The Polish Board Game That Saved a Man From German Occupation

Super Farmer is a new edition of the 1940s cult classic created to teach children to count and allow a math professor to survive unemployment under Nazi rule in Warsaw.

Board game "Breeding Animals" created by Karol Borsuk. The re-edition of the game can be purchased from the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
"Breeding Animals" created by Karol Borsuk. Photo: Michał Zajączkowski / Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego

Fifteen centuries after the invention of chess, board games seem still in their prime, with many markets churning out dozens of them every year. Poland is no exception here. It’s even got one notable board game comeback with a fascinating war backstory.

Perhaps Super Farmer is not the best tabletop game ever when compared to modern pearls of playability. Revived in 1997 and republished ever since, it dates back fifty years earlier, though, and this, along with its genesis, explains a lot.

Super Farmer – the rules

The rules are quite simple and very mathematical. Each player starts with one token depicting a rabbit. Then, players take turns throwing two 12-sided dice that, instead of numbers, have different farm animals depicted on each side. For every pair of animals in your pool and on the dice alike, you get one other animal.

So, if you have one sheep in your pool and one sheep appears on the dice – you get one. But the next time a sheep appears, you have two in your pool and just one on the dice, so you get only one more. If you have three in your pool, and a fourth appears on the dice – you get two more. And if you have zero, but both dice land on the sheep – you get one.

The goal of the game is simple: collect at least one of each farm animal in the game: rabbit, sheep, pig, cow, and horse. You can also trade animals following the price table, and there’s just one “side quest” – you can buy a single-use dog to protect you from the fox and wolf, also present on the dice.

From professor to game designer

Now you see how quickly things get mathematical – explaining the rapid progression of the constantly multiplying animals, especially rabbits, that, well, reproduce like rabbits. For grown-ups, admittedly, it may get boring. Still, simple goals and pure enjoyment, spiced by modern design and colorful illustrations, make the game quite a fun family activity.

But the backstory of the game is not so full of sunshine. It was originally published in 1943 under the somewhat dated title: Breeding Animals. Though, if we’re honest, “published” is perhaps a stretch. Part of the German war on Poland was meant to quash its culture, meaning that no institutions had “Poland” or “Polish” in their names, the streets of Polish cities were renamed in German, and, thus, it’s hard to expect the legal existence of any Polish publishing house.

Not to mention that the Nazis also targeted Polish intellectuals. Like world-famous mathematician Stefan Banach, who spent part of the occupation as a human host for lice as part of a scientific experiment. (*This was considered a German helping hand to save the genius from a death camp. Not all scientists were so lucky.)

Karol Borsuk: from math to breeding animals (and back again)

Another targeted intellectual was Warsaw-based Karol Borsuk, who ran a stationery store. The shop was a front for the contact point of the conspiratorial Homeland Army. Still, it also supported the professor who had been left unemployed. Alas, Borsuk’s conspiracy plot was ultimately exposed, and he was arrested for conspiracy and put in Warsaw’s infamous Pawiak Prison. When he left, he was even poorer than before.

That’s when he developed Breeding Animals. In his creation, he was not only teaching the concept of multiplication. Being a mathematician specializing in geometry, Karol Borsuk was probably the first to introduce a 12-sided dice into the gaming world – now widely in use, especially in role-playing adventure games. This idea predated the widespread use of non-six-sided dice by some two decades.

The game is fun – and we’d imagine it was even more so in its initial release, given the lack of choice, the strict curfew, and the German cinema boycott. In its basic form, it was very cheap to produce and allowed the thin home budget of the professor and his wife to patch some holes. The game was sold by order, and the anecdote has it that the professor, whose name, “Borsuk,” literally means “Badger,” would have phone conversations like:
– Hi, is this Breeding Animals?
– Yes, this is Badger speaking.

Super Farmer – the legacy

During the Warsaw Uprising, Karol Borsuk was sent to Pruszków Nazi Transit Camp, which he managed to escape, only to spend the rest of the war in hiding. Luckily, the professor lived long and remained a mathematician after the war, and died aged 1982, aged 77. He was survived by his wife Maria Borsuk, who reinitiated the new edition of her late husband’s game when she was nearly 100 years old.

Illustrated by artist Piotr Socha, it has several modern variations and expansions and hit the shelves in some 30 countries abroad – owing something perhaps also to the fact that only the rulebook needs translation.

One surviving copy of the original game – an inconspicuous, grey paper box that fits in the palm of your hand, is deposited in the archive of the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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