Board games are more popular than ever before, and the industry is pumping out new ones on a fairly regular basis. It’s easy to forget that board games aren’t a new invention, though. They have been with us ever since we began to establish our first settlements, possibly even earlier. Just like the history of humanity, the history of board games is exciting, fascinating, and, in part, mysterious.
The Origin of Board Games
According to current evidence, board games originated around 3100 BCE in ancient Egypt and in the Fertile Crescent region, with the oldest known example being a board game called Senet.
It’s a common misconception that the game pieces discovered at Başur Höyük in southeast Turkey are from the oldest known board game, but there are two problems with this. The first is that we don’t know for sure if they are board game pieces.
Yes, there are many indications that they are, but until the archeologist gives us a clear answer, we are only speculating, and even if they are, they aren’t from 5000 BCE, as many believe. The burial is 5,000 years old and dates to 2900–3100 BCE, which puts it closer to Senet.
Nonetheless, everyone believes that board games have existed for a lot longer than archaeological findings suggest. Senet is currently the oldest, but that may change when archeologists find new evidence of an even older board game.
Brief History of Board Games
Board games have been a part of human culture for thousands of years, with evidence of people playing them found in archaeological sites around the world. As we mentioned already, the oldest known board game is Senet, a game played in ancient Egypt. The most popular board game from the same time, with players as far away as Sri Lanka, was the Royal Game of Ur, which originated in Mesopotamia.
In Europe, board game popularity soared during medieval times, with many classic games like chess, checkers, and backgammon establishing themselves during this period. The origins of these games are hard to pinpoint, but it’s believed that they all originated in the Middle East or Asia.
Board games have also been an integral part of Asian culture for many centuries. One of the most popular and well-known Asian board games is Go, which originated in China over 2,500 years ago and is still widely played in many countries in the region, including Japan and Korea.
The modern version of Monopoly, one of the most popular games in the world, was first known as The Landlord’s Game. Although the game’s original designer had different goals in mind, the Parker Brothers redesigned it and made it a huge success, which allowed them to go on to publish other well-known classic games like Risk, Scrabble, and Clue.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, board games evolved with the development of new technologies, leading to the creation of many new types of games, such as strategy games, party games, deck-building games, and many more. Today, board games continue to be a popular form of entertainment and social interaction, enjoyed by people of all ages and cultures.
The Complete History of Board Games
This comprehensive guide looks at the history and cultural significance of board games, from the religious games of ancient civilizations to the modern classics of today. It gives a unique look into the world of gaming and the role it has played in human society.
Senet (3100 BCE)
The Ancient Egyptians weren’t only obsessed with cats and the afterlife. They also spent considerable time playing board games, and some avid board gamers were buried with their beloved games. King Tutankhamun is a good example of an avid board gamer. He was found with five of them! Thanks to this find, we now know what games were popular 5,000 years ago.
The first signs of the oldest board game were found in tombs from the time of the First Dynasty, which dates back to 3100 BCE, while a painting of the game was found in a tomb of Hesy from the Third Dynasty. The first intact game of Senet originates from the Middle Kingdom period (2040–1782 BCE).
We still don’t really know how the game was meant to be played, but thanks to it gaining religious significance at some point, there are enough traces left for experts to reconstruct the game’s rules – there is just no way to know if they are correct or not. From what we know, the game is a racing game for two players and represents the passing of one’s Ka into the afterlife.
The game spread all across the Mediterranean and Levant regions. Since the board game designers in Cyprus decided to make the game out of stone rather than wood, more copies of it have survived the test of time there than in Egypt.
The Royal Game of Ur (2600–2400 BCE)
The game known as the Royal Game of Ur got its name from the royal burial tomb in ancient Sumer, where it was discovered; the original name of the game isn’t known. The earliest board game of Ur dates back to 2600–2400 BCE.
Thanks to astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu’s record from 177 BCE, we have a good idea of how the game was played. With the help of his records, the archeologists have been able to piece together the puzzle and reconstruct the rules as best as they could.
The Royal Game of Ur is a strategy racing game where the goal is to finish the race with all of your tokens before your opponent. Different variations of the board and the rules evolved over time, but it’s believed that the original game had seven tokens. The board also has several marked squares that allow players a safe place or an extra move, which adds a bit of skill to a mostly luck-based board game.
Why it may not be the oldest known board game The Royal Game of Ur is the most popular ancient game known today, and it was definitely one of the most popular board games of its time, having spread all over the region and even as far as Sri Lanka. So what happened to it? It’s believed that the game either evolved into backgammon or was replaced by it, but there isn’t any evidence to support such a claim.
Nonetheless, a version of the game called Aasha was still being played by the Jewish population of the Indian town of Kochi until the 1950s. The Jewish population emigrated to Israel, and it’s unknown if the game is still being played there today.
Backgammon (500–600 CE)
Backgammon is a classic board game that has been enjoyed by people all over the world for thousands of years, and it’s often mistaken to be the first board game in history. Its origins are unknown, but it is thought to have evolved from a game called Nard in ancient Persia.
Nard, or Nardashir, is first mentioned in an anonymous text from 500–600 CE. Unlike most old board games, we do know how Nard was played, thanks to the available written sources. The rules, board, and number of checkers resemble backgammon, but the key word is “resembles.” We have no way of confirming if the game originated from it.
While the origin of the game is just a theory, what we do know is that the name “backgammon” was first mentioned in a letter from 1635 as it evolved from the slower-paced Anglo-Scottish game known as Irish. The game grew in popularity, replaced Irish altogether, and continued to evolve. Backgammon spread throughout the world over the centuries, and by the time of the Industrial Revolution, it became a very popular pastime in Europe, where it was enjoyed by nobles and commoners alike.
The rules continued to evolve, and by 1850, they were nearly identical to the ones we use today. Backgammon’s popularity rose again in the mid-1960s, but this time it was because of Prince Alexis Obolensky. He helped start the International Backgammon Association, established the World Backgammon Club, and put on the first major international tournament in 1964.
Modern backgammon has gained an even greater audience with the rise of online gaming, allowing players from all over the world to connect and compete with each other. But the global board game market is a lot different than it was back in the day and traditional games like backgammon are becoming less and less popular.
Chess (600 CE)
Chess is another historical board game that has been played for generations, but unlike most of them, we can trace its origins to an Indian game called Chaturanga from 600 CE. We don’t know how much the rules have changed compared to modern chess.
The figurines changed dramatically as the game moved from India to Persia, from Persia to the rest of the Muslim world, and then to Spain somewhere around the 9th or 10th century. The Arabic version of Chaturanga, called Shatranj, spread far and wide, reaching Ethiopia, Mongolia, and the Far East.
There is a common misconception that chess evolved from an older board game called Hnefatafl, also known as The King’s Table or Tafl, which was played in Northern Europe. This “Viking Chess” then supposedly spread all the way to India, where it became Chaturanga, before returning to Europe.
There is, of course, no evidence in board game history to support such a claim, but it makes for a fun story. Hnefatafl is an interesting board game in its own right, but it is not chess. It’s more like the Roman board game Ludus Latrunculorum, which is where it’s thought to originate from.
Medieval chess was an extremely slow game, even by today’s standards. Pieces like the Queen and the Bishop had limited movement, so the players usually started from a midgame position to speed up the game. It was so slow that lovers used chess as an excuse to spend intimate time without anyone suspecting anything. Over time, the rules have changed regardless of the lovers’ protests, and the game has picked up speed.
In modern times, chess has become a widely recognized and beloved game, with a thriving competitive scene. In 1851, London hosted the first international chess tournament. International chess organizations such as FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) promote the game globally by organizing competitions, rating players, and setting official rules. Since the 1920s, the International Olympic Committee has considered chess a sport, but it’s not classified as an Olympic sport.
This didn’t stop chess from going to space. The first ever board game played in space was during the Soyuz 9 flight on June 9, 1970, played between cosmonauts Andriyan Nikolayev and Vitaly Sevastianov against the ground crew. And if you are wondering what the first video game played in space was, that would be Tetris.
The rise of technology has also had a significant impact on the game, with online platforms and computer chess programs making it easier for players to connect and compete with each other. Despite these changes, the core gameplay and objective of chess remained unchanged, and it continues to captivate players of all skill levels and backgrounds to this day.
Checkers (901–1000 CE)
We don’t know the full history of the board game checkers. What we do know is that the game called Jeu De Dames, or simply Dames, developed around the 15th century in France. Dames is another name for checkers, which is also known as draughts in Europe. Yes, the game has a lot of names and variations.
From France, the game spread to England and finally to America. But how it got to France in the first place is a mystery and the subject of speculation and lots of guessing in scientific circles. The most popular theory, for now, is that the game originated from an Arabic game called Al-Qirq (901–1000 CE), also known as “nine men’s morris.” The game was then taken to Spain, where it was adapted and named Alquerque, and from there, it spread to southern France. Again, this is just guesswork, but it’s all we have to go on.
The game had many different rules, which could vary from tavern to tavern. This continued until William Payne, an English mathematician, created official rules for the game. Less than a century later, we would get the first Checkers World Championship in 1840.
The popularity of the game only continued to grow over time. Enough so that in 1952, Arthur Samuel created the first computerized game of checkers at Poughkeepsie Laboratory. This marked the beginning of the integration of technology and classic board games, allowing players to play them against a computer opponent.
It took many years before that was commercially possible, but it proved that it could be done. The game was a huge success and paved the way for further advancements in the field of computer gaming and development.
Liubo (476–221 BCE)
Liubo is one of the earliest board games, originating in China, and it’s even believed to predate Go. We don’t know the rules, when, or exactly where it originated, but we do know that the game was already immensely popular during the Warring States period (476–221 BCE), which has led many scientists to believe that its origins are much older than the existing archeological evidence suggests.
Legend says that the game was invented by a minister to the last Xia dynasty king, Jie, called Wu Cao. If we were to believe this story, the game would date somewhere between 1728 and 1675 BCE. But until we discover some archeological evidence to support such a claim, it will remain a legend. The game was still mentioned up until the Yuan dynasty (1271–1638 CE), but it is thought that Go overtook it during the Jin dynasty (266–420 CE) and caused it to lose its popularity.
We still don’t know how the game is played, but we know it was a two-player game. Some believe it to be a racing game, while others think it is a strategy game like Go. There are three known records mentioning its rules. Two of them are suggesting that there were different ways to play the game. The third source was recently discovered in the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun, and it contains over 1,000 bamboo slips with the rules for Liubo. Hopefully, we’ll get more info soon, allowing us to piece together the puzzle and bring this game back from the dead.
Go (548 BCE)
While Go isn’t the oldest or the first board game in history, it’s still one of the most popular and influential games in history.
According to the legends, the game of Weiqi, known in the west as Go, was created as a teaching tool for his son by the Chinese Emperor Yao (2356–2255 BCE). But these are just legends for now, since the earliest historical evidence we have is Zuo Zhuan’s historical written records from 548 BCE, which only mentioned the game at the time called “Yi.”
The earliest traces of the actual board game were found in the watchtower overlooking the tombs of Emperor Jingdi and Empress Wang Zhi from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–24 CE). In contrast to most cases, we know from the get-go that the game wasn’t played only by the rich and powerful but by the common people as well.
It became so popular that it was regarded as one of the four cultivated arts that every Chinese scholar gentleman should master, alongside playing the guqin (a musical instrument), painting, and calligraphy.
Although the exact date is unknown, Go quickly gained popularity in Japan and Korea. It was so popular in Japan that clans started competing against each other and employing semi-professional Go players.
When Tokugawa unified Japan in 1602 he established four schools of Go. Each year, the four schools would compete against one another, with the winner receiving the title of go-doroko (Minister of Go) for the following year. The system survived until the Meiji Restoration, also known as the Westernization of Japan, in 1868.
The first board game of Go played in the west was between Japanese envoys in England in 1872 while they waited for the weather to change. But this wasn’t the first time western people had heard about the game. The first mention of the game of Go in the West can be found in Thomas Hyde’s book “About the Chinese Encircling Game,” written in Latin, and it’s more of a scientific work than a game introduction.
Go started gaining popularity in Europe when a German engineer, Oskar Korschelt, brought the game from Japan and published an article and then a book about the game in the 1880s. Edward Lasker, a German-American chess player, discovered the game while visiting Berlin in 1905 and brought it back to New York, where he established a Go club, which subsequently spread the popularity of Go throughout the United States.
In 1996, Go went to space when Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and NASA astronaut Daniel Barry played a game during a retrieval mission of a Japanese microgravity research spacecraft. Both astronauts were awarded honorary dan ranks by the Japan Go Association for their efforts.
Game of the Goose (1480)
The Game of the Goose is thought to be one of the first commercially produced board games on an industrial scale. The game started appearing in the 15th century, just when printing presses became available. However, the origin of the board game is unknown.
Most people believe it originated in Italy, but there is no proof of this. We know that the game was first mentioned in 1480, in the sermons of a Dominican friar named Gabriele da Barletta, and that it grew in popularity to the point where Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici of Tuscany gifted it to King Philip II of Spain somewhere between 1574 and 1587. Note that the first mentions of the game certainly pre-date the invention of the printing press.
While not as popular as before, you can still buy a copy of the game, but don’t expect too much out of it. The game is a pure luck-based racing game played with two dice, and it comes with a board with 63 spaces on it.
The goal of the game is to be the first to place the token on the last space, but the board presents a few challenges, such as advancing on the board, going back, skipping a turn, and starting from the beginning. Not only do you need to be the first to reach the finish line, but you actually need to land exactly on that square, with no overshooting. Some versions of the game allow overshooting, but if it happens, you start from the beginning. The rules can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Unlike some of the earliest board games we’ve mentioned, Game of the Goose didn’t have any religious significance, but it’s believed early on it had an educational one.
Snakes and Ladders (1892)
Going down our list and getting to Snakes and Ladders, you would think that they are a modern board game, and you would be partially correct. The game was brought from India to the UK by John Jacque in 1892. In India, the game is known as Moksha Patam, and its origins are unclear, but the message it’s trying to teach is.
The game is a simple race game played with dice, with zero skill or strategy involved. It was used by Hindu teachers to teach children about destiny and good and bad karma. The goal of the game is to obtain salvation by reaching the last square on the board, but along the way, you have several snakes and ladders. Snakes represented human vices like theft and lust, and they hindered and slowed down players, whereas ladders represented human virtues like generosity and humility and allowed players to advance on the board.
The British adaptation of the game didn’t change a lot in the way of gameplay, but they did adjust it to its culture and Victorian-era moral values. Virtues like penitence and industry lead to grace and success, while disobedience and indolence snake down to illness and poverty.
Still, some Indian symbolism remained in the game, but as British rule in India declined, these gradually faded away, and the game became a simple children’s game with no teaching, morals, or religion—a game played just for fun.
The game crossed the ocean and was released in the US in 1943 by the Milton Bradley company, a significant player in the history of board games in America. The snakes disappeared during the journey, though, and were replaced by chutes. As a result, the game’s name was changed to Chutes and Ladders. The dice were also replaced by a spinning wheel to make it simpler and easier for children to use.
While not as popular as it once was, Chutes and Ladders is still played and manufactured in the United States by Hasbro and is a great way to introduce preschoolers to board games.
The Landlord’s Game (1903)
The Landlord’s Game, later known as Monopoly, is a classic board game that was created in 1903 and patented the following year by Elizabeth Magie. The game was inspired by her belief in the single tax theory of economist Henry George and was intended to educate people on its principles and warn about the dangers of land grabbing and monopolies.
Magie approached game manufacturers Parker Brothers with the offer to sell them the board game, but they refused, believing it to be too complicated. Nonetheless, the game gradually gained followers and spread through word of mouth, just like the earliest board games did back in their day. At the height of its popularity, other people started noticing it and developing their versions of the game.
In the 1930s, Charles Darrow, a struggling salesperson, discovered the game and made his own version, which he called Monopoly. Darrow took the game to Parker Brothers, but they refused to buy it, again citing that the game is too complicated. But when the company heard about the sales and hype around it, they changed their mind and made an offer to buy the game and the rest of his stock.
It soon became clear that Darrow wasn’t the sole owner of the pattern and that the game was based on the Landlord’s Game. The Parker Brothers also bought Magie’s pattern for $500 and went on to develop and publish Monopoly as their own brand. Thanks to the success of Monopoly, the Parker Brothers went on to publish Risk, Clue, Scrabble, and other popular board games.
Despite the popularity of Monopoly, Magie’s role as the creator of the Landlord’s Game has largely been forgotten, and she remains a relatively unknown figure in the history of board games. Today, both the Landlord’s Game and Monopoly are seen as important parts of the economic and cultural history of the United States.
Modern Board Games
Modern board games have evolved greatly from their humble origins. The introduction of computers and video games in the 20th century changed the board game industry again.
The rise of digital board games, which could be played with friends or against AI opponents, added new levels of challenge and excitement to the gaming experience. The internet has contributed to the ever-increasing popularity of board gaming by allowing board game enthusiasts all over the world to connect, share their excitement, and play together.
Even before the internet became a thing, the board game community was big enough to create Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year in English), an award given to the best board and card games created each year. Spiel des Jahres has been awarding the best board games since 1978 and has become an influential authority in the industry.
The board game industry didn’t sit idle and has started creating different types of board games and developing different styles of games, such as Eurogames and Ameritrash games. Long gone are the days when racing and strategy games were the only ones available.
Another major development in the evolution of board games has been the rise of role-playing games (RPGs). While RPGs aren’t strictly tied to board game development, the growth of RPGs has helped expand the board gaming industry’s appeal to players who are interested in storytelling, world-building, and character development.
The Future of Board Games
Despite the rise of computer games in the late 20th and early 21st century, the popularity of board games has remained strong and has even grown in recent years.
We have already seen an increase in app integration with modern board games. No longer will a player be forced to play a role just to function like a game mechanic. We are looking at you Battlestar Galactica: Daybreak Expansion and your mutineer role!
Another possible integration we could see in the coming year is fully immersive board games with either virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) assistance. Such technology is still in its infancy, and for the time being, there is only a limited selection of games for VR.
But is it something that we really want? Many people are now seeking out board games as a way to socialize, unplug from technology, and spend quality time with friends and family. With continued advances in game design and production, the evolution of board games is likely to continue, but what it will bring remains to be seen.
The first recorded board game is the ancient Egyptian game of Senet, which dates back to 3100 BCE.
The ancient Egyptians invented the first board game.
Early on, most board games had religious or educational purposes, but as the history of board games unfolded, the practice was abandoned, and today’s board games are mostly played for fun, without any larger context.