Shiny Happy Meeple
The year 2000 might seem like the stone age from our lofty sci-fi 2020 viewpoint, but something mammoth happened back then that changed the world forever. I’m not talking about the rare astronomical conjunction or the finale of the Peanuts comic strip. Not the almighty return of Kylie Minogue nor the discovery of 100 corpses in the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Egypt. Nay. I speak of Meeples.
This year the word ‘meeple’ is just 365 days away from being able to drink legally in the United States. Twenty years ago, during a game of Carcassonne one presumably chilly November evening, Alison Hansel fused together the words ‘my’ and ‘people’ and lo, the world changed. Today, the word is synonymous for virtually any character piece used in Euro-style games and is a sure-fire codeword for identifying fellow board game geeks. Now images of Carcassonne’s iconic meeples can be found on mouse-mats, t-shirts, soft furnishings and memes plastered across the sticky walls of the internet. But things weren’t always this way.
In The Beginning, There Was Senet
A far cry from the colourful meeples we all know, the pawns of Senet resemble ear-spacers and disposable earplugs. The game itself is one of history’s oldest and dates as far back as the year 3100 BC! Beautifully coloured stone boards and pieces were buried in the tombs of revered Egyptians confirming that even the dead play games. Let’s hope Zatu can deliver as far as the underworld. But how did we get from the stone pieces of Senet to the plastic penguins of Hey, That’s My Fish? I’m glad you asked…
The World's Most Iconic Playing Pieces
I once worked in a factory packaging chess pieces. The pay was fairly good for the ‘90s but the endless knights were exhausting. All joking aside, there is nothing more iconic and instantly recognisable than a chess set. The Lewis chessmen discovered in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland were beautifully carved from walrus tusks. They are possibly the only complete medieval chess sets surviving on Earth. With even earlier origins in 6th Century India is a game called Parchisi, the Great-Grandfather of a game we all know and love: Ludo.
Like Meeples, But Limbless
Ludo pieces are at once iconic and the tadpole equivalent of meeples. Born in the same vivid colours as meeples but yet to grow their arms and legs, Ludo pieces are recognised across the globe. A German version of the game, Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht, was immensely popular even amidst the chaos of the trenches in World War One. The simple shape of the Ludo piece was carried, pretty creepily, onto the character cards of Cluedo. Here they gained anthropomorphic features and have haunted my nightmares ever since. There is nothing more ghoulish than being pursued by an armless Rev. Green whose already sinister-looking head appears to have been impaled on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Best we don’t examine my dreams too closely.
Picking Up The Pieces
Since the word meeple entered the Oxford English Dictionaries in 2015, evolution has blustered on. These days you can buy wooden animals (animeeples) to replace basic pieces in games like Agricola, and war gaming miniatures have been refined to a degree verging on fine art. There are even companies offering 3D renderings of your likeness to use in games like Talisman or to hurl into the dark underbelly of the Forgotten Realms.
Honesty and accuracy are not essential, thankfully, otherwise I would be forced to play a lanky miniature whose normal armaments have been replaced with a coffee mug and plate of hash browns. Game designers are continually pushing the boundaries to make their game components as attractive and tactile as possible, so which contemporary games have the best-looking bits?
Time to stifle your inner-geek-squeal because you ‘will not be able to resist these pearls’. Not only does the box resemble an 80’s VHS player and TV, but the hackneyed Monopoly pieces have been replaced with something far more exciting. Players can now choose to play as Eleven’s Eggo, Mike’s D20 dice, or Steve’s iconic nailed baseball bat to name just a few.
I don’t even know where to…This. Is. Awesome. No longer is your choice simply black or white. Nope, now you pick either Team Buzz or Team Woody. The highly detailed resin pieces look like they’ve been pulled straight out of John Lasseter’s head. Even the pawns have had the Pixar treatment; Team Buzz’s pawns are the Little Green Men while keeping rank for Woody is Sarge throwing up a jaunty salute. And who doesn’t want to be shouting out Mr. Pricklepants to e5, Bo Peep to g4?!
These pre-painted figures for Arkham Horror / Mansions of Madness are both exquisitely grotesque. Huzzah! They look superb either as a display piece or as a 3D embellishment during gameplay. H.P Lovecraft would no doubt keep a collection of these on his desk in Providence were he still with us today. Creepy chap. Ah! I propose a new term for these wildly disturbing pieces: Creeples!