Game Changers: Billiards

Matheson Marcault
Aug 14, 2018 · 10 min read

This is the first of three short essays looking at how different games evolve over time, with players making tiny changes and reinventing as they play — how a game played on medieval lawns eventually became pinball, how chess variants proliferated across the world, how the basic structure of a maze has formed the basis of installations and paper puzzles and digital games. The essays are intended as an online summary of some of the thinking behind the Game Changers exhibition, which we helped curate at Somerset House in April 2017.

Early 1880s chromolithograph poster // unknown artist // via Wikimedia Commons

A game isn’t one singular thing, an object or a set of rules that remains constant. Games only exist when people are playing them — and those people don’t all play the same way.

Maybe someone remembers a couple of rules wrong, or improvises in lieu of equipment they don’t have. Perhaps they know the route through a maze too well, so decide instead to chase one another through the hedges as fast as they can. Maybe someone gets tired of the old way to play a game, and decides to see what happens if they try something new.

The history of games is the history of thousands of people endlessly trying out new ideas: of taking something familiar and then twisting it; of not just playing the game, but playing with the game. The exhibition Game Changers, which ran at Somerset House from 7 April to 7 May 2017, took three familiar games — billiards, chess and mazes — and explored how they have changed through the centuries and inspired new ways to play. Historical objects and images were combined with inventive variants by contemporary artists and game designers, which visitors were invited to play.

This essay runs through many of the objects, images and games included in the exhibition, exploring the idea of game design through the accretion of tiny changes.

Billiards: From lawn to table

Games in the billiards family encompass a huge range of ways to play on table tops, yet we can trace all these games back to a series of games that were played not on a table but on grass. (The legacy of games in this family, generally referred to as “lawn billiards”, lives on in the grassy green baize of the typical billiards table.)

The Centre of Love: Discovered Through Various Emblems, Gallant and Facetious // Peter Rollos, France, 1680 // University of Illinois/Public Domain

Lawn billiards (above) was played outdoors in Europe from the 1500s onwards. Players used “mallets” — long sticks with flattened ends that they could use to scoop or flip the balls, tossing them around, hitting them into other balls and through metal hoops.

A Game of Billiards // Adriaen van de Venne, Netherlands, 1620–25 // Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Royal Jeu des Fortifications // Artist Unknown, reproduced from Mœurs intimes du passé (1900) by Dr Augustin Cabanès / Public Domain

Of course, the pleasure afforded by outdoor games is vulnerable to mud, rain and cold. Sooner or later, there’s a day when you want to play, but the billiards lawn is a sodden lump. So eventually billiards moved indoors.

In the first years of indoor billiards there was no standard shape or size for a table, so there was plenty of experimentation with the designs, often including increasingly elaborate obstructions on the tables themselves. These obstructions ranged from tiny buildings (below left) to pockets (above left) — which, unlike the pockets in today’s tables, probably weren’t something to aim for. Instead, they would have been ’hazards’ to be avoided at all costs.

Both of these images to the left show wealthy aristocrats playing early billiards variants inside on a table — but like its outdoor cousin, which had been popular among all social classes, indoor billiards continued to be played widely in shared spaces by members of the general public. Pubs in particular provided opportunities to play: in 1674, Charles Cotton wrote in The Compleat Gamester that England had “few towns of note” without “a publick Billiard-Table”.

The Billiard Room // Thomas Rowlandson, UK, c. 1801 // Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection/Public Domain

At first, players over the years continued to play with their ‘mace’, as the implement was called — a mallet with a club at one end and a point at the other, as shown above. Most people used the club to hit the ball most of the time, but when a ball lay too close to the side of the table for the mallet to fit, the player would strike it with the thin end instead. This use of the far end of the mace started a change that would eventually see the larger blunt end abandoned entirely, and the narrow end evolving into the modern ‘cue’. The change was slow: for a long time, weaker players (and in some cases, women of any skill level) were discouraged from using the sharp end of the mace, for fear they would tear the fabric of the table.

Billiards // Anders Zorn, Sweden, 1898 // Bukowskis Auctions/Public Domain

By the late nineteenth century pool and billiards halls were at their peak of popularity. Although there were still a huge variety of different billiards-like games, many of them had formalised table sizes, ball sizes, sets of rules and even regular championships. During this period, changes to the rules became less frequent. Modern-day snooker, for example, closely resembles a ruleset recorded officially for the first time in Ootacamund, India, in the 1880s. House rules and special exceptions, however, remain popular across the world.

In fact, no single set of rules for billiard-like games ever became dominant. Even with specific forms, like pool or snooker, subtly different rulesets continue to co-exist. In this illustration by Anders Zorn we can see a late 19th century table without pockets, suggesting that the woman depicted is playing one of many versions of carom billiards; if so, her aim would be to hit certain balls against each other, and she would score points whenever she manages to hit both her opponent’s ball and another ball in a single shot.

Variants of this basic game type— carom billiards — are preferred across a lot of continental Europe. Pool and related games, with their smaller scale of table, are favoured in a lot of the USA, snooker-variant sinuca (with just one red ball) in Brazil; generally speaking, pool and snooker are most popular on a global scale. ‘English billiards’, sometimes just referred to as ‘billiards’, is less well known outside England. Across the world, hundreds of different billiards and billiards-ish games continue to be played.

LEFT: Men Shooting Billiards // Gifford Photographic Collection. RIGHT: Marion Post Wolcott, USA, 1939 // The New York Public Library/Public Domain.

A Potted History

But actually: that’s not the half of it. The family of billiards games we know today aren’t the only descendants of that distant lawn billiards. Centuries of experiments and changes led not just to billiards, pool and snooker but to pachinko, bagatelle and even pinball.

Picture from Game Changers, taken by Ben Peter Catchpole

In the picture to the left, taken at the Game Changers exhibition, you might be able to make out an illustration on the back wall depicting a range of table layouts for billiards-derived games from across the world. These designs span three centuries, showing just a few of the many, many forms into which the original game has evolved. A lot of modern designs, such as bar billiards dating from the 1930s, draw on early billiards tables which were scattered with pegs, mushrooms and other obstructions, while some of the older variants pictured here are still played today.

Image from page 66 of Manual of sporting rules: comprising the latest and best authenticated revised rules // Ed James, 1873 // The Library of Congress/Public Domain

The “Bagatelle Rules” image below, from a 19th century manual of rules and guidelines for different sports, is closely related. It shows a large bagatelle table. To play, you tried to knock balls into holes, with different holes worth different points. Just like in normal table billiards today, the scoring ball could not be hit directly by the cue. Instead it needed to be hit with a different ball. This large-scale bagatelle would later give rise to the smaller tables we associate with bagatelle now.

The changing size of bagatelle tables ran alongside the gradual switch from a traditional cue or mallet (inherited from billiards) to a plunger. Even as far back as the late 1700s, some luxuriously elaborate versions of billiards and bagatelle were played with a plunger which the player pulled back, and which would then strike the ball and send it rocketing up the table. This 1871 patent (left) marked the entry of these compact plunger-operated games to a wider market. Redgrave was a British inventor manufacturing bagatelle boards in Chicago, selling them to bars, pubs, amusement arcades and even for play at home.

Once smaller tables and plunger operation had been established, the early twentieth century saw bagatelle and other “pin games” or “pin board games” — now called “pinball”— evolve away from skill-based games and towards luck. To play, you’d launch your ball; it would rattle through the pins; and it would land… somewhere. Your control as a player about exactly where was extremely limited.

GAME // Lorenzo W Harris, USA, 1932 // United States Patent and Trademark Office/Public Domain

There were still innovations in design, but these — like the patent application shown to the left — focused on new patterns and aesthetic elements, not on mechanical developments.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that this would change, with the introduction of the “flipper” allowing for more active and skilful participation from the pinball player.

The legacy of the game’s luck-based history persisted: in some places, particularly in the USA, pinball remained heavily restricted because of its initial association with bagatelle and other ‘games of chance’. The increasing levels of skill required to succeed at pinball weren’t enough to break this association. In this arcade below, for example, the owners are eager to distance the game from associations with gambling, filling the wall with signs that make it clear that there are definitely no prizes involved.

Improvement in Bagatelles // Montague Redgrave, USA, 1871 // United States Patent and Trademark Office/Public Domain

What next?

Home Turf // Edward Saperia, UK, 2012 // Wood, Brass, Felt // photo by Ben Peter Catchpole

In Home Turf (shown here as part of Game Changers at Somerset House), Edward Saperia takes a classic billiards table, and twists it — literally. As a game, Home Turf is surprisingly straightforward, at least at first; anyone who’s played on a normal billiards table knows what to do here. However, it’s only during the course of a game that players begin to understand how to respond to the atypical shape, and to develop strategies to deal with the element of unpredictability that it introduces.

LEFT: Magic Shot // François Alliot, Arnaud De Bock & Renaud Bédard, UK, 2015. RIGHT: INKS // State of Play, UK 2016. Photos by Ben Peter Catchpole at Somerset House.

To create the touchscreen game Magic Shot, developers Nerial took an elegant game in the billiards family, carambole, which is popular in parts of continental Europe but less familiar elsewhere. They then proceeded to make it even less familiar. In carambole, there are no pockets on the table: the aim is to hit two target balls in a single shot (you may remember the nineteenth-century image of a woman playing carom billiards above, on a table with no pockets). In Magic Shot, players have the same aim — but the designers have taken full advantage of the possibilities unique to digital games, creating a table which shifts its shape constantly, presenting new angles and challenges as the game proceeds.

State of Play’s INKS similarly experiments with pinball and the very particular possibilities of a digital version of the game, creating in this case an experience in which ricocheting balls leave beautiful ink patterns, allowing players to express both creativity and dexterity. The trails record the paths that the ball has taken, making for a game that creates an image of its own play, both hectic and beautiful.

And perhaps none of these many many games would exist if the weather had been slightly nicer a thousand years or so back, and the original players of lawn billiards hadn’t been forced to take shelter inside.

Next essay, we’ll look at chess and its evolution through the centuries; and eventually, after that, at the role mazes have played and the games they’ve given rise to.

Matheson Marcault

Written by

We’re Holly Gramazio and Sophie Sampson, and we make games and playful things in London.