Ancient board games: which ones did people play for fun in the past?

Board games were a pastime long before Monopoly starting ruining Christmas. Here, we explore the some of the most popular games played in ancient cultures – including a few that have shown such longevity that you may have given them a go yourself...

Chess players in the 14th century

What is the oldest board game? The most likely answer is Senet, a game seemingly beloved in ancient Egypt, and it is just one of many that were played across ancient cultures. Here, we explore some of the most popular board games from history that captured the imagination in earlier civilisations, starting with…

Advertisement

Four ancient board games you might have played

1. Chess

Originated c760 AD

One of the most widely played games across the world, chess originated in India. The aim is trap your opponent’s king – or ‘checkmate’ him, a term that may come from Arabic ‘shāh māt’, which means ‘the king is dead’. The oldest pieces found date back to 760 AD, while the oldest surviving book on chess theory was published in 1497.

An earlier form of the game is believed to have been played in Eastern India in the 6th century, known as Chaturanga.

2. Draughts

Originated c3000 BC

Draughts, also known as checkers, is a strategy game that’s still popular today. The aim is to capture the opponent’s pieces by jumping over them diagonally. A board has been found in Ur, modern-day Iraq, dating from c3000 BC. It’s believed that a similar game was played during the Trojan War and across the Roman empire.

3. Backgammon

Originated c3000 BC

Backgammon is also a game of strategy – though a little luck doesn’t hurt. The aim is to be the first player to bear off – meaning to move all of their 15 checkers off the board.

So popular was the game in medieval France that Louis IX issued a decree prohibiting his court officials and subjects from playing it in 1254 – leading to a trend of boards disguised as books. England followed suit in 1526, when Henry VIII‘s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, ordered all backgammon boards to be burnt.

One board found in Iran, made of ebony with turquoise and agate pieces, is believed to be more than 5,000 years old.

4. Go

Originated fourth century BC

Being accomplished in 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 continuously played in China. The aim is to surround more territory than your opponent with your stones – which were often made of crystal or quartz. Go spread quickly to Korea and Japan, but took decades to gain ground beyond East Asia

Since then, it has even been played in space. In 1996, astronauts Daniel Barry and Koichi Wakata did so using a special set aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour.

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

1. Senet

Originated c3100 BC

Picture of Nefertari playing Senet
Nefertari plays the ancient board game senet, for which we still haven’t found a set of rules. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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

The name means ‘the game of passing’, and many of the squares feature hazards one might face on the journey to the ancient Egyptian afterlife. It’s even referenced in the Book of the Dead, a set an funerary texts. It’s thought that the first player to get all of their pawns off the board wins.

2. Nine Men’s Morris

Originated c1400 BC

This mysterious game has unknown origins, but a board has been found cut into roofing slabs in Egypt dating to 1400 BC. Believed to have been played across the Roman empire, it has also been found carved into cloister seats at Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Playwright William Shakespeare references the game in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Each player creates a line of three ‘men’, which enables them to be able to take an opponent’s piece. The winner is the first to reduce their opponent to two pieces.

3. Xiangqi

Originated fourth century BC

A man moves his piece on a Xiangqi board
A man moves his piece 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 represents a battle between two armies. Translated as the ‘elephant game’, it was first recorded during the 4th century BC and was was apparently a favourite of one of the famed ‘Four Lords’ of the Warring States period, Lord Mengchang.

Each player controls a force of 16 pieces and the objective is to capture the opponent’s king – which is perhaps part of the reason it is also known as Chinese chess. Xiangqi is ‘chess’ in name only, though – its board features a river and palaces, for one thing.

4. Liubo

Originated c1000 BC

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 – legend states that it was devised long before this, but no archeological evidence to support this has been found.

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

5. Royal Game of Ur

Originated c2600 BC

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

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

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

6. Mehen

Originated c3000 BC

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

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

Advertisement

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