Ancient Board Games

Jan 28, 2022 0 comments

Playing games is a great way to socialize with friends and pass time in an enjoyable way. Humans recognized this a long time ago before there was the Nintendo or the PlayStation. In the absence of video games, ancient humans played with sticks, bones and pebbles, until someone invented the dice and with it came board games. Games soon became pastimes of the royalty and the elite, and some games became common features of court culture. Games also became important cultural and social bonding events, as well as teaching tools.

King Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with a woman, circa 1305 – 1340

According to Johan Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian, games were a primary condition of the generation of human cultures. Huizinga notes that playing games is older than culture itself, “for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society.” Huizinga believes that games were the starting point for complex human activities such as language, law, war, philosophy and art. Huizinga also adds that playing games is prevalent among animals as well and that “animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” Indeed, just visit a zoo and watch how the monkeys and the apes play, chasing each other, throwing things and climbing upon one another. Having evolved from the same family, one can assume that prehistoric humans behaved pretty much the same way.

It is difficult to determine exactly when board games developed, but we can say with certainty that humans have been playing them before recorded history. Excavation of Egyptian tombs and Mesopotamian graves have unearthed dozens of dice and knucklebones made from animal bones. These could have been used either for fortune telling or gaming or both. Games involving dice are mentioned in the ancient Indian Rigveda, Atharvaveda, Mahabharata and Buddhist games list. There are also several biblical references to “dicing”. Dice games were very popular among Romans and the ancient Greek. In the far east, games such as dominoes and playing cards originated in China. In the 4th century, a game called Chaturanga developed in the Indian subcontinent, and was transmitted to Sassanid Persia and China through the Silk Road. Chaturanga evolved into modern chess.

Here are some ancient board games that have been played for millennia.

Senet

One of the oldest board game is the Senet, discovered by archeologists among burial sites belonging to the First Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (circa 3500 BC). Many Senet game boards have been found in various Egyptian tombs, including in the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Paintings of people playing this ancient game have been discovered in tombs from the Third Dynasty, in the tomb of Rashepes, as well as from other tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The game is also referred to in the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text from the first century BC.

Senet gaming board inscribed for Amenhotep III with separate sliding drawer, circa 1390-1353 BCE. Photo: British Museum

The game was played by moving draughtsmen on a board of 30 squares arranged into three parallel rows of ten squares each. The players strategically moved their pieces based on the throw of sticks or bones. The goal was to reach the edge of the board first. Senet slowly evolved to reflect the religious beliefs of the Egyptians. The pieces represented human souls and their movement was based on the journey of the soul in the afterlife. Each square had a distinct religious significance, with the final square being associated with the union of the soul with the sun god Re-Horakhty.

Painting in the tomb of Egyptian Queen Nefertari shows the queen playing Senet.

The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, is another very ancient game first played in ancient Mesopotamia during the early third millennium BC. It is so named because it was discovered first during an excavations of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in the 20th century. At first, no one knew how the game was played until the 1980s when a clay tablet written in 177 BC by a Babylonian scribe was discovered. The tablet described in detail how the game was played.

The game was popular across the Middle East among people of all social strata and boards for playing it have been found at locations as far away from Mesopotamia as Crete and Sri Lanka. At the height of its popularity, the game acquired spiritual significance, and events in the game were believed to reflect a player's future and convey messages from deities or other supernatural beings. The Game of Ur remained popular until late antiquity, when it stopped being played, possibly evolving into, or being displaced by, an early form of backgammon.

A gameboard of The Royal Game of Ur found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, now held in the British Museum. Photo: British Museum

Hounds and Jackals

Another board game that was played in ancient Egypt is Hounds and Jackals, also known as 58 holes. The gaming board has two sets of 29 holes, and ten gaming pieces which are small sticks with either jackal or dog heads. One player takes five jackal heads, and other player takes five dog heads. The aim of the game is to start at one end of the board and to reach with all figures to the other end.

The game was invented 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt and was mainly popular in the Middle Kingdom. It spread to Mesopotamia in the late 3rd millennium BC and was popular until the 1st millennium BC. Dozens of game boards of the Hounds and Jackals have been discovered in the archaeological excavations in various territories, including Syria, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Egypt.

Pachisi

The game Pachisi originated in Ancient India. It is played on a board shaped like a symmetrical cross. A player's pieces move around the board based upon a throw of six or seven cowrie shells, with the number of shells resting with aperture upward indicating the number of spaces to move. The objective is to move a player’s pieces completely around the board before their opponents do.

The game is described in the ancient text Mahabharata under the name of Pasha. It was this dice game that the Pandava brothers famously lost against their cousins the Kauravas, forcing them to relinquish their kingdom and go to exile for fourteen years.

Many modern version of the Pachisi exist today, such as Ludo and Parcheesi.

Hand-made beaded board game set (Pachisi), from the Collection of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons

Go

The strategy board game Go was invented in China more than 2,500 years ago and is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to the present day. Legends trace the origin of the game to the mythical Chinese emperor Yao (2337–2258 BC), who was said to have had his counselor Shun design it for his unruly son, Danzhu, to favorably influence him. Other theories suggest that the game was derived from Chinese tribal warlords and generals, who used pieces of stone to map out attacking positions.

In China, Go was considered one of the four cultivated arts of the Chinese scholar gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting and playing the musical instrument guqin.

A Go board excavated from a tomb of the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE). Photo: Zcm11/Wikimedia Commons

Ludus latrunculorum

Ludus latrunculorum was a two-player strategy board game similar to checkers that was played throughout the Roman Empire. Although visually it resemble chess or draughts, it is generally accepted to be a game of military tactics. The name of the game, Ludus Latrunculorum, means “The Game of Mercenaries.”

Not much is known about the game's rules and basic structure because of the scarcity of sources.

Ludus latrunculorum found at Housesteads Roman Fort or Roman Corbridge, circa 2nd-3rd century CE. Photo: Historic England Archive.

Nine Men’s Morris

Nine Men’s Morris is another game popular in Ancient Rome and the medieval period. No one really knows where and when the game originated. One of the oldest known board for the game was found carved into the roofing slabs of the temple at Kurna in Egypt. It has been estimated to be 3,400 years old. During Roman times, the board game was carved into various buildings’ stones throughout the Roman Empire and in the seats of many medieval cathedrals.

Nine Men’s Morris carved into stone in the ruins of Byzantine church, St. John’s Basilica, Sel├žuk, Turkey. Photo: Tolka Rover/ancientgames.org

Knossos Game

The Knossos Game, also known as Zatrikion, is a mysterious board game discovered in 1901 during archaeological excavations of the Knossos Palace on Crete. There is only one copy of this game in the world. The original game was made with inlays of ivory, rock crystal, and glass paste, decorated with kyanos blue and gold and silver sheet metal, on a wooden base. Four ivory gaming pieces were found nearby. The rules of the game is unknown. The game probably dates to about 1600 BCE.

Knossos Game, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, Greece. Photo: Garrett Ziegler/ancientboardgames.org

Mehen

Mehen is an ancient Egyptian game, dating to about 3000 BC. The game is a spiral in the shape of a coiled snake with the snake’s head in the center of the disk. The game’s name is a reference to the Egyptian snake-god Mehen. The game disappeared from use after the end of the Old Kingdom, about 2300 BCE.

Game of the Snake, Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Photo: Anagoria/Wikimedia Commons 

Patolli

Patolli is one of the oldest known games in America. It was a game of strategy and luck played by commoners and nobles alike. The game was played wide range of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures and were known all over Mesoamerica. It was played by the Teotihuacanos (the builders of Teotihuacan), the Toltecs, the inhabitants of Chichen Itza, the Mayas and the Aztecs. The game is similar to East Indian game of pachisi, but both games probably developed independently and that the similarity between them is merely due to the limitations of a board game.

Patolli game being watched by Macuilxochitl as depicted on the Codex Magliabechiano.

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