The Noble Game Of Elephant And Castle

The world is our oyster now. We can, or at least could, travel almost anywhere in the world we care to choose and, courtesy of the internet, information is at our fingertips. In the early 1820s this was anything but the case. Britain’s empire was growing as more and more exotic parts of the globe turned pink on the map, but information about these far-flung parts of the Empire was hard to come by. In 1822 bookseller from London, William Dalton, sought to quench this thirst for knowledge whilst providing some entertainment. The Noble Game of Elephant and Castle was born.

The game was played on a rather splendid board which depicted an elephant complete with howdah and mahout. There were twenty-five cubes on the board, each one representing a place in the East, from the frozen Arctic waters in the north down to the regions of India, China, and Japan. The game was played by up to four and each player had a Traveller together with four counters of the same colour. Instead of dice, which in those days was associated with gambling, moves were determined by using a Teetotum, something akin to a spinning top with numbers on its polygonal body.

Whoever span the highest number, the teetotum was marked 1 to 8 on its faces, was declared the first player and their initial duty was to read out what was known as “The Caution”. This came in the form of a poem warning the players of the evils of cheating and gambling, just what was needed to set the right tone for the game. The order in which the players played the game was determined by their initial spin of the teetotum.

The first player would then spin the teetotum again and move their Traveller the allotted number of spaces on the board. When they had settled on a cube, they were instructed to read about the area the cube represented from an accompanying booklet. In this way they would learn fascinating facts about the customs and history of the place, important military conflicts, historical figures and would be encouraged to compare and contrast the way people lived with the British model. The other players would follow suit.

Some of the cubes instructed the player to miss one or more goes and to place a certain number of their coloured counters on the cube. At each subsequent go they would remove a counter instead of spinning the teetotum and it was only when all the counters had been removed that they were free to move forward. I suppose this was a device to elongate a game which with just twenty-five cubes would be over in the blink of an eye.

The winner was the first to get to the twenty-fifth cube, known as A Gentoo. You had to land exactly on the cube to win. If you were on number 22 and span a five, you would go three forward (to 25) and then two back (to 23) to use up all your throw. Again, this had the effect of protracting the game.

It was as much an educational as an enjoyable game and you can imagine that the novelty of it would wear pretty thin. Still, the board was a thing of beauty.

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