The earliest surviving tokens, a set with only five colours, can be seen in the British Museum MC exhibit. They are hand-carved wooden discs the size of draughts counters that are worn by use and faded with age. The board which goes with them was London at the time, and, as such, extends out only as far as the Zone 2 boundary. The deep pitting at MC, Bank and Oxford Circus reflects their popularity; a popularity still felt today.
The standard IMCS "Beginners' MC Set" contains 100 each of twelve "chromatic" token colours (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue (Navy Blue), Pink, Puce, Brown, White, Grey and Black) and 50 each of the "metallic" token types of Bronze, Silver and Gold. All tokens are one inch across by one quarter of an inch high and have milled edges and the IMCS logo embossed on the top. The "chromatic" tokens are most often standard PVC plastic, and the metallic usually have the relevant metal thinly-plated on pewter.
It is, however, a tradition that more than just the "standard" types of token are available, both in colour and in material: generally, these days, at Grandmaster tournaments, players may bring up to 2000 "chromatic" tokens to any given tournament, of which up to 1200 (declared to the referee, but not the other player, before play begins) may be brought into play at any one game: and these may be not only of the standard 12 colours but of other, less-used colours such as Magenta, Mauve, Vermilion, Turquoise or even Sky-blue-Pink (but no more than 150 of any "standard" and 30 of any "non-standard" colour are permitted).
Likewise, although the only "standard metallic" tokens are of the three metals mentioned above, the player can bring up to 500 to a tournament, and declare before the start of a game which 150 he is likely to use in the game - up to a maximum of 100 bronze, 75 silver, 50 gold, and 20 for any type of 'non-standard' token, which might be of, say, lead, iron, platinum, aluminium, or a variety of other materials (even non-metallic): such things as wood, bone, rubber, clay, or anything else that does not qualify as 'chromatic', are normally governed by the same rules as 'metallic' tokens. (See the entry on podumes and the following useful [summary] for further information about different token types.)
(It follows that, with 1200 chromatic and 150 metallic tokens in a basic set, it is theoretically possible to enter a Grandmaster championship with no more than one Official IMCS Beginners' MC Set. In fact, just to prove a point, Mrs Trellis did exactly this, in the 1959 World Championships, and won. A single display game, in 1969, was played between Trellis and Cripplehead under the same conditions, both players however agreeing beforehand that this did not count as a true competitive match.)
Following the declarations of which tokens are available, with each player contributing half the total (or, in multi-player games, the same fraction), the standard practice in championship games is to treat all the tokens together as the "bank" for that particular game, out of which is dealt a starting "hand" of a few low-value tokens (currently 2 each of bronze, black, blue and red, from a player's own selection - if he doesn't bring them, sacrificing them for other colours, he doesn't get them): the "bank" representing all the other tokens in the game, no others can exist or be created.
This can have important ramifications as both players try to "bias" the bank selection in favour of a particular strategy, especially if both players happen to run "short" of the same colour token in an effort to load up with others. A game containing, for instance, only three green tokens can have surprising results. Currently there is a ruling on bringing a minimum of two golds to the table (to ensure that there are always at least three, for the "simple" type of win - "complex" victory manoeuvres requiring much more time to set up and being generally easier to anticipate and block): this ruling was made by a CAMREC-affiliated referee in 1952 (and immediately adopted by the IMCS), following an occasion when neither player brought any golds at all, each expecting the other to provide. There was also the occasion in the German Open final of 1958 when Maier brought 20 non-standard "sky-blue-pink" tokens to the table against Schieferdecker, hoping to nullify his opponent's known strength in Loops (including the Dollis Hill), and collected most of them from the bank early in the game before realising that his opponent had actually prepared a completely different strategy with a completely different hand, and his sky-blue-pinks were consequently no more than useless deadweight in the total absence of a loop - which now Maier was himself unable to begin.
(All tokens in championship matches are, naturally, returned to their proper owner after the game is over, even if they were "captured" in play by the opponent or even put back into play in the opponent's service. In non-championship matches (and especially in gambling-hall matches, where it is the standard practice) it has been known for the "winner" to not only keep his opponent's captured tokens but use them against his own next opponent - who may, indeed, be the person who lost them, wanting them back. The story of Sydney Hall entering a casino, in order to win some special tokens to use in his next Grandmaster tournament, is legendary, and told in the Gambling section of the encyclopaedia.)
The more sophisticated players, even those who confine themselves to the "standard" token types, will more than likely have a personalised set made of wood, iron, alloy, rubber or bone. Some more daring have square or other shapes, holes drilled in them, or even special stacking configurations (e.g. cupped or conic): such special tokens are usually made-to-order by Corner & Side. However, since tokens of different players can often be stacked on the same station, uniformity of shape is generally preferred.
Tokens have also been utilised in modern systems of play, such as the variant of DeHaile Notation known as DeHaile Token Syntax (DTS), to represent the effects of a move. Certain traditions about tokens, such as placing the token on its edge when playing a white token on Angel (the 'Head of a Pin' Signal), or the habit of rearranging token stacks in the IMCS token ranking (a sure sign of an inexperienced player), are observable throughout the game's gamut of play.
Tokens remain, however, the basic unit of meaning in games. When calculating token gains or losses, rounding is always carried down; 2.5 becomes 2, -3.5 becomes -3. In the electronic media, tokens are often underused due to the difficulty of representing large token stacks or complex token movements. Most players, however, can grasp the essence of token play enough to not need assistance in keeping track: players that use small boards beside their computers for calculations are not worthy of respect.