What is the oldest board game ever made?

We have all played Ludo and Snakes & Ladders as children. These were some of our favorite board games where we spent time rolling a dice to see who was first to be a winner. In the process of growing up, each one of us learned how the original versions of board games are not the same as we play the game today.

Games are liked all over the world by children, men, women, and some games even loved by the priests. Games are a part of every culture and a way of expression, imagination, and interaction with a basic set of rules. Games from the ancient times were played by the royalty and by the peasants and have come a long way tumbling upon all the feelings and philosophies of the people finally passed on to the future generations.

According to the sociologist Emile Durkheim in his famous social theory of religion,” Games were founded in a religious setting and were a cornerstone of social bonding.” Decoding this statement, games were the agent of social control, an agent of assimilation and maintaining moral order.

Every continent in the world has developed its own unique games. In the Prehistoric era or the ancient civilization, the games were made up of bones, sticks, shells or wood.  A board game is simply a game played by people by moving small objects around/onboard. Archaeology has been extremely helpful in enlightening us about the board games of the past. Today, the actual rule of the ancient games might have fallen into oblivion, but thanks to the historians that they have somehow kept the rules intact. Following is a list of some of the ancient board games played by world’s first civilizations such as the Mesopotamia, Egyptians, India, and China.

  1. SENET (Ancient Egypt) 3500 BC
  2. Checkers (Mesopotamia, Modern-day Iraq) 3000 BC
  3. Backgammon (Ancient Persia, Modern-day Iran) 3000 BC
  4. Mehen (Ancient Egypt) 2700 BC
  5. Royal Game of Ur ((Mesopotamia, Modern-day Iraq) 2600-2400 BC
  6. Go –  (Ancient China) 2000 BC
  7. Nine Men’s Morris (Possibly Ancient Egypt) 1400 BC
  8. Snakes and Ladders or Moksha Patam( India), 200 BC.
  9. Chaturanga or Chess (India) 600 AD
  10. Chaupar or Pacheesi knew as Ludo (India) 600 AD

Archaeologist’s findings

Going by the timeline, Senet is one of the oldest board game recorded in the history of time. The oldest known representation of the game is depicted in a painting from the third dynasty tomb of Hesy (c. 2686-2613 BC) and in the tomb of Rashepes (c.2500 BC) in ancient Egypt. Apart from this, historians found a game box and pieces for playing the game of Senet within the KV62 tomb of King Tutankhamen. These boxes were laid into the surface of the ground.

This object today is part of the permanent collection of the Cairo Museum of Egypt.

Senet- the ancient game of Pharaohs

Pharaohs were the rulers of Egypt. They were considered as a divinity and believed to have a connection between Gods and humans to maintain the order of the universe. Board games were a favorite pastime and a form of entertainment and people from all class of society played it. It was one of the most popular board game. The game was played by two people on a carved board.

Rules of the Game – passing the afterlife

The game had a religious significance hence known as ‘the game of passing’. Senet boards were made of wood or limestone and were in rectangular slabs.

were rectangular slabs made of limestone, wood and ceramic earthenware made from quartz. They were coated with a dazzling finish and brilliantly colored carved squares and symbols.

The game board was like an oracle. The board consists of thirty squares referred to as houses which are further organized in three rows with ten houses in each row.  Similar to dice, Senet- sticks were used for playing where one side was painted black and the other was colored.  Some of the squares had symbols on them. The symbols represented good or bad luck. Good luck was a God blessing and the movements of the game were affected by throwing the sticks. The player to complete his pieces first was sure to pass the afterlife.

Due to the element of luck involved, Egyptians have always been concerned about the fate of their souls. Even after a person is dead, their soul must survive. If the body decomposed, the person will never reach eternal life. The purpose was to unify the life force of the dead with a conscience.

This ancient board game had become a kind of talisman for the journey of the dead. It also became a practice to place this board game in the grave. This game is also mentioned in the ‘Egyptian book of the dead’ (Chapter XVII).

Recreating the game of dead

Many boards have survived, but the rules of the game are not fully understood. There have been a number of attempts to reconstruct the game. Historians Timothy Kendall and R.C. Bell have made their own reconstructions of the game and their rules have been embraced by modern Senet players. The restored version of colorful Senet is not only a game of chance. It requires a bit of skill and strategy too.

 Ethical Codes

Whether one agrees or not with so much of detail in games of the past era and the theme of religion and morality, the idea in the games could actually affect a person’s mental status as well as moral principles. It actually encourages societies with this kind of philosophical entertainment. In every game, there are two choices: reward and punishments similar to good vs evil, represented in the form of pictures, symbols or signs. In ancient India, the game “Mokshapat” presently known as Snakes and Ladders was invented to teach lessons in morality. The snakes signify evil and ladders as good deeds. All the good deeds make us attain salvation while evil represents re-birth or lowest form.

To know more about mental health, check this article.