5000 Years of Board Games (Part One)

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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series of articles, covering a substantial amount of ground in a mere 300 pages; it is sadly out of print, and a little out of date as the industry has changed since its publication, but I found a copy in the local library system here in Arizona and would recommend giving it a skim if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.

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November 15, 2010 - 10:02am
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