Boardgames are not a recent phenomenon. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new with that; I’m not thinking of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride – even with boardgames growing more popular over the last few years, many people in the world have never heard of them; I’m thinking of games like Chess and Go, games that 99% of the world population know. Games that have a longer history than any nation you could name.
But even those games are far from the oldest. Chess – or rather, it’s earliest predecessor – seems to have originated around the 6th century AD. Go is a good deal older than that: the first written references to Go date from the 5th century BC, but according to legend was invented as early as 2200BC. The ancient Egyptian game Senet predates even that: games have been found in burial sites dated around 3500BC.
Senet is thus considered the oldest documented boardgame. We can be pretty certain that some kind of game was played before, but if any of those used a game board to play on then no proof of them has been found yet. Senet‘s board is a simple one: it consist of 30 squares in three lines, some of which were decorated with a symbol. The game was played by two players, each with a set of five or more pawns, and four throwing sticks were used in place of dice.
Unfortunately, although the ancient Egyptians tended to write down many things, game rules were not among those. And so we’re faced today with a game that we know all the components and have no clue what to do with them. Some guesses have been made about the rules based on what we have: the components, some paintings of the game in progress – not so useful because they are in full profile like all Egyptian paintings – and maybe some mentions in other documents. Not much to go by. Accordingly, the two most popular sets of rules – one by Timothy Kendall the other by R.C. Bell – differ widely. They do, however, agree on two things: players took turns casting the throwing sticks and moved one of their pawns according to the number of light sides showing on the sticks and the path to follow was down the first row, back up the second and down the third again.
Of the two sets of rules, Bell’s are the simpler ones: players start with ten pawns each off the board. When tossing the sticks, they may either move a pawn already on the board the indicated number of squares or bring a new pawn into play on the corresponding symbol square at the beginning of the path. The goal of the game is to arrange your pawns on alternating squares on the second and third line (to create a zigzag kind of pattern). Any pawn that is not yet in their designated position may be captured by the other player and will have to restart their way.
Kendall’s rules are slightly more complex than that, they give the symbols squares a meaning and reward keeping your pawns next to each other. All pawns start on the top line of the board, alternating pawns of the two players. The five symbol squares are thus at the end of the board and the goal is to move all your pawns off the board which requires a toss of the exact number. The symbols on the three final squares merely indicate the number required to move off the board from there. The square just before those shows three wavy lines – these are the waters of the Nile and any pawn ending their turn here drowns and must return to the House of Rebirth, a special square in the middle of line two that doesn’t exist in Bell’s rules. Kendall’s rules don’t allow capturing enemy pieces – instead moving onto a square occupied by an enemy pawn moves that one back to the attacker’s starting square – they trade places. A pawn that is adjacent to one friendly pawn is protected from this attack.
Kendall’s rules appear more likely to me as a modern boardgamer, having more potential for tactical decisions and a less exotic victory condition. But with just a bit of thinking any boardgamer will be able to come up with alternative rules that match the components and paintings and have nothing at all in common with Bell’s or Kendall’s rules, so in absence of further sources, arguing which rules are the correct ones seems rather pointless.
The style of roll-and-move Senet employs has led to comparisons with Backgammon – assuming a relation between those games just based on guessed rules is a weak argument, but it does gain some weight when considering that early variants of Backgammon have been found in today’s Iran dating from around 3000BC – close enough to Egypt that some sort of contact likely existed even back then. Archaeological finds being as sparse as they are, we may never know if the two games were indeed related and which was around first. Personally, I’m excited to think that there might be an even older common ancestor to both games, but I’m not holding my breath for someone to dig it up. But even so, Senet is proof that boardgames have existed for as long as civilisation itself.
The header photo was originally taken by Flickr user ataraxis and shared with a CC-BY license.