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Ancient Board Games: The History of the Oldest Board Games

I’m always on the lookout for new board games to play with my grandson. He recently asked me if there were any when I was little, which got us talking about the history of board games and ancient games people played.

The Royal Game of Ur is considered the oldest board game. It originated more than 4600 years ago in Mesopotamia and quickly spread throughout the Middle East. Other games like Senet or Sen’t, Chinese Go, Egyptian Mehen, and Ashtapadi in India are also ancient board games. 

Ancient Civilizations viewed board games as signs of intelligence, cunning, and leadership skills. Board games were not just a pastime; they also taught life skills and strategy.

Picture of the ancient game go.

In this guide, I cover:

  • History of Board Games
  • Most popular Ancient Board Games
  • What is the oldest board game in history?
  • And more…

History of Board Games

Long before Chess, Checkers, and Monopoly, people throughout history played board games. In fact, archeologists discovered a board game in the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.

It is impossible to trace the exact origins of board games as that would entail tracing the history of humankind’s leisure activities. Early humans had plenty of time to spare after hunts, and it is no wonder they used their imagination to create games to fill up that time.

I can imagine early games played by etching designs with stones or chalk on cave floors and walls. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say board games have been around since humans developed imagination.

After all, that is what board games are all about: imagination. Sure, Gen Z may argue that video games are more fun. But do they offer the same flexibility? I think not. 

Let’s trace the history of board games around the world.

Ancient Board Games Around The World

Egypt

Archeologist found the Royal Game of Ur in more than 2000 tombs in Ur, which is in present-day Iraq. Unfortunately, the rules of the game are lost to time. Some intelligent folks devised what they think the game may have been like.

It is believed that The Royal Game of Ur may have been the precursor to many of the modern backgammon-like games. Some experts believe that Senet or Sen’t may be older than the Royal Game of Ur.

Senet is believed to have originated around 3100 BC and has even been depicted in ancient hieroglyphs and Egyptian tombs. Queen Nefertiti and Pharaoh Tutankhamen supposedly loved this game.

Since the game relied heavily on luck, people believed that the gods protected the winner. They even added Senet in tombs to help the deceased through after-life. The word Senet or Sen’t means the Game of Passing.

Another leading contender in the oldest or ancient board games list is Mehen or the Game of The Snake. This game may have been played around 3600-3200 BC in ancient Egypt by Dynasties 3-6. 

Mehen stands for a spiral or the Egyptian Snake God. Like Senet and Royal Game of Ur, Mehen has also been discovered in burial sites, and tombs found around the Dead Sea. This is a 6-player game.

Its original rules are lost, but some gaming experts like Dmitri Skiryuk have made their own versions. You can play it with pieces shaped like dogs, lions, and hippos. There are round balls found with the game, but their purpose is unknown.

Another ancient game played in Egypt was Hounds and Jackals. Egyptologist William Mathew Flinders Petrie is credited with the game’s discovery, and he published its report in 1890.

Backgammon is another noteworthy ancient board game that was played in Mesopotamia. It is more than 5000 years today but still popular as ever. Today, there are worldwide Backgammon tournaments held around the globe.

You can even play it online with strangers. The First International Backgammon Tournament was held in the early 1960s.

China

In the East, China was not far behind in board games. Two of the earliest Chinese board games were Go and Liubo. They are extremely popular even today, so much so that the winners of tournaments become celebrities. 

According to Britannica, Go may have originated 4000 years ago in China. It soon became popular in Japan and Korea. Go is considered simpler than Chess but complex to master. Its rules are easy, but they lead to many intriguing patterns and maneuvers, and that makes the game rather difficult. 

Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) tomb models and glazed pottery depict images and figurines of people playing Liubo. The game needs a board with four corners and is played with 4 L, 4 T shapes, and four circles.

India

Ancient Indians played many board games as well. In fact, the Mahabharata war (fought between Kauravas – the evil- and Pandavas-the good) originated over a board game called Chopat – the game of dice. 

A board game called Chaturanga is considered one of the oldest board games of India. It may have originated around Sixth Century, and there are references to this game found in many ancient Indian texts.

Chaturanga was created to teach young princes the art of war through cavalry, infantry, chariots, etc. Westerners soon took Chaturanga’s intermediate form called Shatranj to Europe, where it became the predecessor of Chess.

Ashtapada and Pachisi are two other ancient Indian board games. Pachisi, too originated around the 6th century. Mughal rulers played this game extensively. In 1874, American game makers trademarked the name Parcheesi after buying the rights to Pachisi in 1867.

Ashtapada or Ahstapadi may precede all of the above games as references to it have been found in texts by Patanjali – written around the 2nd century. The game is somewhat similar to Chess and is also played on an 8×8 board.

Europe 

Homer’s Illiad, written in the 8th century BC describes an ancient board game called Petteia. It is similar to Chess and known by different names such as Poleis, Cities, or the Game of Pebbles. Ancient Greeks played this game extensively.

In ancient Ireland, a game called Fidchell (Ficheall) was popular around the 10th century. If legends are to be believed, then the game may have been invented by the Celtic God Lugh – the God of Light – for his son, the hero Cú Chulainn.

Germans, Icelanders, and French gamers mainly played Backgammon or some form of it. Romans also played a form of Backgammon called Tabula.

The Roman Game Nine Men’s Morris is a strategy-based game that may have originated during the Roman Empire 31 BC-AD 476. Nine Men’s Morris is known by many names like Mills, Mill, Merrel’s, etc. You also have different variations like Three, Six, and Twelve Men’s Morris. 

Europe’s first commercially produced board game is the Game of The Goose; the earliest record of it appeared in 1480. Many novels, stunt shows, and operas refer to this game which also became the prototype for many racing board games. The aim of Game of the Goose is to reach square number 63 before your opponents do, while also battling and avoiding obstacles.

Americas

In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs played a board game called Patolli. It was a racing game played on a cross-shaped board. Commoners and nobles alike enjoyed this game of strategy and luck.

In the United States, one of the oldest board games to be published was Travellers Tour Through the United States. It was first played in 1822, and the era from 1820 to 1900 became known as the Golden era of board games in the US.

One of the first commercially produced board games in the country was The Mansion of Happiness. It was based on the principles of Christianity. The game’s objective is to reach the Mansion of Happiness at the center of the spiral track on the board. It is a game for 2-8 players.

Another of the ancient board games played in America include Game of the District, Messenger Boy and Merit Rewarded. Both these games depicted hints of materialism. They involved the roll of the die and moving forward on the track – of course; some moves send the players back.

In 1860, the board game called The Game of Life became very popular. Players literally go through different stages of life like college, marriage, and retirement.

Picture of a chess game

Most Popular Ancient Board Games Today

Chess

I think Chess remains one of the most popular board games with ancient origins. Chess dates back 1500 years and has roots in India’s Chaturanga or Chatur. The latter – as mentioned earlier – dates back to the 6th century.

It soon traveled through Persia to Europe, where it became highly popular in Russia. In fact, in Russia, Chess is considered the national pastime, and the Czar Ivan the IV even died during a match. After Russia, Ukraine, China, and Israel have top rankings of Chess players.

Some people erroneously believe that Chess is a dying game. Nothing is more inaccurate than this statement. I think that Chess will remain popular for ages to come. I play Chess on my phone using an app named lichess.org.

To show you a glimpse of Chess’ popularity, here are some cool facts:

  • Chess.com – the most popular online chess website has 12 million registered users.
  • It is estimated that more than 605 million people play Chess regularly.
  • Covid-19 pandemic has further fuelled Chess’s popularity. Shows like Queen’s Gambit on Netflix also encourage players of all levels.
  • Chess remains the ‘easy to learn – hard to master the game of all times’. It has just 4 rules to learn and requires the knowledge of the movement of just 6 pieces. It is a game that challenges and yet is not discouragingly difficult.

Backgammon

One of the most popular board games in ancient history is Backgammon. It has its roots in the Royal game of Ur and Senet described above.

Here are the factors that have contributed to Backgammon’s popularity:

  • Backgammon needs skill and luck and is extremely entertaining.
  • So much is its popularity, that people have famously forgotten their duties and kept playing it – for example, the police team that was eventually sacked for playing the game while on duty.
  • Today, there are worldwide tournaments held for Backgammon. The most famous one is the World Series of Backgammon – first played in the United States in the 1960s.

Checkers

There is a debate whether Chess came first or checkers. Both Chess and Checkers are very popular today. Origins of Checkers can be traced to 3000 BCE in Iraq. Today, it has many variations- most countries play it on 64-square boards, although there are 100 and 144 square boards as well.

Here are the reasons behind Checker’s popularity:

  • It is easier to teach kids than chess is.
  • Checkers teaches judgment, can improve memory, and could help develop mathematic skills. It could also aid in concentration. 
  • The all-inclusive game is fit for all ages and especially great for people with disabilities.

FAQs – Ancient Board Games?

What is the oldest board game in history?

The oldest board game in the world is the Royal Game of Ur, it is nearly 4600 years old. 

Which oldest game in the world is still played today?

Chess is one of the oldest games in the world that is still popular today. Its roots can be traced back to Chaturanga/Shatranj/Chatur and Ashtapada board games of India that were played around the 6th century.

What is the funnest board game of all time?

Opinions about the most fun board game of all time varies. However, Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, and Monopoly are bestsellers.

Which is older: Chess or Backgammon?

Backgammon is older than Chess. Tabulah (the predessor to backgammon) dates back to 480 AD, whereas the roots of Chess date back to the 6th century.

Conclusion

Since times immemorial, humans have played board games. The earliest board games date back nearly 5000 years. Ancient Civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt played board games and even ‘carried them into the After-Life.’

Similarly, ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations played board games and even used them as learning tools for strategy and sound judgment.

The Royal Game of Ur, Senet, Mehen, and Go are believed to be some of the oldest board games of all time. Chaturanga or Ashtapadi are other ancient board games that may have paved the way for modern-day Chess.

Many of these ancient games are still played today, although their original rules are lost.

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