CLOSE
Original image

5000 Years of Board Games (Part One)

Original image

Board games — whether games of chance, skill, or a little of both — have been found in many human cultures dating back at least 5000 years. Over the next five days, I'll take you on a quick tour though the evolution of board games, from their earliest forms in the cradles of civilization to the exciting rebirth of the boardgame bursting out of Germany over the last fifteen years.

The Oxford History of Board Games by David Parlett was an invaluable resource in assembling this series of articles, covering a substantial amount of ground in a mere 300 pages; it is sadly out of print, and a little out of date as the industry has changed since its publication, but I found a copy in the local library system here in Arizona and would recommend giving it a skim if you're looking for more detail.

The oldest board game currently known is from ancient Egypt, called Senet (s'n't in Egyptian texts, but spelled “senet” today). References to the game appear as early as the thirtieth century B.C. Archaeologists have found freestanding Senet boards as well as boards built into gaming tables. The board comprised thirty squares in three rows of ten, at least five of which were adorned with symbols or hieroglyphs that may have indicated a special function, always including the final space and the space halfway between the presumed start and finish. Each player would have five to seven pieces, a number that seemed to settle at five after a few centuries of variation, with each player's pieces all of one design, often ornate carvings of animals or demons.

The precise rules are unknown, but historians including Parlett speculate (based on ancient drawings) that the objective was to advance your pieces along the board through all 30 spaces, with movement coming from the casting of four two-sided tokens. In his Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt, Wolfgang Decker speculates that square fifteen, which contained a hieroglyph meaning 'rebirth,' had special meaning, but square 27, which contained a symbol for a pool of water, sent the token landing there back to the rebirth square. Egyptologist Timothy Kendall, formerly of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has proposed an entire set of rules that is now used as the basis for various editions of the game, publishing them in 1978 as Passing through the netherworld: The meaning and play of senet, an ancient Egyptian funerary game. [Image credit: deror avi.]

Another Egyptian game, Mehen (or Snake), is the earliest known example of linear-track games, where players attempt to move their pieces from one end of the board's track to the other, often using tricks or shortcuts. Mehen was depicted in the tomb of the Egyptian physician and scribe Hesy-ra, in a picture with Senet and a third game called M'n, about which almost nothing else is known. Unlike the rules of Senet, however, Mehen's game play is unknown, other than that the game pieces included 3 lions, 3 lionesses, and marble-like spheres associated with each lion or lioness.

Mehen is a possible ancestor of a game called Li'b el Marafib, or The Hyena Game, which appeared in Sudan among the Baggara Arabs and was played on a track drawn in the sand.

Senet boards often had another game on the reverse side called the Game of Twenty, which bears a strong resemblance to a Mesopotamian game called The Royal Game of Ur. One of the earliest of a style of game called “bilateral race games” — two players, each moving pieces along a path or track, with the first player to get all his pieces to the end the victor — The Royal Game of Ur was (re)discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1926-7 in the Royal Tombs of Ur, which included four gaming boards and the accompanying pieces. Players would flip three binary tokens — four-sided pyramids with the corners shaved and two of the four exposed surfaces colored — resulting in a total score from 0 to 3, which players used to move pieces along an asymmetrical board of twenty spaces. (A cuneiform tablet dating to 176 or 177 B.C. gave most of the rules.) The board includes certain spaces where pieces are immune to attack by the opponent, another feature that appears in many later games. The British Museum, whose Irving Finkel collects board game artifacts for the institution, offers a boxed version of the game and an online version (Shockwave required) as well.

Plato mentions two board games in The Republic, including a war game called Petteia, played on a square board; and Kubeia, which was either a specific game involving dice or the broader class of dice games. Both games, as with most games of Greece and Rome, appear now to descend from older games of Egypt, Ur, and Palestine, moving to Greece through Mediterranean island cultures and then to Rome after the latter's conquest of Greece. Several Roman writers mention other board games, notably Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum or the “twelve-line game,” which may be a precursor of modern backgammon, and may itself be a descendant of the Egyptian Game of Thirty (which differs from the Game of Twenty, as well as from the mysterious Game of Fifty-Eight Holes, played on a cribbage-like board but with unknown rules).

Tomorrow: We're heading to Asia!

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

Get 15% off our new game when you use the code SPLITDECISION!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image
iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES