so special. Mancala is an ancient board game that I’m told is about planting crops. It’s probably the closest this collection gets to those neolithic game boards, and if you squint it shares their basic layout. Here’s the thing: I have always wanted to play Mancala, but I’ve never had a board, and then I don’t know the rules, and then I don’t have anyone I can reliably talk into playing a few games while we both learn the rules together. 51 Games solves all of these problems without blinking. It is truly a lonely child’s best friend.
Anyway, loads of the classic board games are here. There’s a lovely version of chess, there’s checkers and backgammon and Chinese Checkers, which I have not played in an absolute age, along with stuff like Ludo and Gomoku, which is played on a Go board but turns out to be a bit like Connect Four. Shogi! Dominos! Onwards! Loads of board games!
Then there are card games like Solitaire and Poker and a non-brand Uno and President, alongside something like War which is an absolute riot, complete chance, complete dumb luck but all delivered with pace and flair. There’s Hanafuda, which is just a total glory and seems to my idiot brain to be a deeply refined take on the rummy format, but I’m happy to play a bit more and be proved wrong. There’s Blackjack and matching and a game called Speed, which I have absolutely fallen for and would otherwise never have learned.
After that come the sports, like Golf, which is lovely and simple, harking back to the NES days, and Billiards and Bowling, which is probably the main reason a lot of people are going to pick this up and who can blame them? Motion controls and brilliant feedback and you’re done for the whole night. There’s Darts, which I cannot get to grips with, but then I am all fingers and thumbs, and then there’s a load of toy games – sports which you play using wonderfully recreated mechanical sets.
Toy boxing is very basic – guard and punch and you’re done. Toy Baseball, though, is pretty great, a stripped down version of the game which didn’t make me wish for the motion controls of Wii Sports. Toy Tennis! Toy Football! I am not being comprehensive here, and then we’re on to tank games and shooting galleries and motion control fishing that had my daughter absolutely captivated for the best part of a day.
There’s fancy stuff along the way. I gather some games allow you to connect Switches via Mosaic. There’s a piano included as a treat, and I guess if you had more than one switch you could have more than one octave. Then there are unlockables, which are mainly card backs so far, and very welcome too. There’s a sort of overworld thing with a globe and different characters who have arranged the games in certain themes, and you can bundle up your favourites and share them online too. There is probably more to this business, but in truth I am drawn back to the games themselves – particularly the option to play a random game – so I think this stuff will remain untapped for me at least.
It’s surprisingly hard for me to talk about what makes 51 Worldwide Games so special without devolving into listing its components. In this way, it works quite differently to a lot of games I love, which are often zoned in on one or two specific things that they absolutely nail. This game, the variety is what it’s nailing, the variety and the implementation of each game, which seems so invisible, and is probably all the more intricate because of that.
This is sheer potential: the potential of games, the potential of people to find things to entertain us. It’s the box or the shelf in every living room that contains battered copies of Chess and Checkers and packs of cards. But this also contains stuff like Carrom, and Carrom, an Indian game about flicking pucks around, has a huge board and is a major commitment in the real world. Where to store it? How to keep it properly polished?
While I’ve been playing 51 Worldwide Games I’ve been reading Neil MacGregor’s wonderful book A History of the World in 100 Objects, and I’ve come to realise that Nintendo’s collection probably belongs on a shelf next to it – another intimate history of our species. But at the same time I’ve been looking through Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s classic photo book Tokyo: A Certain Style. This is a survey of the interiors of real apartments in Tokyo in all their clutter and diversity. And let me tell you: not much room for a Carrom board in there. Not much room for one in my own house in Brighton.
Every now and then I get a reminder that video games are magic. And weirdly, this collection of things that pre-date video games has reminded me just how magical video games are. This is a history of the world, in part. It’s also a TARDIS of fun. It’s wonderful.