Top 10 Ancient Board Games – Where Did It All Begin?

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Before the television age, people had to find a way to pass the time. You couldn’t drink and dance all the time, and you didn’t spend your whole life working. So what did people do to pass the time? Well, they played board games. 

Board games aren’t a modern invention, as many of you probably think. They existed long before electricity, the medieval period, and Christianity. Truly ancient board games date back to a period that, even by the standards of civilization, we now consider ancient. Some of those civilizations don’t even exist anymore, but their games remain. 

Earliest-Known Board Games

So when was the first board game introduced? While there is proof that board games were played as far back as 3100 BCE, or 5,000 years ago, archaeologists are confident that they were played much earlier, given the discovery of numerous objects that appear to be game tokens but which cannot be categorically identified as board games.

So, which were the popular ancient board games people used to pass time and entertain themselves? 

  • Senet 3100 BCE
  • Mehen 3000 BCE
  • Royal Game of Ur 2600 BCE
  • Hounds and Jackals 2000 BCE
  • Knossos 1700–1500 BCE
  • Aseb 1580 BCE
  • Five Lines 700–600 BCE
  • Go 548 BCE
  • Liubo 476–221 BCE
  • Ludus Latrunculorum 116 BCE–27 CE

Only games that scholars have been able to date back to a specific time are included in our list of ancient board games. 

Senet 3100 BCE

Senet is an ancient board game from ancient Egypt and the oldest board game in known human history. Its first traces were found in a First Dynasty Egyptian burial site, which dates back to 3100 BCE. Pictures of the game were also found in tombs from the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties from 2500 BCE, and the oldest intact game is from the Middle Kingdom period (2040–1782 BCE). 

Senet board set
Senet board set belonging to Amenhotep the Magnificent from the 18th dynasty. 

The game itself is fairly simple. It’s a two-player game where players compete to be the first to reach the other side of the game board before the opponent’s pieces. Yes, the oldest board game was a racing game. Most of them were, as you’ll soon see for yourself. 

This ancient Egyptian game represents the journey of one’s Ka to the afterlife. In ancient Egypt, the soul was composed of several parts, with Ka representing vital essence and probably the closest to what we consider a soul today. 

It is believed that the game was originally played for fun and that it gained religious significance only during the 19th dynasty (1292–1189 BCE). While it has long since lost its popularity, you can still buy it or make one yourself and play it with reconstructed rules. 

The first known ancient Egyptian board game was so popular that it spread to neighboring regions through Egypt’s trade routes. Due to Cyprus manufacturing its games from stone, there were more games found there than in Egypt. In fact, had there not been enough evidence pointing to the game’s origin in Egypt, it could have been easily mistaken for Cyprus.

Mehen 3000 BCE

Mehen is another game from the ancient world board game mecca – Egypt. All of the physical Mehen boards discovered in Egypt date back to between 3000 BCE and the end of the Old Kingdom period (2200 BCE), suggesting that the game lost popularity for unknown reasons and was eventually phased out.

Mehen 3000 BCE

Mehen is another game from the ancient world board game mecca – Egypt. All of the physical Mehen boards discovered in Egypt date back to between 3000 BCE and the end of the Old Kingdom period (2200 BCE), suggesting that the game lost popularity for unknown reasons and was eventually phased out.

Mehen - game from Egypt

While it lost popularity in Egypt, it continued to thrive in other regions, including Cyprus, where the oldest version of the double-sided board game, featuring Senet and Mehen on opposing sides, was found. 

The game is shaped like a coiled snake and divided into rectangular spaces, with some game boards having various depressions or marked tiles. It’s unknown if this is done for some particular reason since no game rules were ever found. 

The game was found with multiple tokens. Some of them were simple round balls, but others were in the shape of hippos, dogs, and lions. It’s believed that the animal-shaped tokens are used for playing the game, but the round balls are a mystery. No dice or sticks were ever found, so it’s not clear how the tokens moved across the board. 

It is believed that the point of the game was to reach the center with your token and make it back without the opponent eating your tokens with its lion or lioness-shaped token. It’s unknown how many tokens were used in a single game, though.

The Royal Game of Ur 2600 BCE

The Royal Game of Ur is probably the most famous of all the ancient board games. It was found in the royal cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq, which was formerly part of Mesopotamia. Because it’s unknown what the ancient game was called, it still bears the name of the location where it was discovered. 

But what is known is how the game was played. The archaeologist managed to find a partial description of the game’s rules preserved on a clay tablet, which allowed them to reconstruct the basic ruleset. Nonetheless, just like today, the game evolved over time, and the rules changed as well, but what we have still gives us a good idea of what the game was about. 

The Royal Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is a two-player racing game where players compete to finish the track without getting eaten by an opposing player. The player with the most surviving tokens wins. As you can see, the game is played just like the other games of its time. 

It’s believed that the ancient Egyptians adopted the game and created a simpler and faster adaptation of the game known to us as Aseb, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares or Game of Twenty, which was played during the same time. 

Hounds and Jackals 2000 BCE

After a short trip to Mesopotamia, we are again going back to Ancient Egypt, where the fourth oldest known board game was found – Hounds and Jackals. This ancient game was first called “58 holes” due to archeologists discovering two pieces of the board with 58 holes. Later on, they discovered a beautifully carved ivory set with hound and jackal sticks as playing pieces, and the game got its new (and better) name.

Hounds and Jackals
Hounds and Jackals ivory set from the 12th Dynasty.

While this ancient game originated in Egypt, it spread all over the Mediterranean, as far as Nubia and Azerbaijan, following the Egyptian trade routes and conquests. Even though the game was found all over the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, we still don’t know what it was originally called, and nobody knows how it was played. Even the animals on the pins vary from region to region. All we know about it is that it’s a racing game, but the exact rules haven’t survived the test of time. 

Knossos 1700–1500 BCE

The Minoan civilization, while smaller than Egyptian or Mesopotamian civilizations, left us with one mysterious game we call Knossos since no trace of the name or rules survived. We don’t even have an idea if it’s an ancient strategy board game or a racing board game. All that is left of the game is a rectangle game board and four cone-shaped ivory tokens, which are believed to be part of the game. 

The game board itself was found in the royal palace, and it looks just as you would imagine a royal board game to look. It’s placed on a wooden base and decorated with gold, silver, rock crystals, glass paste, and ivory elements. No minotaur or labyrinth references though, sadly! 

Knossos

The game’s rules, or more accurately, hypotheses, can be found online, and if you’d like, you can even purchase the game from Amazon. All the existing reconstructions of the rules are based on other popular ancient board games of that time.

Aseb 1580 BCE

Aseb, also known as Twenty Squares and the Game of Twenty, is believed to be an Ancient Egyptian version of the Mesopotamian game known today as the Royal Game of Ur. Just like the original game, they both have twenty squares and the same amount of special squares, but the Egyptian version is more competitive since it offers fewer resting spaces for tokens. There are also versions of the game with an additional 11 spaces, but they came much later.

Aseb
Double-sided game box with Aseb on top found in Thebes, Egypt.

The game set is often found incorporated into the box that holds all the pieces needed to play it, with the Senet gaming board on the other side of the same box. 

Just like with most games, we aren’t 100% sure how it’s played. We know it’s a racing game, just like its cousin from Mesopotamia, and that the goal of the game is to finish before the opponent. It’s believed that the marked fields on the board represent a safe house for game pieces, but we don’t have any way of verifying it. 

Five Lines 700–600 BCE

Five Lines is an ancient Greek board game. Although the game appears in ancient Greek literature, it is never mentioned by name, leaving us with an unimaginative title that simply describes how the game looks. The issue is not only that we do not know what it was called, but we also have no idea how it was played.

The earliest mention of the game is in a verse by Alkaios (around the sixth century BCE), which tells us that whoever moves the game piece to the sacred line first will be on the way to a final victory. Meanwhile, the earliest physical evidence of the game comes from grave goods dating back to the mid-7th century BCE. While there was other evidence in the form of lines drawn on temple floors, they cannot be reliably traced to a specific date.

Five Lines

The board found among the grave goods features five parallel lines with holes at their ends, along with another line across the middle. It is believed that this line represents the referenced sacred line. Vases depicting Ajax and Achilles playing the game suggest that it was played with 10 figures and a die. However, little else is known about the game itself.

Go 548 BCE

The Mediterranean area isn’t the only place where board games were invented and played. In the East, a great Chinese empire emerged around the same time as ancient Egypt, and it created its own games. 

One of those games is Go, also known as Weiqi. The earliest mention of the game can be found in the historical annals of Zuo Zhuan from the 4th century, which refers to an event from 548 BCE that mentions this game. But according to legend, the game was invented by the legendary Emperor Yao (2356–2255 BCE), so it’s much older. Still, we don’t have any hard facts supporting this claim, so it remains a legend for now.

Unlike most games of its time, Go is an ancient strategy board game that is still played today. Go is played by two players who take turns placing black or white stones on a board with a grid of 19×19 lines. The objective is to control more territory on the board than the opponent by surrounding and capturing their stones. The game’s complexity arises from the fact that stones can be placed anywhere on the board and can have a significant impact on the game’s outcome.

Go

At one point in history, Go was considered one of the four essential arts of the Chinese scholar-gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting, and playing a musical instrument. Today, Go is still widely played in China, Japan, and Korea, as well as around the world, with professional players competing in international tournaments.

Liubo 476–221 BCE

Liubo is also an ancient Chinese board game that we know was popular during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE). The earliest mentions of the game are from this period as well. According to legend, it was invented in the early 2nd century, but no evidence has been found to support such a claim.

Liubo

How the game is played is up for debate, since even the surviving descriptions of the game are contradictory, suggesting that the game rules changed over time, it was played differently in different regions, or there were multiple versions of the game. Hopefully, the recent discovery of 1,000 bamboo slips containing the rules for Liubo in the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun in Jiangxi will shed some light on the game itself.

At one point in history, the game lost its popularity and was replaced by the still-popular game of Go. 

Ludus Latrunculorum 116 BCE–27 CE

Also known as Latrunculi, this was an ancient Roman board game played heavily during the period of the Roman Empire. The game’s name translates to “the game of the little soldiers.” It was a strategy game that involved moving pieces on a board with squares or rectangles, much like modern chess or checkers. This was long before either of them came to be, mind you. 

The game’s exact origins and rules are not well known, but it was believed to have been played as early as the 2nd century BC. It was a popular game among the Roman soldiers, and it is said that they would play it to pass the time during long periods of inactivity.

Ludus Latrunculorum

We know that the game was played on a board with a varying number of squares or rectangles, depending on the version. Players would take turns moving their pieces on the board, capturing the opponent’s pieces by surrounding them with their own, just like in the game of Go. 

Ludus Latrunculorum was a popular game in ancient Rome, but its popularity declined with the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s believed that it inspired the creation of other popular ancient board games like Nard and a Norse strategy game called Hnefatafl or Tafl. 

Were There Other Games?

Absolutely! Archaeologists have found many mentions of other ancient world games, but sometimes it’s only a short mention of someone playing games or just a name. We also have situations where archaeologists have found lion pieces, clay bricks, throw sticks, or dice, but no board. 

In some cases, archaeologists have found board-shaped objects that may have been used as a board for a game. However, since time has worn away any markings, it’s impossible to know for sure what they were used for. And sometimes, as in the case of the games found from the Jiroft civilization, we still don’t have a solid date.

We also know of instances where a game was found etched onto the floor of a building, but there was no way to accurately date the game to a certain period. The game could be 3,000 years old, but the etching could have been made at any point in time. This is the case with Nine Men’s Morris and Mancala.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that board games were a popular pastime that quickly spread all over the ancient world. Whether it’s the strategic gameplay of Go, the luck-based play of Senet, or the military tactics of Ludus Latrunculorum, these games have not only entertained people for generations but also offered insight into the social and cultural aspects of ancient societies.

While we may never know for sure who was the first person to invent the meeples or game boards, it’s clear that the enduring popularity of board games is a testament to their enduring appeal across time and cultures.

FAQ

  1. What is the oldest board game in history?

    The oldest board game in history is Senet, played by ancient Egyptians around 3100 BCE.

  2. What are some old board games?

    A chronological list of the oldest known board games:
    1. Senet 3100 BCE
    2. Mehen 3000 BCE
    3. Royal Game of Ur 2600 BCE
    4. Hounds and Jackals 2000 BCE
    5. Knossos 1700–1500 BCE
    6. Aseb 1580 BCE
    7. Five lines 700–600 BCE
    8. Go 548 BCE
    9. Liubo 476–221 BCE
    10. Ludus Latrunculorum 116 BCE–27 CE

  3. What popular board game did Egyptians play?

    Depending on the period, that would be Senet (3100 BCE) or Mehen (3000 BCE). They also played other ancient board games from the region, like the Royal Game of Ur (2600 BCE). They liked it so much that they adapted it and created their own variant called Aseb (1580 BCE).