The World’s Oldest Board Game

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If you’ve played a board game like Chess, Go, Backgammon or Nine Men’s Morris, then you have been part of an exciting tradition that stretches back more than 5,000 years. The oldest board game we know of is Senet, a racing game that dates to 4600 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia. Its rules were written on a cuneiform tablet and have been reconstructed.

The Royal Game of Ur

This over 4-millennia-old race game was uncovered by Sir Leonard Woolley during excavations in the Royal Tombs of ancient Mesopotamia. This is considered one of the oldest complete board games ever found. It was a popular game that was played by all classes of people in ancient Mesopotamia and also appears in the tombs of King Tutankhamen as the Egyptian game of Senet.

Irving Finkel, curator of ancient Mesopotamian script at the British Museum has made a fantastic video explaining how to play this game. He takes the time to explain how he decoded a cuneiform tablet from 177 BCE that described how to play this unblocked game 67.

This game is a mix of luck and strategy. Players use dice to move their 7 pieces around the outer track and onto the inner track. If a piece lands on a space occupied by an opponent’s piece that piece is sent back to the beginning of the track.

Mehen

The oldest known board game dates back to Dynasties 3-6 in Egypt and is called Mehen. It is based on the snake god Mehen encircling the sun god Ra to protect him during his nightly journey to and from the underworld.

The earliest evidence for Mehen comes from a tomb scene depicting the game in the tomb of Hesy-Ra, a high official in the 3rd Dynasty. Typically, Mehen boards were shaped like a coiled snake with the head in the center. Archeologists have also found that the game came with small lion figurines and limestone balls that are generally accepted as Mehen playing pieces.

The game was a race game where players moved their pieces along the snake track, starting at the tail and ending up at the head. They had to fend off the lions of their opponent, representing their enemies in the underworld, and defeat the spirit of their opponents’ deceased kings enroute.

Mancala

Mancala, or something like it, has been played for centuries across the globe under a bewildering variety of names. But despite its ubiquity and long history, it is not a game of chance; it requires skill and strategy.

In a typical game, players take turns dropping one stone in each hole on the board going around in a counter-clockwise direction. If a player drops a stone into a previously empty hole on their side, then they capture all the stones in the hole directly above it, and put them in their mancala.

Mancala spread from East Africa via trade routes, and was taken to the Americas by enslaved people who brought it with them. In Louisiana, a version known as Warra became popular in the early 20th century and eventually turned into the commercial version Kalah. The game also made its way to Cape Verde, where it is still played today as Ouril. Mancala also appears in southern India, where it is called Pallanghuzi.

Go

Go is a highly strategic game that dates back a few thousand years and has woven itself into Asia?s culture at every level, enjoyed by emperors, immortals and scholars. It flourished in feudal Japan, with schools popping up during the Shogun era and stipends being awarded to the best players.

Its exact origins are unknown, but it is known that by the time of Confucius and Mencius Go had become a part of the Four Accomplishments that Chinese gentlemen were expected to master. It became associated with the scholarly classes and was a way for people to develop their concentration, balance and discipline.

The discovery of Mehen and the rules deciphered from the Royal Tombs of Ur are amazing, but it’s the history of Go that is most interesting. It is a great game to play on your own or with a partner and can be very challenging for even the most experienced player.

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