Ancient Games and Toys

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome back our victim test player and occasional writer Tine to the first post in a series about historical games.

People have always played games. The Meeplepedia already has an article about dice and the oldest game ever.

There are many, many more really old games out there and I’ll try to tell you some about them in future articles.

But first… Indiana Jones time!

Bone Dice
Bone Dice (Photo: Doris Fischer)

What we know today about old games we know mostly because of archaeology. We can’t say exactly from what all games and toys were made, but we can describe what we find: mostly wood, bones, clay, some things made from ceramics, and if we’re lucky pieces of leather or fabric. These findings include dolls, dice, whips and tops, carved figurines of beasts and men, dominos, boats and of course meeple.

Most materials are not very long lasting unless they are somewhere very dry or without any air. A good place to find old toys are old cities’ sewers. Some nice finds are from Lübeck, Danzig or Nowgorod. One problem with this is, of course, that some items can’t be identified as toys: does this bone belong to a board game or was it just waste from the kitchen?

Although archaeologists find lots of gaming equipment, a board alone doesn’t really tell us how the game was played and what the rules were or even if the little pieces of stone that were found next to it are a complete set or even belonged to the game.

Other sources are pictures or texts. Playing children were sometimes painted on vases or shown while playing in larger group images, for examples mosaics. Playing adults are sometimes shown on graves, but not as often. Maybe because playing has always been a children’s pastime – an old saying from Rome is „leave your nuts behind“ meaning growing up and no longer play with nuts – which were used like marbles. But especially board and dice games have always been played by grown-ups, too.

Written sources from Rome don’t describe rules – we know that such texts exsisted, but we don’t find them, sadly. However, we know names of games and sometimes special moves from games are used as metaphors for tactics in war or the love of a certain game makes fun of a character – or praises his intellect. Nearly the same is true for Asian games. While there are some excerpts from the Gu bo jing (book of the old stick games), they’re not enough to reconstruct the rules. We know of some games from other conntexts, for example when Empress Jitô forbade the game Sugotoku on December 8th, 689 – but just this fact doesn’t really satisfy the game connoisseur, right? But how little even a description of the game or rules helps can be seen when looking at the knowledge we have about old Inca games: most of it is taken from old dictonaries, where Spanish conquerers listed words in both languages and added some descriptions: „aucai is a board with multicoloured beans; it is difficult to play, points are counted with the pisca die…; it is a very nice game“

More Bone Dice
More Bone Dice (Photo: Doris Fischer)

When we turn to medieval times, we have better chances at finding rules. The „Book of Games“ (Spanish: Libro de los Juegos), was commissioned between 1251 and 1282 by Alphonso X, King of Leon and Castile, called „el sabio“ which means „the Wise“. It shows 150 color drawings and has texts describing chess problems, but also Backgammon and Alquerque. It’s not only interesting because it was written in the colloquial language but also because it shows how important the game was already at that time – being able to play chess was considered a virtue for knights.

The closer we travel through time towards our time and age, the more rules and complete games we find. Today there are comprehensive histories of how chess evolved from it’s Indian roots to today’s World Championships.

Quite some people fell in love with old games and not only try to find out about them, but really play them. Since most museums would heavily frown upon anybody trying to use the ancient boards, some people starting building their own sets. Doris from was so nice and gave us some pictures of stuff she build herself, modelled on the old findings.

All photos by Doris Fischer of Our standard Creative Commons license does not apply to these photos.

Hermann Josef Röllicke: „Von altchinesisches Brettspiel für Geister und Menschen,” Board Game Studies 2, 1999 arco Fittà: „Spiele und Spielzeug in der Antike", Darmstadt, 1998
Kôichi Masukawa: „Eine kurze Geschichte des Tricktrack in Japan“, Board Games Studies 3, 2000
Anita Rieche: „Römische Kinder und Gesellschaftsspiele“, Württemberg. Landesmuseum, Stuttgart 1984
Thierry Depaulis: „Inca dice and board games“, Board Games Studies, 1, 1998
Murúa 1590 (II, 13), via Thierry Depaulis, Inca dice and board games, in: Board Games Studies, 1, 1998

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