Board games are widely known as a more traditional approach towards entertainment and although they have kept up to date with the pace of the modernization wave, they indeed date quite far back in history. Ancient civilizations are known to have had at least some form of entertainment recognizable as a board game since almost 5000 years ago.
Board games that we know and love today are descendants of humankind’s first rule-based approaches towards entertainment. At first, of course, games were extremely simplistic and thus, arose the desire for challenge, out of which games found variety. Naturally, through variety they gained fame and popularity amongst people of all ages and positions and well, the rest is history.
In other words, board games have had a very long journey to come to be as they are today and for enthusiasts of tabletop games, the history of this journey is most probably interesting to explore. In this article I have tried to provide a brief and simple, yet complete enough summary of the long—and rich—history behind board games.
What Were Some of the First Board Games and Who Invented Them?
It’s difficult to indicate which board game should be considered the very first since they have gone through so many alterations over the many years of being played and tweaked. However, with categories in mind, we can introduce some of the oldest ones known.
Some of these games have been said to have had a great importance in ancient history and some were merely practice projects of brilliant brains who were bored. Although time hasn’t been particularly kind to some of these games and some have been partially or entirely lost, there are still some original versions that have been put to work by experts and can still be played today.
1. The First Board Game Recorded in History – Senet
Senet (or Senat) is an ancient board game that has been played since the time of Ancient Egypt. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was played as early as 3500 BCE, with game boards being discovered in Predynastic and First Dynasty burials. It is believed to be the oldest known board game in the world, and has been played for centuries, with its rules and strategies evolving over time.
Board games were a beloved pastime in ancient Egypt, with Senet being the most popular of them all. Played by two people, Senet was enjoyed on elaborately carved and inlaid boards, such as the one discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb, or simply scratched into the earth. The game was so beloved that it was even believed to have been played in the afterlife, with the gods and it has appeared numerous times in ancient stone carvings and other forms of illustration.
The game board had thirty squares laid out in three rows of ten. Some of these squares were similar to “action” squares which affected the gameplay depending on the symbol that was on them.
The movement of the pieces was done by throwing four two-sided sticks or, in some cases, knucklebones. Senet, means “passing” and the objective of each player was to move their pieces around the squares and avoid hazards and with the help of the gods, get their avatar to the afterlife safely.
Although the original rules of the game are not very well known, there have been multiple nearly successful attempts at reconstruction of the game and it’s safe to state that the game of Senat is still purchasable, playable, and relevant today and it wouldn’t be a far fetch to say it’s popular.
2. The First Commercially Published Board Game – The Game of The Goose
Invented in Italy as early as 1500, Game of the Goose (Gioco dell’Oca) has been a beloved classic for centuries. It was given by Francesco de Medici (1574-1587) as a present to King Phillip of Spain, and has been constantly in production ever since. This makes it one of the oldest and most successful commercial board games of all time, with its popularity spanning generations.
The game of the Goose is a board game for 2 to 4 players, each with their own colored piece. The spiral-shaped board has 63 spaces that are—obviously—numbered from 1 to 63, with different drawings on each space. Depending on the space you enter, your piece will advance, move back, or suffer a penalty. In a turn, a player rolls a dice which indicates the number of spaces to advance. If a player rolls and gets a higher number than the number of remaining spaces to the goal, the player will advance to the space 63 and then go back until completing the number rolled.
It’s probably one of the oldest existing versions of the classic Snakes & Ladders gameplay that is still played to this day and is known as the first board game that ever began commercial and mass production.
Other Iconic Board Games that Date Back to Ancient Times
Go (Japanese), also called i-go, Chinese (Pinyin) weiqi or (Wade-Giles romanization) wei-ch’i, Korean baduk or pa-tok, is an ancient abstract strategy board game that has been played for over 2,500 years. It is a two-player game in which the objective is to surround more territory than your opponent. The game originated in China and has since spread to many other countries, becoming a popular pastime for millions of people around the world. Go is renowned for its complexity and depth, and is considered to be one of the most challenging and rewarding board games ever created.
Even though Go is said to have been of Chinese origins, it owes its popularity in modern history to the Japanese who had migrated the game to their lands several centuries ago. The game of Go quickly gained immense popularity in Japan during the first half of the 20th century, and its influence soon spread to China and Korea. By the latter decades of the century, the game had become a beloved pastime in these countries as well. After World War II, Go’s popularity skyrocketed, and it soon became a beloved board game all around the globe.
2. Royal Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur is an ancient two-player strategy race board game of the tables family that was first played in Mesopotamia during the early third millennium BC. This game was popular across the Middle East, and boards for playing it have been discovered in locations as far away as Crete and Sri Lanka. The British Museum holds one of the oldest game boards in the world, dating back to c. 2600 – c. 2400 BC. This board is a testament to the game’s enduring popularity and its ability to transcend time and culture.
At the height of its popularity, the Game of Ur acquired a certain spiritual significance, with many believing that events in the game could reflect a player’s future and convey messages from deities or other supernatural beings. This ancient game remained popular until late antiquity, when it eventually faded away.
The game of Mehen was played in ancient Egypt and is named after a mythical snake entity of Egyptian origins. Mehen is a protective deity who is depicted as a snake which coils around the sun god Ra during his journey through the night, for instance in the Amduat.
Evidence of the ancient game of Mehen has been found dating back to the Predynastic period of around 3000 BC. This game was popular until the end of the Old Kingdom, around 2300 BC, when it eventually lost its relevance, making it one of the oldest known board games in history.
Archeologists have found many game boards for Mehen all closely representing a coiled snake, unfortunately however, the rules of this ancient tabletop game are entirely lost to the dust of time.
The classic game of Checkers has been around for centuries, with the earliest records of the game dating back to around 5000 years ago. Evidence of a board resembling a checkers board was found in Ur, dating back to 3000 BC. In the British Museum, there are specimens of ancient Egyptian checkerboards that were found in burial chambers, and it is believed that the game was played by the pharaoh Hatshepsut. The game was also mentioned by Plato and Homer, who referred to it as petteia. The method of capture was to place two pieces on either side of the opponent’s piece, and it is said to have been played during the Trojan War. The Romans later developed a variation of petteia called latrunculi, or the game of the Little Soldiers.
Checkers, as you may know, is still widely played as both a casual game and a professional competitive sport. Casual sessions of Checkers up to 30 minutes and professional matches can take up to 3 hours!
Backgammon is an ancient two-player board game that has been played for thousands of years, with its earliest records dating back to 17th-century England. It is a member of the large family of tabletop games, which originated in the regions of Mesopotamia and Persia nearly 5,000 years ago. The game of Irish, which was popular in the 16th century, is believed to be the ancestor of backgammon. Players use counters and dice on a board to play the game.
The main goal of the game of Backgammon is to be the first player to bear off all fifteen of their pieces from the board. To do this, players must strategically move their pieces around the board, while attempting to block their opponent’s pieces and prevent them from bearing off first. If a player is able to bear off all of their pieces before their opponent, they are rewarded with a triple win, known as a backgammon which inspired the name of the game.
Backgammon is a game of skill and luck, where the roll of the dice determines the immediate outcome, but the better player will ultimately prevail over time. With its combination of strategy and chance, backgammon is a game that requires both luck and skill to win. Players must use their knowledge of the game and their ability to think ahead to outwit their opponents and come out on top. It’s also a game that is still very widely popular.
Board games have been a source of entertainment for centuries, providing hours of fun and laughter for people of all ages. From the classic games of chess and checkers to the modern-day favorites like Monopoly and Scrabble, board games have evolved over time to become a beloved pastime for people around the world. Which board games bring out your nostalgic sense more than others? Share your ideas in the comments!