Ancient board games: Senet, the royal game of Ur, chess and more


What is the oldest board game? The most likely answer is Senet, a game apparently enjoyed in ancient Egypt, and this is just one of the many games that were played in ancient cultures. Here we explore some of the most popular board games in history that captured the imaginations of past civilizations, starting with…

Four old board games you may have played

1. Chess

Originally from c760 AD

One of the most played games in the world, chess originated in India. The goal is to trap your opponent’s king – or to “subdue” him, a term which can come from the Arabic “shāh māt”, which means “the king is dead”. The oldest pieces found date back to AD 760, while the oldest book on chess theory was published in 1497.

It is believed that an earlier form of the game was played in eastern India in the 6th century, known as Chaturanga.

2. Drafts

Originally from 3000 BC. J.-C.

Checkers, also known as checkers, are an ever popular strategy game today. The goal is to capture the opponent’s pieces by jumping on them diagonally. A board has been found in Ur, present-day Iraq, dating from around 3000 BC. It is believed that a similar game was played during the Trojan War and throughout the Roman Empire.

3. Backgammon

Originally from 3000 BC. J.-C.

Backgammon is also a game of strategy – although a little luck doesn’t hurt. The objective is to be the first player to exit, that is to say to remove all of his 15 pawns from the board.

The game was so popular in medieval France that Louis IX issued a decree prohibiting his court officials and subjects from playing it in 1254, which led to a trend for boards disguised as books. England followed suit in 1526, when Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, ordered all backgammon boards to be burned.

A board found in Iran, made of ebony with pieces of turquoise and agate, is said to be over 5,000 years old.

4. Go

Originally from the 4th century BC.

Being accomplished at Go was extremely important in ancient China: it was one of the four essential arts required of aristocratic scholars, along with calligraphy, painting, and being able to play a stringed instrument called a guqin.

It is the oldest board game still played continuously in China. The goal is to surround more territory than your opponent with your stones – which were often crystal or quartz. Spread rapidly in Korea and Japan, but it took decades to gain traction beyond East Asia

It has even been played in space ever since. In 1996, astronauts Daniel Barry and Koichi Wakata did so using a special set aboard the Space Shuttle. Effort.

Six old board games you (probably) haven’t played

1. Senet

Originally from 3100 BC. J.-C.

Nefertari is playing the old senet board game, for which we still haven’t found any rules. (Photo by Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

Presumably beloved by the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun – he was buried with no less than five boards – Senet is played on a 30-square grid with two sets of pawns and throwing sticks, as the earliest hieroglyphics showing that it’s played date back to the 31st century BC.

The name means “the game of passing,” and many places present dangers one might face on the journey to the afterlife of ancient Egypt. It is even referenced in the Book of the Dead, a set of funeral texts. It is believed that the first player to remove all of their pawns from the board wins.

2. Morris nine men

Originally from 1400 BC.

This mysterious game has unknown origins, but a board has been found cut from roof slabs in Egypt dating to 1400 BC. It is believed to have been performed throughout the Roman Empire, it has also been found carved in cloister seats at Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Playwright William Shakespeare refers to the play in A Midsummer Night’s dream.

Each player creates a line of three “men”, which allows him to be able to take an opponent’s piece. The winner is the first to cut his opponent in half.

3. Xiangqi

Originally from the 4th century BC.

A man moves his coin on a Xiangqi board

A man moves his coin on a Xiangqi board. The game, also known as Chinese chess, is still played today (Photo by Ryan Pyle / Corbis via Getty Images)

Xiangqi is an ancient Chinese game that depicts a battle between two armies. Translated as the “elephant game”, it was first recorded in the 4th century BC.

Each player controls a force of 16 pieces, and the objective is to capture the opponent’s king – which may be part of why it is also known as Chinese Chess. Xiangqi is “chess” only in name, however – its chessboard includes a river and palaces, on the one hand.

4. Liubo

Originally from 1000 BC. J.-C.

Liubo, an ancient Chinese board game mentioned in the works of the philosopher Confucius, was invented no later than the middle of the first millennium BC.

Each player had six pieces, which move around a board in a symmetrical pattern. Sticks were used to determine movement instead of dice. How exactly you won is uncertain.

5. Royal Game of Ur

Originally from 2600 BC. J.-C.

The Royal Game of Ur is a racing game said to have been played for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia

The Royal Game of Ur is a racing game believed to have been played for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia
(Photo by CM Dixon / Print Collector / Getty Images)

The oldest beautifully decorated boards in this game were found in the Royal Tombs of Ur, an ancient Mesopotamian city now in Iraq, while another was found in the tomb of the pharaoh.

It is believed to be a two-player racing game, but the original rules are unknown. A modern version of the game can be played using the rules found on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet from 177 BC.

6. Mehen

Originally from 3000 BC. J.-C.

Mehen, the snake game, was played on a spiral circuit.  This board was recovered from the tomb of Pharaoh Seth-Peribsen

Mehen, the snake game, was played on a spiral circuit. This board was recovered from the tomb of Pharaoh Seth-Peribsen (Photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images)

This ancient Egyptian game was played on a board shaped like a coiled serpent and shares its name with the serpent god, who protected the sun god Ra on his journey through the night. Lion-shaped pieces and marbles appear to have been used for playing, but their use remains a mystery.

This content first appeared in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed

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