Meeples have become some what of an icon within the board game community. They are cute little figures that many games have adopted to signify people. But how did this name come about? How did it become the symbol that it is? And more importantly what is its history?
What is a Meeple
To start off we need to talk about what a Meeple is, and at its core it is a small person-shaped figure used as a player’s token in a board game. Meeples come in a wide range of shapes and sizes which we will discuss about in a later section, but they are all used for very similar mechanics. Meeples depending on the game being played can be used to declare a players action, can be used to to specify “people” on the game board as well as various other functions such as scoring or player progress.
Where did the name originate?
Variations of the meeple figure have been in use for a very long time but the term Meeple was not coined until late 2000. Up until that point they had a variety of names such as people, pawns, game pieces, names specified by the game designer, and some even called them Pöppel (german for game piece and now meeple). So why do many people now call these little figures that we use so often Meeples?
The most widely accepted answer to the origination of the word is that a gamer by the name of Alison Hansel used the term Meeple in a Carcassonne game back in November of 2000. Where the word Meeple was used to shorten “My People”, and based off what a Meeple signifies, this definition holds true. Allison had never heard the word used before and there have been no other event in which the term has been used before.
Many people may disagree that this was the first use of the term, and perhaps it is. We have been unable to find any evidence that the term had been used prior to this. We agree that the physical object that we now call a Meeple has been in use for a very long time and have taken on a wide variety of looks.
Was Carcassonne the first?
We now know what a Meeple is and how it got its name, but what is its true history? To break the history down we must take its base definition of person-shaped figure to represent an action or “people” within a game and use that to learn its history. So taking this definition and disregarding the physical shape of the object, we can see that a number of games do indeed have pieces that match this description.
Some of the earliest we can find include Enchanted Forest (1981), Top Secret Spies (1986), Barbarossa (1988). Enchanted Forest and Barbarossa have some really simple looking pieces and are very minimal but still can be seen as people due to its form. Then there is Top Secret Spies, here we see some detailed pieces that clearly are human figured in all respects. Yes these are not the Meeples we know and love but we are starting to see that these types of game pieces have been around a lot longer than we give it credit for.
So by definition Meeples have been around a lot longer than Carcassonne, even though it is not the ones we know and love. But these pieces are important to many different games both old and new. So lets check out how this piece has been interpreted by various designers.
The Present and Future of the Meeple
So we have learned that a Meeple may be a somewhat new term but has been a piece that has been used for decades in a variety of shapes and sizes. But the word is also in reference to a very specific type of shape, and this cute shape has become an icon for players. More and more games are starting to use this shape to signify people in the game. I believe that this kind of conformity is needed because board games are all about taking certain ideas and mechanics and building a game off that. Gamers understand how certain mechanics work and can have a basic understanding how a new game works because of this knowledge. So why not do this with the game pieces, and have the Meeple as the default? Sure they can be changed to better suit the needs of the game but at the same time it has become a strong iconic piece within the community and this will only grow as more games are created. All hail the Meeple! The Meeple is king.