Personal Luxuries

A new game plan

These sumptuous games combine fun with an appreciation of craftsmanship. And unlike their electronic counterparts, they can be passed down the generations, says Nicole Swengley.

December 18 2009
Nicole Swengley

When Dr John Ind, a practising GP, and his wife, Dorothy, who runs Chelsea Ballet Schools, entertain their family – including young grandchildren – there is nothing they enjoy more than chess, backgammon, draughts or an invigorating game of cards. And a large part of their enjoyment derives from the beautifully crafted, American-walnut games table on which their tournaments take place. The playing surface, which is chequered in ripple sycamore and rosewood, reverses to a backgammon board inlaid in satinwood, ripple sycamore and Macassar ebony, while the weighted chessmen and backgammon pieces, which are hand-carved in rosewood and sycamore, are stored in two integral drawers.

“It’s the quality of the woodwork – the combination, colours and fine detail, such as the ebony stringing – and the superb craftsmanship involved that make it such a pleasure to use,” says Ind. “And having such a beautiful, one-off piece made specially for us is fabulous. It sits in our games and media room and everyone who comes over wants to use it.”

“Having a beautifully crafted board and handmade playing pieces turns simple pastimes into special occasions,” says Tim Gosling, the London-based designer who created the Inds’ games table. “Now that people are spending more time entertaining at home they’re finding traditional pursuits, such as bridge, cribbage and board games, enjoyed over a few drinks, are a sociable way to spend an evening.”

Gosling, whose bespoke games tables cost about £22,000, makes tables for Monopoly and Scrabble and luxurious sets of individual games, including a crocodile-skin backgammon board (“fabulous but very difficult to make as it needs to be really big to avoid seams running across the board”). Nor is he alone in his appreciation of glamorous games sets. It’s easy to spot the revival of interest when you see Hermès selling playing-card holders (£320) in its signature orange leather, or Selfridges devoting an area to Aspinal of London’s games sets: Monopoly (£595) with a lambskin-leather board and pewter playing pieces; Scrabble (£595) with a handmade, leather playing board; backgammon (£625) with a mock-croc, calf-leather board; and chess (£595) with a printed lambskin-leather board and hand-carved boxwood chessmen.

Proving the point that beautifully crafted games are now seen as decorative additions for the home, it’s noticeable that long-established manufacturer Geoffrey Parker (who supplied the chessboard used in the historic Reykjavik clash between Boris Spassky and Robert Fischer in 1972) unveiled its latest hand-crafted designs at the interiors trade show, Decorex, in September. These include a hand-inlaid 24-games Cube, the exterior of which comprises six calf-leather gaming boards (Monopoly, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Cluedo, backgammon and chess) and a further 19 games concealed inside.

Designer David Linley’s bespoke games include a chic backgammon set in a mouthwatering combination of red, black and cream leather (£3,750); a funky giant dominoes set in navy and cream leather (£2,850); and a smart Monopoly set in red and cream leather with Macassar ebony detail (£5,395). A bespoke Scrabble set (£4,995) in navy and cream leather with zebrano detail rotates on a concealed turning mechanism to reveal storage below the board for tiles and holders. Any of the bespoke games can be colour customised, so if you’re looking for a particular shade to suit a cosy, plum-coloured study or a Soane-yellow drawing room then these can be ordered. Meanwhile, Linley’s Macassar ebony dice box (£245) containing five poker and five standard dice would make a welcome gift for games-players, especially with the inlaid, hallmarked, sterling-silver plaque suitably engraved.

Christmas, of course, is a time when playing games comes into its own as family and friends find time for inter-generational pursuits. And, this year, top retailers are offering some sumptuous games sets inspired by the revival of interest in glamorous surface materials. Alfred Dunhill, for example, has covered its new games compendium box (£33,000) in dark-grey shagreen and cedarwood. Inside are cedarwood boards for chess, backgammon and noughts and crosses, plus sterling-silver playing pieces. Neatly nestled in the base are playing cards and gaming pencils, poker dice and bridge score-cards. “Our customers want beautiful, handmade games where they can combine the enjoyment of play with an appreciation of craftsmanship,” explains Carol Pierce, Dunhill’s head of hard products.

In a bold leap of imagination, Dunhill’s shagreen craftsmen have also covered a Rubik’s Cube (£695) with the same durable material (derived from the skin of male rays), polishing each square to one of six brilliant shades. Just as tactile is Dunhill’s new poker set (£350) housed in a black lacquer box, reminiscent of 1930s cigarette cases and containing two packs of cards, dice and 300 chips in fashionable metallic colours. Dunhill’s playing cards, meanwhile, are each brushed in 24ct gold leaf, hallmarked 999, and presented in a leather box (£825). Nor are these diamond-patterned gold-backs just for show, since a transparent plastic coating provides the durability needed for years of play.

Asprey, too, offers some elegant games sets at its stores in London, New York, Miami, Tokyo and Dubai. There’s an alligator backgammon set in purple or brown (£9,750), a red leather travelling chessboard (£2,400) and a playing-card case in black polished alligator skin (£950). A chessboard in olive-and-camel calf leather, (£2,400) comes with chesspieces that are hand-crafted in beech and ebony, and if you fancy staging a really grand contest that potentially takes over the living-room floor, look no further than Asprey’s black calf-leather dominoes (£1,100).

Handmade leathers in hot fashion colours are Trevor Pickett’s speciality, and one he turns to good use with his latest games. These include a chess set with a leather board chequered in purple and lime green (£1,550), a damask-embossed leather backgammon set with a plum suede and aqua leather playing surface (£1,025) and a Scrabble set, the board of which comprises black-and-coloured-lizard leather squares, while the leather tiles are blocked with silver letters (£2,350). Bespoke versions of chess, backgammon, Monopoly or Scrabble can be ordered in your own choice of colour – think hot-pink, purple or aqua for a real conversation piece.

Keen gamesters might be tempted by an impressive Games Armoire made by the Florentine manufacturer, Agresti (£10,000, at Harrods). The elegant, ebony, wheeled compendium has leather handles and removable trays containing roulette, blackjack, bridge, backgammon, chess (with brass chesspieces), draughts, dominoes, mah jong, playing cards, poker dice and 550 chips. Harrods also offers a tactile backgammon set by Geoffrey Parker whose board (and case) are made from water-snake (£4,300), and a John Jaques limited-edition chess set, based on the original 1850 Staunton design, with an inlaid board and handcrafted, boxwood and ebony chessmen in a mahogany case (£4,300). As Simon Longland, Harrods’ fashion accessories general merchandise manager, points out, “These beautifully crafted pieces are designed to last, with one generation passing these classic games to another. Unlike electronic gaming machines, they do not date.”

If you’re attracted by the idea of using a vintage set handled by generations of enthusiasts, Pickett sells 19th-century English and French games, such as cribbage, chess, backgammon, dominoes and solitaire (£50 to £3,500) at his Burlington Arcade outlet. “When I find them I buy them because people love their patina and provenance,” he says. Like Gosling, he believes it’s the social interaction of games-playing which accounts for its new-found popularity. “You really do have a lot of fun with these games,” he says. “You also feel you’re spending the evening doing something constructive rather than flopping around watching television. And, best of all, it means that neither you nor your friends can keep checking your BlackBerry when you’re concentrating on a game.”