We take our hobby a bit for granted. Since around 1995, board gaming has been on the rise, with each year being bigger than the last. The recent growth in gaming can be traced to a few titles from Europe, mostly Germany, making their way to North America. Most notably, Settlers of Catan kicked off what is sometimes referred to as gaming’s Golden Age. With more designers, publishers, artists, and media focusing their attentions on tabletop games, that’s an appropriate description for the times we’re currently enjoying.
However, it hasn’t always been this way. Board games have gone through highs and lows over the many centuries of recorded human history. For this week’s CMON Feature Friday, we decided to take a look at an abbreviated history of games. Because humanity’s gaming history is long and diverse, we’re splitting this subject into two parts. In Part One we’re focusing on the ancient world.
Board game pieces have been discovered that date back to ancient times, suggesting that throughout history, gaming has been an important part of human interaction. Some of the earliest components ever found were in a 5,000 year-old burial mound in Turkey. Gaming pieces this old obviously don’t come with an instruction manual. So it’s not clear how this ancient game might have been played. It is suspected that games would have been a pastime of the rich and influential, not something enjoyed by the lower class.
Senet was a game played by the Egyptians in around 3100 (BCE). It’s one of the oldest games that we have a known rule set for. Depictions of Senet appear in hieroglyphs and in paintings on tomb walls. Fragments of Senet boards have been found buried with Egyptian leaders. The boards are made up of a grid of 30 squares in three rows, with each player controlling a set of pawns. The rules for modern Senet have been pieced together from the bits of information that archeologists have been able to decipher.
The Royal Game of Ur was also played in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. It involved an elaborate grid board, playing pieces, and three tetrahedral dice. Although the original rules for Ur are not fully known, a rules tablet has been found for the game dating around 177 BCE. Like Senet, Ur is believed to be a racing game.
In the Middle East in the 7th Century, early forms of Chess were being played, with elephants, horses, kings, and soldiers as the playing pieces. Even in this early period of board gaming, several manuals were written on opening strategy and how to solve complex Chess problems. The existence of these texts proves that nerding out over games is not a new phenomenon.
Go is one of the oldest games that is still regularly played today. In Go, two players alternate back and forth placing black or white stones on a 19 x 19 grid. The goal is to control as much territory as possible and surround your opponent’s pieces. Today, Go remains very popular, with clubs existing all over the world. Recently, Go was in the news as the World Champion Lee Sedol competed with an artificial intelligence system named AlphaGo. The Korean born player fought hard, but ultimately fell to AlphaGo in the match 4-1. It was a good test for the limits of human capabilities and I for one, would like to welcome our new robot overlords.
One of the most widespread native African games is Mancala. Requiring nothing more than a set of stones and a series of holes, Mancala can be played pretty much anywhere. Archaeologists have dated the game back to somewhere between the 6th and 7th century. Mancala refers less to one specific game and more to a series of games with a basic rule structure, with slight variations on how they’re played.
In the Americas, C-shaped grooves found in the stone floor of the Tlacuachero archaeological site have ben theorized to be a form of games. That would place the first American game around 5000 years old. Patolli was one of the most wide spread games in the early Americas, played by royalty and commoners alike. It is a race/war game with a heavy emphasis on gambling. Players would try to earn all of their opponent’s goods by getting their game markers to the final position on the board first.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the history of ancient board games, but it’s clear to see that the recreational pastime of gaming was widespread around the world. It might have started as a pastime for Kings, but it wasn't long before people of all classes were playing games of one sort or another. In Part Two, we’ll take a look board games leading up to more modern times.
What’s the oldest board game you still play? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #CMONFeatureFriday.