History Of Board Games

What is the first board game you can remember playing? What is your favorite board game? Is it Monopoly, Chinese Checkers, Chess, Risk, or a more ancient game like Backgammon or Snakes and Ladders? Perhaps your favorite is Clue created during World War II?

People play board games across the world. Today’s generation play board games on tablets or smart phones. Before the digital age, millions of families spent pleasant evenings around a physical board with dice, tokens, and cards. Before physical board games, people drew the games like Mancala in the sand and played with seeds and stones.

In this article, I’ll take you on a quick multimedia journey through the history of board games.

The First Board Game

People have been playing board games since the beginning of civilization.  That might be because games are an essential part of what makes us human.

Mancala

Archeologist found board games dating as far back as the Stone Age. In Africa Mancala was the popular game of strategy, in China they played Go, and in Europe it was Chess.

Within the first 5 years of his reign, the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesis II had completed the Temple of Seti I for his father, Pharaoh Seti I. A board game like Mancala was found on the rooftop of the temple. Priests used to study the stars from the temple rooftops. Perhaps they played games while waiting for the stars to appear.

The Mancala board consisted of two rows of holes drawn in the ground. Each player started with 24 stones or seeds. The object of the game was to capture as many stones of your opponents. The person with the most stones in his mancala hole won the game. A Mancala game crafted in stone was found in Axum, Ethiopia.

Senet

Ancient tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and queens were decorated with paintings telling stories of the royal person’s life. One such painting shows Queen Nefertari, wife of Pharaoh Rameses II, playing the board game Senet. The oldest hieroglyphic showing Senet dates to 3100 B.C.

Also known as the ‘The Game of Passing,’ many Egyptian royals were buried with a Senet board for the journey to the afterlife. Senet was a game played by the upper class in the courts of royalty.

The Senet board has 30 grids divided into 3 rows of 10 squares each. There are 2 sets of pawns. The object of the game is to get your pawns off the game board first.

Mehen

Mehen is another board game with archeological evidence dating back to 3000 B.C. Some scholars believe Mehen was the first board game played by the Egyptian royalty during the Old Kingdom. Later Senet replaced Mehen.

The Mehen board looks like a coiled snake carved into squares with the head of the snake in the center. Each player had 6 pieces and the lion piece. The object of this multiplayer game was to obtain a lion piece to eat up all the other game pieces. This happened when your player piece reached the center, became a lion and reversed back eating the opponent’s pieces.  The Arab board game Hyena is very similar to Mehen.

The First International Board Game for the Common People

Board games didn’t stay an exclusive pastime for the upper class or limited to the country of origin. In the royal tombs of Ur in Ancient Mesopotamia archaeologists discovered the Royal Game of Ur. Beautiful boards made of the rare lapis lazuli stone, limestone and shell were found in the tombs. The rules of the game were a mystery to be solved years later.

Among the Assyrians and Phoenicians in the Ancient Middle East, the game was known as The Game of Twenty Squares.  A working set of the game was also discovered in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb. Played for over the last 5,000 years, the Royal Game of Ur was enjoyed by royalty and common people alike in different countries. The game traveled with soldiers and trade as far as Arabian countries and India.

Ur: The Ancient Game’s Rules Survived

In 177-176 B.C. the Babylonian scribe Itti-Marduk-balatu wrote on a cuneiform tablet the rules of the Royal Game of Ur. Discovered in 1880, the set of rules waited patiently among 130,000 cuneiform tablets in the British Museum.

In the 1980s, Irving Finkel, Assyriologist and game enthusiast came across the Babylonian’s scribe’s tablet. When decoding the game rules, he noticed that ox and sheep knucklebones were used as dice.

Some time later, he found an image of a wooden game board in an academic journal. When King Nebuchadnezzar sieged Jerusalem during the summer of 587-586 B.C. the Jews were exiled to Babylon. Seventy years later king Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Many did, other stayed in Babylon. The wooden game board in the academic journal belonged to a Jewish family who had emigrated from Babylon to Cochin in India.

With the help of his sister in Jerusalem, Irving Finkel found a retired school teacher in a kibbutz near Jerusalem. She had recognized the wooden board game and remembered playing the game as a child.

Backgammon: The Game For the Roman Empire

Backgammon, one of the oldest games that are still in circulation, probably originated in the Persian Empire. Senet and Mancala used the same board concept. The Game of Twelve Markings or ‘Duodecum Scripta et Tabulae’ became popular during the Roman Empire. Tabula descended from this game. Both are forerunners for the board game Backgammon.

Tabula and backgammon are in fact so similar I’m going to use them interchangeably from this point.  It’s been said that tabula was THE game of the Roman Empire.

Emperor Claudius had a board built on the back of his chariot to relieve long and dreary journeys. He also wrote a book about the game. Emperor Nero was a gambler and could easily play for $10,000 per game point. Records show that Mark Anthony played backgammon with Cleopatra, that Emperor Caligula cheated, and that Domitian was an expert backgammon player.

During the Crusades stakes were so high when playing board games, that Richard the Lionheart and Philip of France had to step in. They both decreed an act prohibiting soldiers with a lower ranking than knight from playing any games for money. Knights and clergymen could lose up to 20 shillings per 24 hours. The penalty of disobedience was 100 shillings paid to the archbishop. Of course, the limits didn’t apply to the two kings.

Source: Chris 73 and is freely available at  under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

Excavators of Pompeii found a Backgammon table in almost every villa. A wall painting showed two players arguing with a tabula game in progress. The second scene showed how the innkeeper threw the arguing opponents out of his inn.

One of the Christian artifacts found in Rome was a Backgammon board carved on a marble slab. In the center of the board was a Greek cross with an inscription

Our Lord Jesus Christ grants aid and victory to dicers if they write his Name when they roll the dice, Amen.

The game was named Backgammon when it reached the shores of England. The oldest record is in the 1650 edition of the Oxford dictionary. The name was probably derived from two words – back and game.

Prince Alexis Obolensky, the father of modern Backgammon, made Backgammon popular in the 60s when he founded the International Backgammon Association. He also created the official Backgammon rules. The first international Backgammon tournament was held in 1964.

 

Chess, The Military Strategy Game That Traveled The Silk Road

There are various legends about the origin of the board game Chess. India, China, and Persia are the three probable origins. Many scholars believe, however, that the game was too intricate to be invented by one person.  Here are a few chess creation stories:

Legend of the Indian King Shihram And The Wise Man

A wise man named Grand Vizier Sissa Ben Dahir invented a game to convince the tyrannical king Shihram that everyone was important in his kingdom. He created playing pieces represented people in the kingdom: the king, his queen, knights, bishops, rooks, and pawns. The king understood that the game represented life. He liked the game so much that he commanded everyone to play the game. He also wanted to reward the wise man for this wonderful board game.

The Grand Vizier had another lesson he wanted to teach the king. Instead of treasures as a reward, he asked the king to place one grain of wheat on the first square on the Chess board. He then asked the king to place two pieces of grain on the next square and to keep on doubling the amounts until all the squares were full. Without calculating the amount of wheat required, the king ordered his servants to fulfill the wise man’s wish.

Trembling in fear the servants informed the king that nowhere in the world so much wheat existed. Then the king understood the wise man’s message. Everybody has a function and is important in his kingdom, even the least, the pawn, the grain of wheat.

Today this math problem is assigned to schoolchildren the world over to show the power of exponential growth.

The Legend of the Persian Shah ‘Checkmates’ The Indian Rajah

The Indian Rajah challenged the Persian Empire with a beautiful teak and ivory Chess set. He sent the Chess set to the Persian king Khosrow without any rules. The only clue was that the game symbolized the art of war and the riddle:

To find out how that goodly game is played,

To find out what the name is of each piece,

The way to move it and its proper square,

To find out footman, elephant, and host,

Rukh, horse, and how to move wazír and king.

King Khosrow accepted the challenge.

Although it seemed impossible, the king’s vizier Bozorgmehr solved the riddle and figured out the rules of the game. Then the king created the game Nard, a predecessor of Backgammon. He sent the board game without rules back to the Indian Rajah. Although the game was more simplistic than Chess, the Rajah’s wise men couldn’t solve the game.

The penalty for losing the challenge was high. The Indian Rajah had to pay the Persian king 2,000 camels carrying gold, silver, pearls, aloe-wood, ambergris, apparel, and gems.

Words like ‘Shah’ (Persian king) and ‘Shah Mat’ (the king is helpless) were commonly used when playing the board game. These terms are like ‘Check’ and ‘Checkmate’ used in modern Chess.

The Legend Representing The Forgotten Chinese Battle

The possible third place of origin for the board game Chess is China. According to legend commander, Han Xin created ‘The Game To Capture Xiang Qi.’ Waiting out the winter, the troops of Han Xin played the game with all possible scenarios to capture the opposing army led by Xiang Qi.

A few years after his battle victory commander Han Xin fell out of favor with the Emperor and his game wasn’t played anymore. The game was brought back during the Tang Dynasty. New rules were added, and the name shortened to Xiang Qi which means Elephant Game.

public domain picture of Xiangqi

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes from east to west. The name is derived from silk being the main product traded on these routes. Along with goods, games like the board game Chess moved with the merchants and traders along these routes, spreading the game throughout the world. Chess evolved and changed adapting to different cultures.

The 13th Century BCE was riddled with wars. The popular Roman game Ludus Latrunculorum (The Game Of Mercenaries), also known as Latrunculi was a game of pure strategic military tactics. A similar game called Petteia was played in Greece. Some scholars believe that Latrunculi was a forerunner of Chess and influenced the movement of the pawns.

The first official World Chess Championship was held in 1886. Wilhelm Steinetz became the first World Chess Champion.

Snakes And Ladders A Teaching Tool For Vices And Virtues

Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, Gouache on clothSnakes and Ladders may be a child’s game today, but centuries ago it carried much more weight in Indian religious culture. Invented by the poet saint Gyandev, the game was originally called Mokshpat or Gian Chauper. This board game was a teaching tool for children to understand the effect of good and bad deeds. The ladder represented good values like kindness, humility, and faith. The snake represented the opposite characteristics.

Invented by Hindu spiritual leaders, the game, also called Leela, was based on Hinduism religion. The goal was to reach the number 100 which represented salvation in Hinduism. The game triggers emotions of hope when climbing a ladder and despair when sliding down a snake. To enforce the weightiness of the teaching, the game was also called Game of Self-Knowledge, Steps to a Higher Place, and Ladder to Salvation.

Imported into Victorian England, the vices and virtues became more generalized in the 1930s. Ladders were adorned with grace and success while snakes represented disgrace and poverty. In 1943 Milton Bradly an American game inventor named the game Snakes and Ladders.

Although a fun child’s game today, Snakes and Ladders is still used as an educational tool. The game teaches the perception of sequences and helps the child with linear thinking.

Monopoly and The Landlord’s Game: Exposing Unfair Property Ownership

In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Magie was well-known as a feminist in the Northeast United States.  One of her passions was exposing the subordinate position women held in society. She became nationally known after advertising herself in a local newspaper, “’Young woman American slave’ for sale to the highest bidder.” Her idea was to shock readers into action.

In support of Henry George’s single tax theory, Magie invented the board game ‘The Landlord’s Game’ in 1903. The board game served as a protest and tool to show people through play the evils of the monopoly in property ownership prevalent in the 1900’s.

The Landlords Game
Thanks to: https://landlordsgame.info/

She patented the game in 1904 and again in 1924. With other followers of Henry George, she founded The Economic Game Company of New York and published her game through the company. Initially, the game had two set of rules: monopolist and anti-monopolist rules.  People who played the game introduced the game to their friends, and the game grew in popularity.

During the Depression, Charles Todd introduced the game to Charles and Esther Darrow.  Charles Darrow asked Charles Todd to write down the rules and regulations of the game.  He then proceeded to make his version and sold it to Parker Brothers.

When Magie found out what happened, she protested in the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star. Parker Brothers paid her $500 for the rights of The Landlord’s Game. Until her death in 1948 both she and Darrow received credit for the game idea. Darrow was paid royalties, and the unemployed Charles Darrow became a millionaire from a game that’s main purpose was to expose unfair capitalistic gain.

Modern Board Games of the 1900s

  • The board game ‘The Conquest of the World’ was marketed in France in 1957 and published by Parker Brothers two years later as Risk. The object of the game is to conquer the world. The original board displayed the world it was known in Napoleon’s time.
  • ‘Settlers of Catan’ was the first European board game that became popular outside of Europe. Klaus Teuber, a German dental technician, invented the game in 1995. The game’s rules were different to the traditional racing and competing games. The object of the game was to colonize and island, build settlements, and to trade with neighboring settlements.
  • In 1860 Milton Bradley inventor of Twister and Battleships invented the board game ‘The Checkered Board of Life.’ One hundred years later, The Game of Life, a modernized version was produced. The object of the game is to be the most successful and to reach the end of the board first.
  • The murder mystery game Cluedo was developed during World War II in the United Kingdom. Originally named ‘Murder,’ the game helped many passes the time in bunkers during air raids. An attorney’s clerk, Anthony Pratt, applied for patency in 1944. The name was changed to Clue when produced for the American market.

Candyland, Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, Sorry, Scrabble and Anti-Monopoly are all board games that surfaced during the 1900s. In 1950 the first video game, Pong, was created. As the digital age escalated, so did games. Board game popularity increases with the easy digital accessibility of classic and new board games.

Miss anything? Let us know in the comments!

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