I'm in the Netherlands and in the short time that I have been here I have already learnt a lot about Dutch culture and its people just by talking about and playing their games.
Here in Utrecht I have found a game called Sjoelen. Sjoelen is several hundred years old and reflects many aspects of Dutch culture, in its sober design, family social appeal, and just a touch of raucous physical behaviour from time to time.
Sjoelen, like many Dutch toys and games of its time is entirely crafted from wood. Sober design and economic use of materials reflects an integral part of Dutch manufacturing culture.
The Dutch being efficient and economic with their highly valued materials such as wood, designed their products with simple, practical construction, using bold and unfussy use of colour or decoration. Wood was use to manufacture all manner of goods from furniture to footwear.
Having mastered woodcrafts the Dutch naturally continued using the same materials to make their toys and games.
Sjoelen is one such game that reflects Dutch sober attitude to design through the manufacture of its parts. The long smooth wooden board, called Sjoelbak, has carefully measured dimensions and a plain solid construction. The pucks, called Sjriven, used to slide along the board, are also incredibly simple but have a solid substantial tactile feel to them and make a tremendous cracking sound when propelled at full force along the board.
Typically Sjoelen is a highly social game born from the harmonious family unit that was, for many decades, the cornerstone of Dutch society.
Strong family values bonded the family unit together in the common struggle to survive harsh economic conditions and build lasting prospects for future generations. Long periods of depressed economy forced families to be frugal with all resources and perhaps none more than those added luxuries such as entertainment.
Games like Sjoelen were often played at home during long winter months that forced the family indoors huddling together for warmth and amusement. By making and playing such games at home also saved on further expenditure outside the household. With close ties in the family it was only natural for all members of the family, no matter what age to participate in such games together. It was a common scene to see three or four generations join for an evening of a game like Sjoelen.
Sjoelen is, in part, a game of physical dexterity. The force, speed and angle at which pucks are shot along the board, all contribute to the eventual outcome of a players score.
Each player develops their own personal style of play. Some players like Harrie van Gemert, adopt a powerful hard-hitting style showing Sjoelen can have a loud and physical nature to it, reflecting a lesser-known Dutch quality that occasionally breaks through an otherwise sober veneer.
Other players like Willem Wolzak on the other hand may take a much softer approach to begin with, but increases his speed and force after building up a rhythm.
There is considerable scope for invention of style as Frank Schmidt showed us with an interesting backhand technique, which proved fruitful on many occasions, but was not always successful.
Sjoelen is an exciting game to watch if only for observing the different techniques used, delivering diverse motions from the delicate to the aggressive.
Sjoelen in the end is a game of cold calculated numbers and point scoring.
The player has 30 pucks to slide up the board, but must always remain behind the handrail.
The aim is to score as many points as possible by skilfully shooting the pucks through the 4 slots at the top of the board.
Each of the slots scores 2, 3, 4, and 1 points reading left to right respectively.
The player has 3 attempts to shoot the pucks. At the end of each attempt the player wipes a finger across the mouth of the slots and picks up the remaining pucks that didn't make it into a slot, for the next attempt.
When the player has finished shooting pucks the score must be counted. Maximum points are scored when an equal number of pucks are placed in each slot because those equal pucks score double points.
The winner is the player with the greatest number of points.
Sjoelen is a game of dexterity and tactical mathematics, very simple but very addictive. Through its robust construction, sober visual appearance, social family appeal and occasion to be noisy, has a tremendous Dutch feel about it.