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Slow, but steady

David Parlett's success story

by Bruce Whitehill (in Spielbox, issue #1-2012)

auf Deutsch

Page image Whatever you do when you talk with David Parlett, don't mention rabbits and turtles! If you do - and he's still talking to you - you're sure to get a lengthy lecture on how a rabbit is considerably different from a hare, and a turtle is a far cry from a tortoise. And he's a man who should know: His 1973 HARE & TORTOISE game, which became the first Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) winner when it was released by Ravensburger in 1979, has been on the market nearly forty years.

But it's more than just his love of games and his inventiveness that make David Parlett a most interesting person. His interests - and talents - cover such individual things as the music of Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953); the poems that made up Carl Orff's choral work Carmina Burana, which he translated into (in his words) "singable English verse"; and the novels of Jane Austen, which he reread, noting down all the mentions of card games. According to Parlett, her novels are "rich in references to card games and she evidently knew what she was talking about." He also enjoys doing photography - a "quicker, less messy" (as he put it) substitute for the painting he still dabbles in. He continues to do pen-and-ink landscape sketches.

However, his Renaissance nature aside, David Parlett is most recognized for his ambitious work in games. He is the author of 21 books, among them the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Card Games (1979), Family Card Games (1984, written by Parlett under the pseudonym P. R. Jackson), the Oxford History of Board Games (1999), the Oxford A-Z of Card Games (2004), plus revised and repackaged editions and foreign editions in Spanish, Hungarian and Japanese (as well as a German translation of original card games on his website, published by Bambus Verlag in 2008). He authored a series of "Teach Yourself…" books for card games and has written what some consider the most comprehensive book of solitaire (Patience) games ever published (The Penguin Book of Patience, 1979). As a film enthusiast, he takes great pride in staging card games for period dramas in film and TV productions. He taught various actors WHIST, POPE JOAN and BEZIQUE for their performances in BBC-TV productions and stage plays. This consummate, mild-mannered British game researcher even looks a little like Michael Caine, his favourite screen actor (both are from South London). Yet David Parlett is known the world over primarily for a singular achievement: HARE AND TORTOISE. But more on that later…

David Parlett is an inexhaustible writer, having penned many articles in addition to his books. He began writing in 1972 for Games and Puzzles magazine, shortly after it premiered. By then he had already designed what he calls his most successful card game, NINETY-NINE, which was produced in 1968 and is now in the public domain (which is often the case with games using generic cards. He has invented dozens of card games since. He cites BUGAMI as probably the best of his other games. Another recent favourite is PARITY, which, like many of his other games, is on his website but has never been in print. "You can't publish card games without 'theming' them. I like abstract games - very simple rules - but you can't market these; all you can do is show them on your website and let people make their own."

He prefers card games that can be played with ordinary playing cards - classics like CRIBBAGE, SIXTY-SIX, PIQUET, SPADES and SKAT. He plays bridge but thinks "it's vastly overrated and played by some of the most irritating people in the world." He is president of the British Skat Association and has been playing this three-player German national card game for almost 25 years [actually since 1963 - DP]; his first games book was Teach yourself Card Games for Three.

Parlett prefers card games to board games, abstract games to themed ones, and depth over complexity. "I don't like complicated games," he remarked. "I want to be able to read the rules before playing the game, not while playing it." And, as a historian, he's not particularly interested in modern games - "except abstract ones, because they're timeless," he adds. His favourite abstract game is Pentominoes, by Solomon Golomb (mathematician inventor of polyominoes, the inspiration for the computer game Tetris).

All this interest in games began, David Parlett conjectures, when [as a young child] he saw his cousin's compendium of games containing a set of DOMINOES with coloured pips. By the end of 1973, at the age of 34, he was negotiating with companies for the sale of HARE AND TORTOISE. "The decade of the 1970s was the golden era of games in the U.K., but then it faded. Britain (now) gets swamped with U.S. imports, and the small, backstreet English companies are here today and gone tomorrow. For my money, the best games are the ones published in Germany."

HARE AND TORTOISE was initially published by Intellect Games, a British company that didn't survive very long. The game is dated 1973, but "it was only a few days before Christmas that they accepted the game and we signed a contract. It wasn't actually published till about May '74." He "invented it in October and finalized it in November!" The BoardGameGeek website calls HARE AND TORTOISE "a cunningly designed race to the finish… It's a very clever exercise in arithmetic which David Parlett has fashioned into an entertaining and unique perennial favourite." More than two million copies have been sold in at least 10 languages and various editions, including slight rules variations with each new release. Parlett says that in terms of appearance, the original 1978 Ravensburger game (Hase und Igel) was his favourite. [In some ways I still hanker after the original Intellect product.  - DP.] "The Waddington's one was not a good design, and the early [1987] Gibson was a pale imitation of the original design."

The idea of HARE AND TORTOISE is based on the Aesop fable in which the tranquil tortoise wins because the rapid rabbit - I mean, hurrying hare - takes a nap, the moral being: slow and steady wins the race. In Germany, the Aesop story is not as well known as the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about the hare ("Hase") and the hedgehog ("Igel"), in which the hedgehog beats the hare. What's interesting is that in the Grimm tale, the hedgehog succeeds by scheming (his wife impersonates him and periodically enters the race ahead of the hare). The design of the playing pieces was to allow the figure of the tortoise to be used also as the hedgehog, since this was the preferred form in some European countries. The fact that Americans called the characters a turtle and a rabbit always annoyed Parlett. (Maybe this article will finally correct that!) "Rabbits are nauseously cute, cuddly and gregarious" Parlett points out, " whereas hares are eccentric, individual, and tend to be loners. I'm more of a hare than a bunny myself." [And I discovered only recently that I was born in a year of the Hare! - DP.]

Hare and Tortoise uses a clever device to govern movement: with carrots as the energy force, the more spaces you want to go, the proportionally more carrots you have to spend; e.g., it costs 1 carrot to move 1 space but 10 carrots to move 4 spaces. Your position in the race determines how many carrots you can earn. But you can't finish if you have too many carrots left. And then there're the lettuce cards…

The mechanism for the game was derived from an earlier unpublished prototype, SPACE RACE, which was created around the time of the first moon landing, but was deemed too complicated at the time. As he was playtesting the mechanism, the "slow-but-steady" idea and hare and tortoise theme came into mind. "Trouble is, it looks like a children's game, but it isn't," Parlett commented. "This has been a constant criticism (of the game) for all the years of its existence."

The Ravensburger edition of HASE UND IGEL that came out in 2008 reintroduced the layout that first appeared in 1987 and changing the rules for what occurs when landing on hare squares, the one element in the game open to chance. Parlett reacted to various players' comments and especially to suggestions made by HARE & TORTOISE aficionados in the on-line Google newsgroup, According to Parlett, these modifications "make it, as far as I'm concerned, the definitive edition." A redesigned English-language edition by Gibsons Games was released in the U.K. in 2010. This latest version, in keeping with the game's abstract principles, has been redesigned graphically and uses sketches that surround the race track to depict famous English landmarks, including St Paul's Cathedral and Blackpool Tower.

Pictured at Göttingen Though HARE AND TORTOISE pemiered four decades ago, Parlett hasn't given up on the idea of inventing another hit. "I have got at least half a dozen games waiting for the right publisher to come along", he reports.

I asked David Parlett whether he thought the slow and steady sale of his game over decades was an analogy of the story of the hare and tortoise itself. His reply: "Well, now you come to mention it…"

Footnote by DP
According to one Chinese horoscope website, "Persons born in the Year of the Hare are talented and ambitious. They are popular with anybody and good entertainers which often makes them the centre of attention. Even though they are liked they are rather pessimistic, insecure and are afraid of changes. They almost never lose their temper and are very good-natured. In the business world however they are smart and make the right decisions according to instinct. Nevertheless they are no gamblers. Hares are known for their sense of art and for that reason often have beautiful homes. They match persons born in the Year of the Sheep, Pig or Dog".

Not a bad guess - except that I am not and never have been pessimistic, and although I don't consider myself "afraid of changes" it is true that I dislike having my routine disrupted by extraneous events like accidents, parties and public holidays.

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