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Ancient Board Games

AIA Game Event

Race Games
The simplest race games are just that -- a board with spaces and a marker to move along it, and dice to tell you how far to move. Such a game may entertain a child for a little while but one quickly realizes there is no skill at all involved (except perhaps in the throwing of the dice) and no strategy. The next introduction to race games would have been helps and hazards (as with Snakes and Ladders) themed in a way appropriate to whatever game you're playing. Still not a very challenging game though. Adding more complications makes the game more interesting, so next we allow the players more than one piece -- so they can choose which to move -- and the ability to bump each other off the board. Add a few "safe" spots and keep the other hazards and helps and we now have a game suitable for adults.

The Royal Game of Ur

"The Royal Game of Ur
The oldest complete board game known Discovered in 1926-1927 by Sir Leonard Woolley in royal tombs in what is now Iraq Dates back to more than 2500 B.C.E. Found in the ruins of the city-state of Ur (where Abraham once lived may have been played by the people of the Bible) Found within the tombs were four boards of the same basic design representing one game It was played by all classes of that society The games range from simple to richly worked pieces It is not known whether UR was the first board game ever played but it's ancient enough that everything before it is pretty much guess-work.

The Royal Game of Ur

Rules to Ur
Each player has seven pawns, and three pyramidal dice each with two red and two white vertices. This is a race game. The goal is to introduce the seven pawns, to move them along your designated path, and to be the first to have all the pawns out of the game, similar to backgammon. The start square for each player, the path followed by each player, and the five special, rosette squares are shown in the drawing below. The exit square is the one between the two rosettes. Movement points are determined by the roll of the dice as follows:
three red (black) vertices yields 5 points and the right to take another turn three white vertices yields 4 points and the right to take another turn two white vertices yields no points and the turn passes to your opponent one white vertex gives 1 point and the turn passes to your opponent

Draw lots to determine the first player. The board is empty at the beginning. Pawns may be introduced on your first square by rolling a 4 or 5. Any pawns already on the board may advanced one square along your path for each movement point thrown.

Rules to Ur (continued)

Direction of movement of the opposing players

Rules to Ur (continued)
Except when they are on the refuges, or have entered the central line, pawns may be attacked by opposing pawns moving in the same direction. If a pawn lands on a square already occupied by an opposing pawn, the opposing pawn is removed from the board and has to restart the game from its start square. A player may have as many pawns on the board as they wish. Each square, except for the rosette squares and the leaving (last) square, may be occupied by one and only one pawn. The rosette squares and the last square are refuges: several pawns of different colors may be present without any danger. Each pawn must reach the last square from which it can leave the board on a throw of 4 or a 5. The winner is the first player who moves all of their pawns off of the board via the exit square.

Making a Royal Game of Ur of Your Own

I will put a template for the game board that you can use on the Reno AIA website.

Making a Royal Game of Ur of Your Own

Template for the Royal Game of Ur dice will also be on line.

Making a Royal Game of Ur of Your Own

Tinker toy game pieces

The Ancient Egyptian Game of Senet

One very early game was that called S'n't -- lately known as "Senet" or "Senat". This very early board game was found in many ancient Egyptian tombs -- both of pharaohs and workers. A magnificent board was found buried with Tutankhamen. Although the original rules are unknown, at least two plausible reconstructions of the rules have been made. In this game of 30 squares set in three rows of 10, both player's pieces enter the board at one end of a row, proceed to the end, turn and go back down the middle at the end of which they turn again, drop to the final row and go back -- the object being to bear off all your pieces before your opponent does. Special spots on the board represent death and being turned away from the afterlife -- and rebirth to try again. The heiroglyph representing a Senet game is found honoring a king -- and dates back to 3100 B.C.E. -- and if the game was known and respected then, it must be older still.


Cones and reed playing pieces

Bells Rules to Senet

Each player has 10 pawns. Four two-sided sticks (one side painted) are thrown to determine movement. When only one painted side is visible : 1 point. With two : 2 points. With three : 3 points. With four : 4 points. With none : 5 points. At the beginning of the game there are no pawns on the board. Each player in turn throws the sticks, and puts his pawns on the board on the squares with the symbols I, II, III, X, O according to the number of points thrown. Only one pawn may be present on each square. So if a pawn is already present the turn is lost. A player may either move one pawn or add a new pawn to the board, if possible, with each throw. The pawns located on the marked squares are in shelters. Pawns may not be stacked. When a pawn arrives on a square already occupied by an opponent pawn, the opponent is removed and must restart from the beginning. This rule does not apply for the marked squares which are shelters. The first pawn to reach square number 1 earns a bonus of five points and it fixes the goal of the game: that player's other pawns have to reach odd squares whereas the opponent must reach the even squares. The game ends when the pawns of the two players are alternately placed on the first and second rows. When a pawn has reached its last square, it cannot be attacked. The first player to have put all his pawns on his own squares wins the game and earns 10 points. He also gets one point for each move his opponent makes while placing all of his remaining pawns.

Kendalls Rules to Senet

At the beginning of the game the seven pawns per player alternate along the 14 first squares. The starting square is counted as the 15th. In the oldest games this square featured an ankh, a "life" symbol. The pawns move according to the throw of four sticks or, later, one or two knucklebones. When using the sticks the points seemed to have been counted from 1 to 5: 1 point for each side without a mark and 5 points if the four marked sides were present together. When a pawn reached a square already occupied by an opponent pawn, they have to exchange their positions. The special squares have the following effects on play:
15 : House of Rebirth, starting square and the return square for the pawns reaching square number 27. 26 : House of Happiness, a mandatory square for all the pawns. 27: House of Water, a square that can be reached by the pawns located on squares 28 to 30 which moved back when their throws did not allow them to exit the board. They have to restart from square 15. 28 : House of the Three Truths, a pawn may only leave when a 3 is thrown. 29 : House of the Re-Atoum, a pawn may only leave when a 2 is thrown.

The winner is the first to move all of their pawns off the board.

Making Your Own Senet Game

I will post a copy of the game board on the Reno AIA website.

Home-made Senet Game

Home-made Senet Game

Home-made Senet Game

The stones are moved about holes arranged in two (or more) parallel rows on a board

The Mancala Family of Games

It probably originated with seeds or beans played in holes scooped in the dirt (an extremely easy-to-make game for farmers on a lunch break) Then it evolved into a board game -- about the time folks got tired of scratching holes in the dirt. There are so many variations of mancala that it has to have been around for thousands of years and, likely, goes back further. Rows of holes have been found carved on slabs in ancient structures in Egypt, even in the pyramid of Cheops, that look remarkably like mancala game boards. Saharan remains that date back 3000 years look like mancala boards, too. Richard Leakey found some boards with two rows of thirteen holes in Kenya, that he dates to Neolithic times. Some of these may be ancient calculators but undoubtedly some are early forms of the game.


Board Game in Jerash, Jordan

Make Your Own Mancala Game

Using eight small bowls and 48 marbles you can make your own game

Ancient Chinese Game of Wei-qi (Go)

The Game of Go ("Wei-qi" in its original Chinese form) enjoys a special place in board game history, because not only is it one of the oldest games known, it has kept essentially the same rules for longer than any other board game out there. Originating in China as far back as 2300 B.C.E., Wei-qi spread into Korea in the second century (where it was called Pa-tok, now Baduk or Badug), and finally, when it traveled to Japan via trade routes sometime around the year 700 A.D. In Japan it developed into its modern form, and the rules have not varied significantly since that time. Because Go is really a game about capturing territory, it falls outside all the usual classifications of games: alignment games, war games, capture games, hunt games, race games -- though it has hints of some of these in it. Though capture is a part of Go, and it is often considered a war game, capture is just one aspect, and it is not so much about aspects of war (generals and soldiers and war equipment) as it is about defining who owns what spaces on the board. The pieces have no differing powers at all -- they simply serve to mark the borders of territory.

Wei-qi (Go)

Another Ancient Chinese Game

Mah Jongg is said to have originated in the Tang Dynasty in China -- about 4000 years ago. Whether its original form was paper (cards) and it later moved onto tiles, or whether it began as tiles (or wooden planks) and cards later developed from it, most of the length of its early history has been recorded as being limited to the aristocracy -the rules were kept secret until China became a republic early in the last century! It is very likely that the earliest versions of the game would bear little resemblance to the game as played today. Only in 1920 did it step outside its country of origin and spread, first to the United States and then around the world. Strongly resembling the card game "Rummy" -- true Mah Jong is a game for four players (and bears little relation to the dull but mesmerizing solitaire version often found on computers, sometimes called "Shanghai").

Mah Jongg

Dice Games, Race Games

One of the oldest forms of gaming, is "lots" played with dice The earliest form of die seems to have been binary -- quite often using the small end of a branch of a tree, cut in half so that when thrown it ended either round or flat side up (the type used in the game of Senet). With binary dice the odds on a throw of the more extreme numbers (one or six) are much less than they would be using the modern, traditional, sixsided die where you have an equal chance of rolling any number. But using five of the stick-dice to get six different result (one flat, two flat, three flat, four flat, five flat and no flat would equal six) there are so many different ways of coming up with a 2 or a 3 (ten different ways each), and a fair number of ways to come up with a one or a four (five ways each) but only one way of coming up with a five or a six (all flat up or all flat down) -- which is why in ancient games based on binary dice you'll often see the very rare throws greatly rewarded, with extra distance on moves and a free throw, too. Dice were later made out of bones and were called "astragals usually the knuckle bones of sheep or goats which, when rolled on a hard, flat surface, would land in one of four ways -- customarily valued at 1, 3, 4 and 6. These would certainly have been used for gambling, and it is not a long step from the throwing of dice to the need for some way to keep score -- which is likely where the earliest of race games came from.

Two-sided Dice

Knuckle Bones & Dice

Roman dice

Numbers were assigned to each of the four long sides.

Rome Dice Games

The object of the game object of the game is to acquire on Venus card, two little dog cards, and one Roman coin.
4 players use 3 Venus cards, 6 dog cards and three coins 3 players use 2 Venus cards, 4 dog cards and two coins 2 players use 1 Venus card, 2 dog cards, and one coin

Place correct number of each in the center of the table four the number of players playing The first player rolls all five dice in order to get:
I,I,I,I,I to claim a Roman coin VI, VI, VI, VI, VI (Jactus Venereus) to claim a Venus card Five of any number (Jactus Canicula) to claim a dog card

If these are not rolled by the first player, the next player can roll all, or any number of the dice in order to achieve any of the above in combination with what you have left on the table. If the second player fails to achieve five of any kind, the third player attempts to achieve the combinations. This continues from player to player until the combinations are achieved. Once a player has thrown one of the combinations and claimed the reward, they start the next round. If a player is entitled to collect a card or coin and all have been claimed, they can take the card or coin from another player. The first player to hold a Venus card, two dog cards, and a coin wins the game.

The Anomalous Oldest Backgammon game

In 2004 archaeologists found an old game in the 5,000-year old city of Shahr-e Sukhteh (burnt city).

Many have suggested that it is the oldest version of Backgammon ever found. Dated at 3,000 B.C.E. the find included a rectangular board made of ebony, pieces made from turquoise and agate, and dice. This is older than the game of Ur. The board features an engraved serpent coiling around itself 20 times producing 20 slots for the game instead of the current 24. There are also 60 pieces instead of th current 30. The rules may have been very different. This origin is different than the usual explanation that backgammon is derived from Senet. The Romans clearly played a direct descendant of Senet.

Tabula and Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum

The Romans played Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, a game of twelve lines The Romans played a game they called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, the game of the twelve lines. The game may be derived from the Egyptian Senat with a topological set of 3 x 12 points and played with 3 x 6 sided dice. The rules are still unclear. In the first century AD, Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum seems to have been replaced by a variant with only 2 rows of 12 points, a game which by the 6th century was called 'Alea'. Both these games and others were also referred to as 'Tabula', which was a generic name for 'boardgame' and in early mediaeval times was usually used to mean the most popular boardgame, Ducodecim Scriptorum/Alea/Backgammon.

Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum

Modern Backgammon
Following some rule changes in the early seventeenth century the game underwent a revival and swept across Europe
Different names
England - Backgammon Scotland Gammon France - TricTric-Trac Germany Puff Spain - Tablas Reales Italy - Tavole Reale Czech - Vrhc Vrhcby Israel and Arabic - Shesh Besh

The term Backgammon may be derived from either the Welsh 'back' (little) and 'gammon' (battle) or from the Saxon 'bac' (back) 'gamen' (game) Backgammon underwent another revival before the first World War but waned during the middle of the twentieth century only to recover again in the 1970s to become popular again. It is still widely played in the Middle East as Tric-trac. There are a whole family of variants
Chouette (3 or 4 player version) Partnership backgammon SixeySixey-Acey, Acey, Dutch Backgammon, Turkish Backgammon (Moultezim ), (Moultezim), Greek Backgammon (Plakato ), (Plakato), Gioul (from the Middle East), Acey Deucey (US Forces version of Dutch Backgammon), European Acey Deucey, Deucey, Russian Backgammon, Tabard Backgammon and Icelandic Backgammon (Kotra ) (Kotra)

Nard / Tabula (Tables)

Chinese history indicates that t'shu-p'u (Nard) was invented in Western India, arrived in China during the Wei dynasty (220 - 265 AD) and became popular from 479 to 1000AD. In Japan the game was called Sugoroko and was declared illegal during the reign of Empress Jito (690 - 697AD). Nard, in turn, seems to have been introduced into Europe via Italy or Spain following the Arab occupation of Sicily (902 AD). The first mention of the game in English print was in The Codex Exoniensis published in 1025: "These two shall sit at Tables...". Tables was probably brought to England by men returning from the Crusades. Nard or Tables was played throughout Europe during the middle ages, becaming very popular in English Taverns, but it was supplanted by Chess during the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, Tables had become a generic term for any game played on a flat surface or table. Like many games played for money, it was illegal in England until the reign of Elizabeth I.

Nard / Tabula (Tables)

While the roots of the game most likely go back much further, we can trace chess all the way back to 7th century India. Chess is a game of war comprising two armies controlled by two separate players. It is different from many other board games because there is no luck involved. The outcome of the game is determined solely by the skill of the player. Chess spread from India to Persia, and finally to the Arab world following the Arabian conquest in the 600s. From there, it infiltrated into Europe, most likely via a variety of different trade routes. By the early 1000s, chess was commonly played throughout Europe. By the Middle Agesbetween 1100 and 1450chess was Europe's most popular game among ruling classes. It was during the Renaissance period that the rules of chess evolved to resemble the ones used today. The changes that were made to the rules of chess reflected outside life. For example, until the 1450s the queen had limited powers, but eventually became the most powerful piece on the board.


Teufelsquadrat, Devils Square

The Devils Square was derived from a socalled Latin Square, that the Mathematician, Leonard Euler formulated over 200 years ago. This Devils Square is based upon a Latin Square used in combination with colored game pieces. The game pieces are placed on the square so that no color lies twice in a single row either (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally).

The Devils Square

So if you are just fiddling around anyway, why dont you look into one of the games that we have shown you today. Just think, you will be carrying on a tradition thousands of years old. And you can still play them when the power goes out. We will have some of the game boards, and templates for some of the game pieces posted on the local AIA website.