Pieter de Jode (1570-1634), El Juego Real de Cupido, Otramente Llamado el Passa Tiempo de Amor, published by Pieter de Jode, Antwerp, around 1620, etching, 38 x 50 cm, Maps * 999.(1.)

The Royal Game of Cupid: a 17th-century board game

An engraved game, the Game of Cupid, was printed in the Spanish Netherlands in about 1620 and is a unique treasure in the British Library’s map collections. Marjolein Leesberg explores its origins and development.

One of the most classic board games, played since the Middle Ages throughout Europe, is the Game of the Goose. Known today as a children’s game, originally this game of a journey of chance and pursuit was played by adults with monetary stakes and fines, and even hazards such as having to offer a round of drinks. In the early 17th-century a variant was developed, in which the geese were replaced by cupids, making it into an entirely different game of pursuit!

The British Library holds a unique print of this Game of Cupid, published in Antwerp about 1620 by the Flemish engraver, designer and print publisher Pieter de Jode I (1573–1634). Early impressions of board games are extremely rare since they were objects of use, paper pasted on board, to be discarded when worn out. The present print is even more remarkable for the fact that all inscriptions, the title, the rules, and even the Antwerp address of the publisher, are in Spanish.

El Juego Real de Cupido

Pieter de Jode (1570-1634), El Juego Real de Cupido, Otramente Llamado el Passa Tiempo de Amor, published by Pieter de Jode, Antwerp, around 1620, etching, 38 x 50 cm, Maps * 999.(1.)

El Juego Real de Cupido (The Royal Game of Cupid) was published in Antwerp when the city was part of the Spanish Netherlands

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History of the printed board game         

In 1617 the Italian historian Pietro Carrera published his book The Game of Chess (Il Gioco degli Scacchi). In the first chapter, on page 25, he describes the invention and history of chess but also mentions the invention of another game, the Game of the Goose. According to Carrera, the latter was invented in Florence in the 16th century and Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany presented an exemplar to king Philip II of Spain, which must have been around 1576–80. 

Il Gíoco degli Scacchi

Il Gíoco degli Scacchi  (The Game of Chess) is a treatise by Pietro Carrera on the origins, rules, moves, odds and endgames of chess

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The game quickly gained great popularity at the Spanish court; in 1585, Philip II’s court jester, Gonzalo de Liaño, complained in a letter to Francesco de’ Medici about the debts he had incurred due to a new, ‘devilish’ game, called Game of the Goose, which had been brought to Spain from Tuscany.

Carrera further relates that the publication of the Game of the Goose in Spain inspired the invention of several closely related games. Although the game board that was presented to the Spanish king must have been a precious painted or inlaid version, apparently printed ones did exist. The earliest surviving impression of the Game of the Goose is an anonymous, possibly Venetian print of c. 1580–85. A dated one was published in Rome, in 1598, by Lucchino Gargano. 

Il Nuovo et Piacevole Gioco dell Ocha

Lucchino Gargano, Il Nuovo et Piacevole Gioco dell Ocha, published by Lucchino Gargano, Rome, 1598, engraving, 50.7 x 37.8 cm, British Museum, London, 1869,0410.2465.

This is an Italian version of the historic Game of Goose (Il Gioco dell Ocha)

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The artist Pieter de Jode I

Pieter de Jode’s Game of Cupid or, by its full title, ‘the royal game of cupid, otherwise called the pastime of love’, clearly had its origin in the Game of the Goose, both being played with two dice on a board containing 63 spaces. It may have been among the games Carrera meant by the invention of ‘other games slightly different from the first one’, i.e. the Game of the Goose. The crown, adorning the snake’s head, and the adjective ‘royal’ in the title could refer to a royal environment in which the game was invented.

The fact that this Spanish game was published in Antwerp by a Flemish printmaker can be explained from the political situation. From 1581 to 1714 the southern Netherlands were ruled by Spain. The infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II, and her husband Albert of Austria governed the Spanish Netherlands during the early 17th century. They held court in Brussels, where art and cultural life flourished during a period of truce in the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648). Many Spanish nobles and merchants lived in the cities of Brussels and Antwerp, and the demand for leisurely games of all sorts must have been extensive.

The refined print of the Game of Cupid, with a garden of love at centre, featuring couples dressed in contemporary Flemish, Spanish-inspired fashion, was undoubtedly meant for this high-end market, as opposed to much cruder and cheaper woodcut prints. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that it was made in the workshop of the renowned artist and publisher Pieter de Jode, who had sought the patronage of Isabella and Albert, dedicating a devotional engraving after his own design to the pious couple in 1603.

De Jode was a master engraver who made and published copper engravings both after his own designs as after other artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and, later, Anthony van Dyck. The British Library holds a very rare copy of the Academiae Graphices, a so-called academic drawing book, containing 18 engravings and etchings of studies of nude figures, made by various artists after drawings by Pieter de Jode. Previously attributed to Rubens, the title plate clearly states that the figures were ‘drawn after life by Pieter de Jode the Elder’.

Academiae Graphices

Nicolaes Lauwers, Cornelis Galle I, Pieter de Jode I [or II] and an anonymous hand after Pieter de Jode I, Academiae Graphices, published by Nicolaes Lauwers, Antwerp, c. 1630, 18 etchings and engravings, c. 400 x 250 mm, British Library, London, General Reference Collection 798.l.21.   Academiae Graphices, Figurae Variae, Pictureae Artis Studiosis Vtiles: Ad Viuum Delineatae a Petro de Iode, Seniore; Nuper Collectae et in Lucem Editae per Nicolaum Lauwers, Sculptorem Antuerpiensem (Antwerp: Nicolaes Lauwers, 1629), 798.l.21. Nicolaes Lauwers (1600-52) after Abraham Diepenbeke (1596-1675), Title Page to Academiae Graphices, published by Nicolaes Lauwers, Antwerp, 1629, engraving, plate 37 x 26 cm, on sheet 51 x 34 cm, 798.l.21.

Academiae Graphices is a collection of eighteen engravings of nude figures, published after drawings by Pieter de Jode

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The symbolic significance of the number seven

In the Game of Cupid the spiral shape of the Game of the Goose was transformed into that of a coiled snake. This feature is explained at lower left, above the ‘Rules’:

It is to be noted that this game is represented in the shape of a snake, because Love guised as a snake sneaks into the heart of those who possess it, and poisons them with its venim, and for several other attractive reasons, which the lack of space on this piece of paper does not allow to explain here.

Similar to the Game of the Goose, the Game of Cupid has 63 circular spaces. In the latter, cupids replace the geese in spaces with regular intervals. Whereas the geese appear in every fifth and fourth space, the nine cupids occupy every seventh circle. It is a unique feature of the Game of Cupid that it starts, at top left, with an explanation of the philosophy of the numbers used: ‘This game is composed of the number 7 multiplied nine times, of which the product gives 63 because Love is pleased by this number, being very perfect’. This philosophy was based on medieval numerology. Lost to the present gamer, the symbolic significance of numbers was apparent to 16th- and 17th-century minds.

The number seven and its multiplications correspond with the so-called climacterics, every seventh year marking a turning point in a person’s life, with 9 x 7 = 63 being the ‘grand climacteric’. Once having passed this critical age of 63 – the number of the winning space of the game – man could enjoy peace and wisdom. As such, both the Game of the Goose and the Game of Cupid represent the course of life, with icons symbolising advantages and hazards, a metaphor of the fortunes and fates during the path of life.

The rules of the game

The rules explain that the cupids in every seventh circle represent a favourable space, where one cannot halt and has to advance the number thrown with the dice until a space without a cupid is reached. The combination of the numbers on the two dice could determine an advantage as one could proceed to the space with an image of the dice. The Game of Cupid has three such fortunate combinations, in which the number thrown makes up seven.

As a metaphor of the course of life, hazards can also be encountered, again seven in total. These are basically the same as in the Game of the Goose, although they occur on different spaces and there are some differences in the icons and their meaning.

In the Game of Cupid, the bridge of love, la puente del Amor, means one has to pay a tribute to Cupid and can advance to space 12 to rest in the depicted chair. The throne of love in space 18 has the same function as the inn in space 19 of the Game of the Goose; one has to pay a fine and skip a turn. The same applies for the banquet in space 38 of the Game of Cupid and the prison in space 52 of the Game of the Goose.

The well or fountain in spaces 30 and 31 are identical; a fine is to be paid and one is only released when another player arrives on the same space or else one stays there until the end of the game. The Game of Cupid has an additional icon in space 54, the forest, which has the same rule.

The labyrinths in spaces 42 and 46 are similar, although the hazard is more severe in the Game of Cupid; a prize is to be paid and one has to return to space 39 and 23 respectively, which means a setback of just three over 23 spaces.

Obviously, the skeleton or tomb on spaces 58 and 59 in both games mean death, the most severe hazard; one pays a fine and has to start over.

As compared with the Game of the Goose, the Game of Cupid has one additional, advantageous rule:

The number 7 is favourable and privileged in this game, so the one who throws it, and reaches the throne, the well, the banquet, the labyrinth, the forest, or the tomb, shall pay nothing, shall not stay there nor go back, but shall only double his number until he is in a safe space

The player who is the first to arrive exactly at number 63, wins the game and collects all the fines payed. Since number 63 – the central image – represents the garden of love where winged cupids aim their arrows at the couples, who knows what other pleasant prize the winner could look forward to! 

The popularity of the Game of the Snake in England

The publisher John Wolfe entered ‘the newe and most pleasant game of the Goose’ in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London on 16 June 1597. No impressions of this game are traced but in view of the similar title and the fact that Wolfe learned the trade of print publisher in Florence, it can be assumed that it was based on the Italian game board. This is affirmed by the fact that the earliest surviving English Game of the Goose is closely related to its Italian predecessor. It was printed and sold by John Overton in London, about 1690.

In that same year, the Game of Cupid appeared in England. The printed board was copied after an earlier Dutch example, where it was known as the Game of the Snake. As opposed to other European countries The Royal Pastime of Cupid or Entertaining Game of the Snake became very successful in England, where it still appeared about 1850, published in London by R.H. Laurie.

The Royal Pastime of Cupid

Richard Holmes Laurie (1777-1858), The Royal Pastime of Cupid or Entertaining Game of the Snake, published by Richard Holmes Laurie, London, about 1850, engraving on paper with linen backing, 387 x 505 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, E.1747-1954

The game begins at the head of the coiled snake and finishes at centre, where Cupid is depicted in the gardens of love

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Held by© Victoria and Albert Museum

Further reading

M. Leesberg, ‘El Juego Real de Cupido: a Spanish board game published in Antwerp’, c. 1620, Delineavit et Sculpsit, 39 (2015), pp. 23-43.

A. Seville, The Royal Game of the Goose. 400 Years of Printed Board Games, exhibition catalogue (New York: The Grolier Club, 2016).

  • Marjolein Leesberg