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Ancient Board Games: Travel Through Time & Explore The World's Rich History Of Strategic Board Games

Updated: Mar 17, 2023


Step back in time and enter the world of ancient board games, where strategy, skill, and luck converged to create timeless pastimes that have stood the test of time. These games were not just mere distractions, but reflections of the cultures that created them. They often depicted elements of the society's values and beliefs.As these games spread across regions and cultures, they evolved to become what we know today. This article will take you back in time to explore some of the earliest forms of board games, tracing their history and development over time, ultimately leading to their modern iterations.

1. Senet

This Senet Board Dating Back to 1390-1353 B.C., courtesy of the Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund at the Brooklyn Museum.

Senet, one of the earliest known board games, was a favorite pastime of the upper echelons of ancient Egyptian society, including the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II. Archaeological and artistic evidence suggest it was played as early as 3100 B.C., during the decline of Egypt’s First Dynasty.

The game was played on long, slender boards consisting of 30 squares arranged in three parallel rows of ten. Two players received equal numbers of gaming tokens, usually between five to seven, and the objective was to be the first to send all of their pieces to the end of the board. Instead of rolling dice, players threw casting sticks or bones to determine their moves.

Senet boards could be ornate and elaborate, with examples of these surviving to this day. However, those with fewer resources simply scratched grids on stone surfaces, tables, or even the floor to play the game. The game’s complex strategy offered players the opportunity to thwart their opponent and block their progress, or even send them backward on the board. It was a game of skill, luck, and strategy, and its enduring popularity is a testament to its timeless appeal.

1. Chess

The Lewis Chessmen, discovered in 1831 on Scotland's Outer Hebrides, are believed to have been made during the 12th century AD.

The modern game of chess originated from the ancient Indian game of Chaturanga, meaning "four limbs" in Sanskrit, representing the four parts of the Gupta Empire's army: infantry, cavalry, chariots, and war elephants. Chaturanga, played by four players, was recorded around the 6th century A.D., but was likely played before that. The pieces moved in a way similar to modern chess, with infantry moving forward and capturing diagonally like pawns, and cavalry moving in L-shapes like knights. However, Chaturanga involved chance, as players cast sticks to determine piece movement.

Indian merchants brought a two-player version of Chaturanga to Persia's Sasanian Empire in the mid-6th century, where it evolved into the improved game of Shatranj. The Arabic conquest of the Sasanian Empire in the mid-7th century further evolved the game, with pieces taking an abstract shape in compliance with Islam's ban on figurative images.

Chess reached Europe through Arabic territories in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. The earliest known literary reference to chess is found in a Swiss monastery manuscript from the 990s, and it rapidly gained popularity across Europe. By the end of the 12th century, chess was a staple in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Scotland, with each region following slightly different rules.

According to Donovan, the most significant change in the game's history was the rise of the queen as the most powerful piece during the 15th and 16th centuries. This was not a random change, but reflected the unprecedented rise of female monarchs such as Isabella I of Castile, Mary I of England, Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I, Marguerite of Navarre, and Marie de Guise

2. The Royal Game of Ur

This Beauty of a 4,500-Year-Old Board with Shell Plaque Squares, Decorated with Lapis Lazuli, Floral and Geometric Designs. Preserved by the Trustees of The British Museum.

Determining the rules of ancient games played thousands of years ago can be challenging for researchers. However, a cuneiform tablet translated by British Museum curator Irving Finkel in the 1980s provided a detailed set of instructions for the Royal Game of Ur, also known as Twenty Squares. This game, dating back around 4,500 years, was rediscovered during Sir Leonard Woolley's excavation of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur's Royal Cemetery between 1922 and 1934. Woolley uncovered five boards, with the most impressive one featuring shell squares surrounded by strips of lapis lazuli and decorated with intricate floral and geometric designs.

This game board, now housed in the British Museum, is similar to Senet boards with three parallel rows of squares. The Royal Game of Ur, however, uses 20 squares instead of 30. Its shape, consisting of a 4x3 block connected to a 2x3 block by a bridge of two squares, resembles an unevenly loaded dumbbell. The goal was to race the opponent to the opposite end of the board, moving pieces according to knucklebone dice rolls. Squares inlaid with floral rosettes were considered "lucky fields" and prevented pieces from being captured or gave players an extra turn.

Despite its name, the Royal Game of Ur has been found in various locations, including Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, and Crete. Later versions of the board have a slightly different layout, with a single line of eight squares instead of the right block and bridge. This format, known as Twenty Squares, was popular in ancient Egypt, where Senet boxes often had 20-square boards.

3. Mehen

The regulations of Mehen are still indistinct, as the game lost its popularity after the fall of Egypt's Old Kingdom. Image credit: Anagoria via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Mehen, also known as the "Egyptian snake game," was a multiplayer board game that was played between 3100 B.C. and 2300 B.C. The game involved up to six players who would guide lion- and sphere-shaped pieces along a spiral racetrack, resembling a coiled snake. The exact rules of the game are still unclear as it faded from popularity following the decline of Egypt's Old Kingdom and is poorly represented in the archaeological record. However, based on what is known, it is believed that the feline game pieces moved in a spiral along the squares, from the tail on the outside to the head of the serpent at the center. The spherical pieces may have also been rolled through the spiraling grooves. The surviving Mehen pieces are not small enough to fit into the individual segments of the boards, adding another layer of mystery to this ancient game.

4. Nine Men’s Morris

A depiction from the 13th century shows Spaniards engaging in a game of Nine Men's Morris, now considered public domain.

In 2018, an exciting discovery was made at the Russian fortress of Vyborg Castle. During the excavations, a clay brick was uncovered with a medieval game board etched onto its surface. Although the brick dates back to the 16th century, the game it represents has a much longer history, dating back to as early as 1400 B.C. The ancient Egyptians had engraved a Morris board onto a roofing slab while constructing the temple of Kurna.

Nine Men's Morris is a two-player strategy game that is similar to modern-day checkers. The objective of the game is to move nine "men," represented by different game pieces, across a grid-like playing field. By arranging three men in a row, a player can capture one of their opponent's pieces. The game is won by the player who captures all of their opponent's pieces or the first person who is unable to form a row of three men and is left with only two pieces. There are alternate versions of the game that use three, six, or twelve pieces for each player.

This game has been found in many countries across the globe, including Greece, Norway, Ireland, France, Germany, and England. Nine Men's Morris was particularly popular in medieval Europe and was even mentioned in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The wide spread popularity of this game demonstrates how it has been enjoyed and played by people from different cultures and backgrounds for thousands of years.

5. Tafl

The circular gaming board, believed to be from the 7th or 8th century, was probably used by monks to play the Norse strategy game Hnefatafl, which pits a king and his defenders against 24 attackers. Michael Sharpe / The Book of Deer Project

The popular strategy games collectively knowns as Tafl were one of the favourite pastime games in ancient Scandinavia. Dating back to 400A.D., these games were a blend of war and chase and spread from Scandinavia to Iceland, Britain and Ireland. However, as chess gained popularity in England and Nordic countries during the 11th and 12th centuries, Tafl lost its appeal. The discovery of a disc-shaped gaming board at the Scottish Monastery of Deer in 2018 showcases the wide spread popularity of Tafl. Dating from the 7th or 8th century, this board is a rare artifact, with only a few found in Scotland and mainly on monastic and religious sites .

The most famous Tafl variation, Hnefatafl, stood out from the traditional two player games due to its unequal sides, with the king and his defenders facing a group of attackers that outnumbered them two-to-one. The objective was for the king to reach one of the four refuges located in the corners of the board while the attackers tried to prevent the escape. The game ended when the king either reached safety or surrendered.

In essence, the ancient world had a rich tradition of strategic board games, with popular games like Senet, Chess, and The Royal Game of Ur still captivating people to this day. From the ornate Senet boards played by ancient Egyptians to the evolution of Chaturanga into modern chess, these games showcase the skill, luck, and strategy involved in these timeless pastimes. The intricate sculpted stones discovered in Turkey and the detailed instructions for the Royal Game of Ur further highlight the cultural significance and historical significance of these ancient board games. They continue to be a testament to the enduring appeal of these timeless classics.

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23 Φεβ 2023
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A very interesting read.

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