Much like so many other common things today, board games have existed and undergone countless revisions for generations. Whole kingdoms and dynasties have risen and fallen, wars have been declared and ended, and borders have shifted around erratically while board games have been in fashion. It is safe to say that board games have been around to witness every major accomplishment man has made.
So, being as timeless as board games are, one may wonder which of these board games were the progenitors. Which board games were the grandfathers of today’s vast market? And, are any of these ancient board games still around for people to play? If they are, are they popular? Do they have spinoff variants of themselves? To answer all these questions we’re going to have to go all the way back to 3500 BC, over five thousand years ago.
Senet is the oldest known board game that we are aware of. Pieces used to play this game have been uncovered from Egyptian ruins and have been dated to about 3500 BC. Texts and descriptions ranging over a thousand years about Senet have also been recovered, though none have been complete enough to solidify the original rules of the game.
Egyptians were strong believers in fate, destiny, and divine intervention in regards to instances of chance. It is believed that people who used to win at games of Senet were thought to be under the protection of that era’s deities. Evidence in this assumption is present in many forms, including the fact that many Egyptian graves are unearthed with sets of Senet inside them alongside other items to help the dead individual’s journey into the afterlife easier.
Due to the uncertainty around the rules of Senet, there is no ruleset that can claim to be similar to the one that existed thousands of years ago. However, using the fragmented bits and pieces that have been deciphered, new rulesets have been crafted with new additions to fill in the gaps. Senet sets are sold nowadays as well, with instructions on how to play according to the modern rulesets. The design of the Senet board is still the same as always however, and consists of thirty blocks arranged in three columns of ten grids and two opposing armies made up of pawns.
Backgammon is perhaps the second oldest board game that we know about. It is still widely played today, and consists of two teams of fifteen pieces that move around a board consisting of twenty-four triangles. It is a game that relies on both chance (from the rolling of the dice) and strategy (by deciding which piece to move).
The existence of Backgammon can be dated to five thousand years ago, in what is now known as Iraq. Regarding pieces found from that era, dice made of human bones have been discovered. Remains of boards and board pieces along with sets of dice have also been found in Iran, and have been dated to about three thousand years old.
The Royal Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur, named after the Royal Cemetery at Ur where it was first discovered, was an ancient racing board game. The goal of the game was to get all your pieces off the board before your opponent. The game, like Backgammon, depended on luck from dice rolls as well as strategic movement on the player’s part.
The Royal Game of Ur is believed to have been extremely popular a long time ago, evidenced by boards of the game being found not only all over the Middle East, but also in Sri Lanka and even Greek islands. At the height of its popularity, the game started to be seen as something divine by some communities.
It is unclear what led to the game’s demise, but it is highly likely that it was due to Backgammon (which was a couple of centuries older than the Royal Game of Ur) slowly gaining more and more popularity and eventually overtaking the Royal Game of Ur. During the last few centuries of the game’s life, it also seems to have undergone slight variations regarding board layout and the number of pieces at play.
Pachisi is another ancient board game that has survived the transition in to the modern world. It is currently known as the national game of India, and its most popular version is known as Ludo. Much like the Royal Game of Ur, this is a racing board game where players try to be the first to get all their pieces to the finish line. And also like the Royal Game of Ur, it depends on lucky dice rolls as well as strategic movement too. Pachisi can be dated back to at least 1100 BC.
Another discovery from ancient Egypt, Mehen was a board game that was named after the snake deity of the same name. The board of Mehen depicts Mehen coiling around the sun god ‘Re’, and surviving artifacts of the game can be dated to around 3000 BC. The game’s rules are a mystery, as it appears to have died relatively soon around 2300 BC. We do however, have multiple depictions of the game some ways from Egypt, which would make it seem that the game at least found some popularity across borders. In fact, if the depictions are to be believed, Mehen survived a tad bit longer in Cyprus than it did in Egypt.
Yep, the very same game you’ve been casually playing all your life has actually been around for a very long time. There can be some debate about whether tic-tac-toe can be considered a board game, but seeing as paper is sort of a flat surface like a board anyway, tic-tac-toe just makes the list.
The oldest games of tic-tac-toe were also discovered in Egyptian ruins, much like Senet. However, tic-tac-toe appears to not be nearly as old as Senet; the oldest examples of the game having been dated back to only 1300 BC. Back then, tic-tac-toe was in fact played on boards and tiles, and would some times make use of slightly different rules. Unlike how you just mark a grid with a pen nowadays, people used to use pebbles to play the game. Each player would be limited to only three pebbles, and had to move around already placed pebbles to try to form a winning line.
Rome has proven to be a goldmine regarding tic-tac-toe. The distinct grid layout of the game is found all around ancient Rome, having been chalked into the floors, roofs, and walls. Back then it was known as ‘terni lapilli’, which means “three pebbles at a time”. It was first referred to as ‘noughts and crosses’ in 1858 in an issue of ‘Notes and Queries’, a scholarly journal that publishes articles centered mostly around the English language and its composition. Its recent name of tic-tac-toe is a more casual variant of the name it received in 1884: tick-tack-toe.
Hounds and Jackals
Yet another board game that was found in Egyptian ruins, Hounds and Jackals can be dated back to almost four thousand years ago, around 2000 BC. The board of the game features twenty-nine holes alongside sticks acting as pieces. The sticks would either have a dog’s or a jackal’s head fashioned at the top.
The rules of the game are theorized to have been centered around getting all your pieces across the board to the slightly larger hole at the end. Many Hounds and Jackals games have been discovered across multiple countries like Israel, Iran, Syria, and Azerbaijan, which cements its place as one of the most popular ancient board games of all time.
Chess is extremely popular today, and has been so for many long years. It is thought that Chess first came to be in India, around the 6th Century. It then spread to Persia via the Silk Road, and later on to other Muslim countries once Persia was conquered in the Islamic conquests of that time. The oldest Chess pieces ever uncovered come from Uzbekistan, dated to around 760 AD. Chess reached Europe in the 9th Century, and exploded in popularity in the following centuries. It eventually saw changes being added here and there until it came to be known as the game we are familiar with today.
And those are the oldest known board games we’ve uncovered. It might be astonishing to know how old some modern board games are, but we mustn’t think civilizations and empires before us were stupider than us. They were just as capable, and only limited by the technology and political situations of their times. And we can never be certain that we’ve found the oldest board game. There might have been dozens more that have been completely lost to time, or are patiently awaiting rediscovery in some long forgotten ruin.