If there is one thing that transcends time and space, it’s gaming. For tens of thousands of years, children and adults from all over the world have invented, played and mastered thousands of different games. Board games, dice games, games that require only the hands of the participants - someone, somewhere, at some point in time thought of an exciting new game. Some were successful, others fell back into obscurity. Chances are many of the games you played as a child (hopscotch, knucklebones) have been in existence for far longer than you think. In fact, there are quite a few games we play as adults that go back to ancient times. So without further ado, here is a selection of the most interesting games of yore.
Despite a plethora of uncovered gaming boards, pieces and other related artefacts, we need to take into account that we’re missing a lot of information on rules, the origins and the geographical distribution. What we do know is that these type of games would have required moving pieces around a board. It seems pretty straightforward, because we’ve all been raised with Ludo and Monopoly, but it needs to be mentioned. Some of these required skill while others were strategy based, and more often than not pure luck played its part.
The oldest mention of this Egyptian game comes from the third Dynasty tomb of Hesire, Chief of Dentists. It was played by both the elite and the common people, for over three thousand years, until it was rejected in the Late Roman Period because of its then-pagan symbolism. A similar game has been found in Arad, Canaan, but it’s unsure whether Senet has its origins in either one of these countries, or if the games have developed separately.
The board is arranged in three columns of ten squares each. It has two sets of game pieces, usually five of either kind, though there are more extensive games found with more pawns, as well as a few with less. The rules are a question of debate, though there have been made some educated guesses by specialists. Based on these guesses, several companies have made Senet games for sale.
The Romans were very fond of dice. As such, hardly any of their board games did not feature these. Latrunculi is one of the very few. This game is somewhat alike to modern day chess, as it is played on a square board divided into a grid. The name, which means ‘soldier-game’, gives us an indication on the nature of Latrunculi as a strategy game. We know quite a bit about it thanks to such figures as Varro and Ovid, who have left us a good idea of how the game was played in writing.
The game pieces were coloured glass pawns and called calculi, latrones, or milites. The pieces could be moved both forwards and backwards, and a piece was taken after being surrounded by two enemy pieces in rank or file. Blocking played a big part, and a player with good strategic skill could extract himself from a block. Backwards moves were a strategic retreat, and the entire game of Latrunculi had all aspects of a military battle: the player who took the most enemy pieces won, and was called the imperator.
The Game of Twenty Squares
This game, also known as The Royal Game of Ur, is a board game found in royal tombs dating from the first Dynasty of Ur, around 2600 B.C. The board itself has a peculiar shape: a three by four grid is connected to a two by three grid by a single column of two. It’s decorated with six different patterns. The pawns were two sets of markers, one black and one white, blank on one side and marked on the other. Three tetrahedral dice are also used. We don’t know exactly how the game would be played in the earliest of times, but a reconstruction could be made based on a Babylonian tablet dating from around 177 B.C.
Like Senet, Twenty Squares is a racing game part skill and strategy, and part luck. Also like Senet, modern incarnations of this game are for sale. There are different versions of the modern rules: in one, players race along the inner and outer tracks much like a game of Ludo, and in another the players must occupy all squares of two different patterns before the other does.
Dice games are perhaps more difficult to reconstruct, because in most case we lack a playing board – after all, all you need for a nice game of dice is a handful of dice. Most of these games involved values given to a particular side on the die, then simply rolling the dice and making sure you have the highest total value to win.
Ludus duodecim scriptorum
Other games required an additional playing board, such as the Roman game of Scriptorum. The board for this game existed out of three rows of twelve letters, arranged into two columns, that formed a sentence. Most of the board we have found have symbols, circles or semicircles drawn between each pair of horizontal words. Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about the rules of this game to make an educated guess beyond that it was akin to backgammon.
One of the most widely played children’s games has been around since time immemorial: knucklebones. It was originally played with five ‘knucklebones’ of a sheep, and the rules are simple. The child throws the bones in the air and catches them, usually on the back of the hand, in a series of prescribed throws and catches. The child that’s the first to manage the full set of throws in a row, wins.
Other names for knucklebones include astragaloi, dibs, and chuckstones. The origin isn’t quite sure, it seems to be one of those games that many cultures came up with on their own. Sophocles, for instance, ascribes the invention to Palamedes during the Trojan War, while in another legend Zeus is said to have presented Ganymede with both a new playmate (Eros) and a set of gold dibs for them to play with. On the other hand, Plato mentions the game as having been invented by the Egyptian god Toth, while Herodotus tells us the Lydians created it during a period of famine.
Whatever the origin, knucklebones is still played by children the world over today, using, now as then, a wide variety of materials, from pebbles to specially fabricated plastic pieces.
It is not a big endeavour to make a gambling game out of any old game: you simply bet money on the outcome. That said, there are games that have been designed as gambling games right from the outset (such as most dice games). One of the most famous of these games is:
Perhaps the most extensive game out there, a full game of Mahjong can take up to two days (believe me, I’ve tried!) No, we’re not talking about the online game of playing out pairs: Mahjong as it’s supposed to be played is a cross between domino, rummikub and poker. The rules are many and so elaborate that it’d require an article on its own to even start explaining them all, but the basics are as such: four players, each representing a wind, have a hand full of tiles (14). Each turn, they’ll exchange one tile from either the stack or the discard pile, until they have a strategic hand of pairs, called a Mahjong. While it was a gambling game pur sang, nowadays it’s being played without money changing hands.
The origin of Mahjong is unclear, though myth suggests that it was Confucius who invented it. The name would come from his fondness of birds, because it bears a resemblance to maque (麻雀), sparrow. Historians now believe the game is a fair bit younger than this, and was based on a forty-card game called Mǎdiào (馬吊), Hanging Horse.
Not so much a gambling game as a drinking game, this Greek game originating around the fifth or fourth century B.C., and required players to fling the dregs of wine at a target while uttering the name of the object of their affection. This target was a bronze standard with a small disk on top called a plastinx. When done correctly, the thrown wine would knock the plastinx down and make it hit a larger disk called the manes, which would cause a bell-like sound. This was done without getting up from the table, and the player could only use his right hand. Sometimes objects of value were staked on the outcome of the game, and considering the game required men flinging their leftover wine at a target, it got more difficult as the night progressed.
A Mesoamerican ballcourt is a large masonry structure of a type used in Mesoamerica for over 2,700 years to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, particularly the hip-ball version of the ballgame. More than 1,300 ballcourts have been identified, 60% in the last 20 years alone.Although there is a tremendous variation in size, in general all ballcourts are the same shape: a long narrow alley flanked by two walls with horizontal, vertical, and sloping faces. Although the alleys in early ballcourts were open-ended, later ballcourts had enclosed end-zones, giving the structure an I-shape when viewed from above.
Ballcourts were also used for functions other than, or in addition to, ballgames. Ceramics from western Mexico show ballcourts being used for other sporting endeavours, including what appears to be a wrestling match. It is also known from archaeological excavations that ballcourts were the sites of sumptuous feasts, although whether these were conducted in the context of the ballgame or as another event entirely is not as yet known. The siting of the most prominent ballcourts within the sacred precincts of cities and towns, as well as the votive deposits found buried there, demonstrates that the ballcourt were places of spectacle and ritual.
The earliest ballcourts were doubtless temporary marked off areas of compacted soil much like those used to play the modern ulama game, the Mesoamerican ballgame’s descendant. Paso de la Amada, Soconusco, along the Pacific coast boasts the oldest ballcourt yet identified, dated to approximately 1400BCE. This narrow ballcourt has a 80 x 8 m (260 ft x 26 ft) flat playing alley defined by two flanking earthen mounds with “benches” running along their length.
By the Early Classic, ballcourt designs began to feature an additional pair of mounds set some distance beyond the ends of the alley as if to keep errant balls from rolling too far away. By the Terminal Classic, the end zones of many ballcourts were enclosed, creating the well-known I-shape.
Many – or even most – Maya depictions of ballgame play are shown against a backdrop of stairs. Conversely, Maya staircases will occasionally feature reliefs of ballgame scenes or ballgame-related glyphs on their risers. The most famous of these are the Hieroglyphic Stairs at Structure 33 in Yaxchilan, where 11 of the 13 risers feature ballgame-related scenes. In these scenes, it appears as if the players were actually playing the ballagainst the stairs in what would seem to be a Maya version of stoop ball.
The association of stairs and the ballgame is not well understood. Linda Schele and Mary Miller propose that the depictions record historic events and in particular record a “form of play … distinct from the game conducted on the courts”, one that “probably followed immediately after[ward] on steps adjacent to the ballcourts”. Other researchers are skeptical. Marvin Cohodas, for example, proposes that the “stairs” are instead stepped platforms associated with human sacrifice, while Carolyn Tate views the Yaxchilan stair scenes as “the Underworld segment of acosmogram”.
Bone or ivory counter with a caricatured portrait, perhaps of the empress Livia: the subject has her hair dressed in a wide, flat ‘nodus’. The hair is drawn back over the ear to form an elongated bun at the nape of the neck.
Geography:Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, el-Asasif, Tomb of Reniseneb (CC 25), at bottom of shaft, Carnarvon/Carter 1910
Medium:Ebony, ivory Dimensions:Board: h. 6.3 cm (2 1/2 in); w. 15.2 cm (6 in)
The board rests on four bulls’ legs; one is completely restored and another only partially. There is a drawer with a bolt to store the playing pieces: five pins with hounds’ heads and five with jackals’ heads. The board is shaped like an axe-blade, and there are 58 holes in the upper surface with an incised palmtree topped by a shen sign in the center. Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon reconstructed the game as follows in their publication of the find (Five Years of Explorations at Thebes, A Record of Work done 1907-1911, London, Oxford, New York, 1912, p. 58): “Presuming the ‘Shen’ sign … to be the goal, we find on either side twenty-nine holes, or including the goal, thirty aside. Among these holes, on either side, two are marked ..nefer, ‘good;’ and four others are linked together by curved lines.. Assuming that the holes marked ‘good’ incur a gain, it would appear that the others, connected by lines, incur a loss.. Now the moves themselves could easily have been denoted by the chance cast of knuckle-bones or dice….and if so we have before us a simple, but exciting, game of chance.” Egyptians likened the intricate voyage through the underworld to a game. This made gaming boards and gaming pieces appropriate objects to deposit in tombs.
Terracotta statue of two girls playing a game, Ephedrismos.
Hellenistic. Late fourth, early third century B.C.
In antiquity, such figurines of piggyback girls were understood as representations of the ancient game of ephedrismos, which was specially popular among young women. The game was played by first placing a stone on the ground and then throwing a pebble or a ball at the set stone, in an attempt to knock it over. The player who was unable to overturn the stone had to carry the winner on his or her back, while the winner covered his or her eyes. This part of the game continued until the loser was able to touch the overturned stone. Although ephedrismos groups depict a scene of everyday life, they also had an additional, symbolic meaning. The winner in this game, who is carried on the loser’s back, was seen by the ancients as symbolizing Eros or Aphrodite. Therefore, the representation of a young girl playing ephedrismos could be interpreted as a sign that she was betrothed to be married. The erotic and epithalamic associations of the game ofephedrismos might explain why more women are portrayed in these groups than men.