Fun for Everyone: The Evolving History of Board Games

Fun for Everyone: The Evolving History of Board Games

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The delightful hobby of playing games isn't a modern invention. While people in ancient times didn't have Pokemon Go to entertain themselves, they still spent hours of fun games both inside and outside of their households.

It is unknown who the innovators were who first started to play games. Perhaps the earliest games were created in prehistoric times, when gaming tools would have been made of wood or bone. It is impossible to conclude which is the oldest game in the world, but discoveries made at archaeological sites in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have unearthed an ancient game that is still a mystery for archaeologists. It seems that games quickly became a very attractive source of entertainment, a valuable diplomatic gift, a portrayal of wealth, and desired artifacts for the afterlife (perhaps with a perception of extra leisure time following death?)

A screen painting depicting people of the Ming Dynasty playing Go, by Kanō Eitoku.

A screen painting depicting people of the Ming Dynasty playing Go, by Kanō Eitoku. ( Public Domain )

Ancient Games of Prestige

One can only imagine what kind of games normal people could play in the distant past and what were the usual ways to entertain children. Ancient resources describe some games, but it is unknown how many of them were available to everyone. Certainly, the number of people allowed to play some games increased over time, but it is unknown how many games were accessible to all in the earliest years.

Archaeological evidence suggest that ancient Egyptians enjoyed board games. Even Queen Nefertari, the famous wife of Ramesses II, was portrayed in her tomb while playing a board game called Senet. The second most famous game in ancient Egypt was Mehen. It is unknown which game is older, however, material evidence presents Senet as the first.

The Egyptian game Senet.

The Egyptian game Senet. Public Domain

The first evidence of the game Mehen is as old as 3,000 BC. It was very popular during the Old Kingdom, and remained prevalent at least until the Third Intermediate Period. Mehen was played on a board which looks like a snail shell at first glance, but actually represents a snake. The most detailed playing pieces were shaped like lions. The set of pieces included about three to six game bits and a few small marbles.

Mehen game with gamestones, from Abydos, Egypt.

Mehen game with gamestones, from Abydos, Egypt. ( CC BY 3.0 )

On the other hand, Senet was known in the Pre-Dynastic period. The game was played on a grid of 30 squares arranged in three rows. The exact rules are unknown, but it seems that it was played with two sets of pawns. The game was played as a way to contact deities. It was believed that the successful player was protected by gods like Ra, Thoth, and Osiris. The connection to the last god explains somewhat why this game was often placed within tombs. Senet was so popular that it was even referred to in the Book of the Dead.

A game box and pieces for playing the game of Senet found within the intact KV62 tomb of King Tutankhamun.

A game box and pieces for playing the game of Senet found within the intact KV62 tomb of King Tutankhamun. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The famous Royal Game of Ur differed from ancient Egyptian board games as it was also available to normal people. The game is about 5,000-years-old, and is one of the enlightening artifacts that exposes details on the mentality of the ancient people of Ur. It is a racing game based on a set of knucklebone dice. This game spread to neighboring countries and was also played by Egyptians.

The Royal Game of Ur.

The Royal Game of Ur. ( CC0)

Druidic Fun and Medieval Stones

Another very interesting game was one discovered in a tomb dated to the 1st century AD. It belonged to a person known as the Druid of Colchester. The discovery of this artifact was a lucky surprise because it seems the game is complete. An article titled Your Move Doctor! describes the game board and other finds the Colchester archaeologists made in Stanway:

''Delicate excavation gradually uncovered the fragile remains of the game board with the pieces still more or less as they had been left 2,000 years ago. The wooden board had rotted away almost entirely, except for its corners where close contact with its L-shaped metal corner pieces resulted in the survival of some wood. The gaming counters must have dropped by around 15 mm (the thickness of the board) as the wood decayed, and there seems to have been some slight sideways movement of the pieces, presumably because the board was jolted at some point in the burial process. But by and large, there had been surprisingly little movement of the pieces, and this has allowed us to guess at how the board was laid out. What seems to have happened is this. A roughly square pit was dug for the grave. The bottom was ledged so that one end was slightly deeper than the rest of it. A long wooden box (or at least some sort of wooden partitioning) was then placed in the deepest part of the grave so that it was a tight fit across one end of it. The gaming board was opened up and placed slightly askew on the bottom of the box. The pieces were set out in their starting positions, and a few pieces were moved as if a game had started (we will come to this in more detail later). The cremated remains of the dead person were placed on the board, either as a pile or in a bag - we cannot tell which. The medical instruments were then laid either directly on the board or on a shelf in the box. Various other items were placed in the box.”

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