11 Ancient Board Games

Some of these games have been around for over 4000 years, and although some have disappeared from history, archaeologists have worked tirelessly to discover the rules.

1. Senet

Hieroglyphs depicting Egyptian Senet players date all the way back to 3100 BCE. Even King Tut had a copy—it spent around three millennia lingering in his tomb before modern archaeologists got their hands on it.

2. Latrunculi (or “Mercenaries”)

One might call this Rome’s answer to chess: The elegant strategy game required armies of black and white pieces to duke it out across boards made with wood, marble, stone, or silver.

3. The Royal Game of Ur

Ur (aka: “The Game of Twenty Squares”) has been around since at least 3000 BCE and took hold in ancient societies from Egypt to India. Try it out for yourself with the British Museum’s free shockwave version. Fair warning: it’s way more addictive than solitaire!  

4. Patolli

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Throughout the Aztec empire, noble families and peasants alike were known to relish patolli. Participants threw dotted stones or beans to determine how their pieces would move over a cross-shaped board. Gambling was usually involved.

5. Mehen

rob koopman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Experts aren’t sure what the object of this ancient Egyptian game was, but, in any event, it involved a board shaped like a coiled snake. Marbles may have also been involved.  

6. Petteia

Think checkers, except instead of eliminating an opponent’s piece by leaping over it, you’d sandwich it between two of yours. A staple in ancient Greece, Petteia parables proved irresistible to many great thinkers. Take, for instance, Aristotle, who claimed that “a citizen without a state may be compared to an isolated piece in a game of petteia.”

7. Go

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This one is still very much alive and kicking. Go likely originated in China between 2500 and 4000 years ago (Confucius himself even wrote of it). Fast-forward to the present age, in which the American Go Association’s e-journal reached 13,000 subscribers as recently as 2011. Now that’s longevity!

8. Duodecem Scripta

An ancient Roman duodecem scripta table can be seen in Turkey’s Ephesus Museum. Unfortunately, the instruction manual is nowhere to be found, and nobody knows exactly how it was played. 

9. Unidentified Turkish Game

In 2013, archaeologists unearthed what have been described as 49 “board game tokens” from a grave site dating back to 2900 BCE. According to Ege University’s Haluk Sağlamtimur, who ran the dig, “our gaming pieces were found all together in the same cluster. It’s a unique finding, a rather complete set of a chess like game.” (He adds that his team is still “puzzling over its strategy.”)

10. Mancala

Adam Cohn, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Egyptians might have enjoyed a primitive version of mancala as far back as 1000 BCE. Back then, it was likely played on surfaces made with stone or ivory. Today’s enthusiasts, in contrast, largely prefer wood.

11. Terni Lapilli

iStock

Terni Lapilli boards were akin to tic-tac-toe grids and a fairly common sight during the Roman Empire.

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Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
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Health
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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David Franzen, Library of Congress
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architecture
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]

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