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Friday fun: more Polar pastimes

Friday, October 31st, 2014

Last week, I blogged about board games inspired by expeditions to the North Pole, and about how they reflected contemporary interest in polar exploration. This week, it’s the turn of the Antarctic, starting with perhaps the most famous polar exploration of all: the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13. This was the ill-fated expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, which resulted in the deaths of Scott and his shore party during their return journey from the South Pole. They had reached the Pole a couple of months earlier, only to discover that they had already been beaten to it by a rival party led by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

The race to the South Pole was a story of large personalities and national competition, and the game 1911 Amundsen vs Scott (2013) neatly demonstrates this by pitting two players head-to-head in a race to the Pole. The game attempts to mimic the conditions that would have prevailed during a real Antarctic expedition in 1911 – for example, players can have their cards restricted because of “equipment loss”, and the expansion packs include “Patrons”, “Food Depots” and “Damned Weather!”. You can see more of the game in action in video reviews here or here.

Also set in 1911 is the game Roll to the South Pole (2012), in which players assume the identity of one of five explorers from the Heroic Age (the instructions are not clear about the identities of these explorers, but they appear from the illustrations to be Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Charcot and Filchner). The high risks and sheer luck involved are nicely illustrated by the use of not one but fifteen dice to determine the players’ fate.

These games both date from the last 2 years, perhaps inspired by recent centenaries of famous Antarctic expeditions. Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find any contemporary games about Scott’s expeditions. Instead, I’ve found this one about Scott’s contemporary Ernest Shackleton:

Illustrated London News Article View

Called To The Pole With Shackleton, this game was published in 1910, a year after Shackleton returned from the British Antarctic Expedition (Nimrod). The circular papier-mâché board was textured with sastrugi (sharp ridges of snow) and players had to guide their sledges through the resulting maze to the South Pole, using a special magnetic pencil. The picture above comes from the Illustrated London News (24 December 1910), and is titled “Racing sleighs to the South Pole using pencils in place of dogs and “Dr Cook” as assistant. Playing a new Christmas game.” (Presumably the Dr Cook in question was Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the North Pole in April 1909.)

I love this illustration, which shows the whole family clustered around the board, vicariously experiencing the frustrations and triumphs of Antarctic exploration from the comfort of their home in England. For me it really highlights the way that board games allow players to share the excitement of polar exploration … without any of the risk of frostbite, starvation or being mauled by a polar bear!


Friday fun: To the North Pole by Air-Ship

Friday, October 17th, 2014

A couple of months ago, I posted about The Avenging Narwhal, which sits in our Keeper of Collections’ office and startles anyone who goes in to see her. This amazing artefact inspired me to do some research into polar-themed games and toys, which I’ll share here over the next few weeks. Today’s post is about games inspired by exploration of the North Pole during the so-called Heroic Age, and how they reflect the intense interest and excitement evoked at home by polar expeditions.

The game above is splendidly-titled To the North Pole by Air-Ship, and was possibly inspired by Salomon August Andree’s doomed attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon in 1897. (Kaddy and Bridget from the Polar Museum recently blogged about this expedition, too!) In fact, it wasn’t until 1926 that the North Pole was successfully crossed by air, when Roald Amundsen’s airship Norge flew from Svalbard to Alaska.

I haven’t been able to find out anything about the rules to this game, but the box from a later edition gives an idea of the content: it shows some intrepid explorers emerging from their tents to fight polar bears single-handed on the ice while their colleagues fly past in an airship bearing a large American flag. The corner of the box proclaims that the game is part of “The American Boy’s Series”, which fits its general air of patriotic and adventurous heroism.

To the North Pole By Air-Ship was followed by Can You Find the North Pole? and, in 1909, The Game of the North Pole. The latter was probably created following American naval officer Robert Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909, especially as the box shows an explorer proudly planting a US flag in the snow. Peary’s claim remains controversial, and the first confirmed overland journeys to the geographic North Pole were made in 1968-9 by Ralph Plaisted (by skidoo) and Wally Herbert (by dogsled).


The instructions give an idea of the manufacturer’s lofty ambitions – this was a game to educate, enlighten and edify as well as entertain:

“Up-to-date and certainly most interesting and instructive is the North Pole Race in which the players are given some appreciation of the excitement and hardship of a journey through the polar snows, some knowledge of the scenery, the geography, and the natural history of those remote parts. The North Pole Game is to the child what a cinematograph lecture by Sir Ernest Shackleton is to a grown-up … This is a really fine game for children which is as exciting as an adventure-story  and imparts a deal of useful knowledge at the same time.”

In case that all sounded a bit too worthy to be fun, they also described some of the thrilling adventures that you might meet with:

“To begin with, each player is provided with a model of an arctic explorer, clad in the correct cold-proof garb, snow boots, etc. for the latitude. During the game all the incidents of a voyage of Polar Exploration are met with one after another. Here is the sturdily-built whaler caught in the ice-pack, here is the landing party building a snow-hut, here they are engaging Esquimaux for their journey, here they are shooting walruses and seal, here they are fishing through a hole in the ice, here they are admiring the splendour of the aurora borealis as it stretches athwart the sky, here they are making a sledge-dash for the pole, and here at last they are planting the flag upon the untrod solitudes that surround the axis of the earth.”

Phew, that all sounds exhausting!

The Game of the North Pole is a simple roll-and-move board game, in which you throw a die to determine how many numbered squares you move around the board. However, it was enlivened by random hazards (such as you might meet on a real polar expedition) for players unlucky enough to land on certain squares. For example:

  • 6. Ship lingers to look at the midnight sun – lose one throw
  • 16. Mixed up in the drift ice – lose two throws
  • 18. Encounter several walruses – return to square 15
  • 38. Esquimaux village, pay three counters into the pool for a good reception and hospitality
  • 48. Frozen feet. Cannot continue the expedition, therefore drop out of the game
  • 66. Pursued by polar bears. If you are lucky and throw 5, you escape if not, miss two throws
  • 69. Splendid display of northern lights – lose one throw

The games above were produced to celebrate (and cash in on) landmark achievements in Arctic exploration. It’s probably not a coincidence therefore that my last game appeared in 1969, the year after Plaisted reached the North Pole by skidoo:


Race to the North Pole was created long after the Heroic Age had ended, and it is very different in feel from the previous games. It is billed as “the exciting new snowmobile safety game” (surely a contradiction in terms?) and included a booklet called “Play Safe with Snowmobiles For More Winter Fun”. I haven’t been able to find out much about the rules, but it certainly sounds a lot less thrilling than To the North Pole By Air-Ship or The Game of The North Pole!


Friday fun: the avenging narwhal

Friday, July 25th, 2014

[Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and just look at the cuddly penguin at the end of this post.]

During our tea break yesterday, the conversation turned to children’s toys, and more specifically to ones with a polar theme. “Aha!” said Heather, our Librarian and Keeper of Collections, “what you need is The Avenging Narwhal!” We all looked blank, so Heather dived into her office and came out with this:


In the photo above, Heather is holding “The Avenging Narwhal Play Set – with 4 magical tusks and 3 adorable animals to impale!“. Inside the box there is indeed a plastic model narwhal impaling some adorable animals – here, a baby seal:


This isn’t just gratuitous violence, however! The back of the box tells the ancient legend of “The Narwhal: Nature’s Unicorn”, which explains why narwhals have got it in for seals, penguins and, er, koala bears. The story is rather long but is worth quoting in full, I think:

For centuries, the Narwhal was the great mystery of the sea. With the body of a whale and the horn of a Unicorn, many people believed that these fascinating creatures were harmless inhabitants of the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. Recent studies, however, have exposed the secret agenda of these mysterious mammals and the true purpose of their extraordinarily long pointy tusks.

The studies revealed that millions of years ago, penguins, snow seals and koalas ruled the earth. For sustenance, they feasted upon whales, dolphins and other sea mammals to the point of near extinction. But the Narwhal went into hiding beneath the ice of the North Pole, biding their time, planning their revenge and sharpening their tusks. Finally, they reemerged, tusks gleaming with newfound magical power, and fought back against the adorable creatures that threatened their existence. The battle was long, and many Narwhal were lost, but their strong will and sharp tusks were enough to stave off the cute ones temporarily.

Now, once a year, in a continuous effort to keep their enemies at bay, the Narwhal leave their homes to embark on a treacherous migration to Antarctica in the hunt for baby penguins and seal pups. Many will not return … Along their journey, they will spend time in Australia, swimming upstream to the inland habitat of the koalas, where they will actually leap out of the water to spear the deadly koalas from their perches high in the Eucalyptus trees.

In order to carry out its deadly mission, the avenging narwhal has four magical tusks:


In reality, of course, narwhals are fatal only to the fish, shrimp and squid that form the bulk of their diet – and narwhals themselves are threatened by human activity (primarily climate change).

I was fascinated by the Avenging Narwhal and did some research into other polar-themed games and toys. There are actually quite a lot of them, and I will be posting some of them to this blog over the coming weeks – if you have any particular favourites to share, please e-mail me!


PS At the beginning of the blog, I promised a cute baby penguin as a more tasteful polar-themed toy, and here it is!