Players Gonna Play: Games of the Ancient World

I’ve been meaning to do a games entry for a while now, but one of my readers lit a fire under me by asking me if I knew how to play senet, an ancient Egyptian board game that comes up periodically in my books. Now, I’ll tell you all what I told her, which is: sort of? And that’s going to be a kind of a theme in this entry. When it comes to ancient games, some of them we have a fairly good idea of their rules and gameplay, and some of them we’ve cobbled together based on their designs or on similar games from other cultures at the time. But it’s still interesting to see what ancient people invented to pass their often limited leisure time, and we can glimpse echoes of many of them in games still played today.

But before we get to relatively sophisticated board-style games like senet, let’s start with perhaps the oldest gaming pieces: dice and games of chance. The prehistoric origins of all dice are knucklebones, traditionally the talus or pastern bone of animals, which produced a four-sided die to be thrown.

Knucklebones were a virtually universal human pastime. We don’t know when they were invented first because they were independently invented in cultures across the globe from ancient China to ancient Peru, and everyone in between. The Greek playwright Sophocles attributed the Attic version to the mythical warrior Palamedes during the Trojan War.

[The Greeks did have a lot of time on their hands while Achilles was sulking in his tent…]

Palamedes isn’t mentioned in the Iliad, but the Trojan mythic cycle says he is the warrior sent by Agamemnon to retrieve Odysseus for the war. Odysseus tries to feign madness by plowing his fields with mismatched teams, and Palamedes outwits the infamously canny King of Ithaca by placing Odysseus’ infant son, Telemachus in the path of his father’s erratic farm work. The trick works and Odysseus relents, but the ancient authors say he never forgives Palamedes for getting him into the war, and he frames Palamedes for treason to the Greeks with gold and fake letter from Trojan King Priam. The Greeks supposedly stone Palamedes to death for this, but they kept his fun dicing game.

Plato also says Palamedes invented numbers, and the Latin author Hyginus claims he invented eleven letters of the Greek alphabet. But while he claims the Greeks might not have had numbers until the Trojan period, Plato believes that knucklebones were actually a foreign game, invented by the Egyptian god, Thoth, while the historian Herodotus names the ancient Lydians.

[A knucklebone made of stone]

The Romans, played several different games with knucklebones. The likely oldest was what the Romans called penta litha (“five-stones”): basically the ancient version of jacks, which is the modern descendant of all knucklebone games.  The bones are tossed up and the object being to catch them on the back of the hand. This version was mainly played by children, along with tropa, a game where one would try to throw the bones into a hole in the ground.

More sophisticated knucklebone games where dice games of chance, where players would throw the bones and tally up the rolls. The pastern bone has enough distinct sides that they could be distinguished from one another, and certain sides were worth more than others, presumably based on the difficulty of getting the bone to land on it. The sides all had special nicknames, often from mythology, that would carry over to the multi-sided dice that would never fully replace the humble knucklebones. For example the convex narrow side of the pastern was “the dog,” (worth one), while concave narrow side was worth six (“Venus”).

The Romans also played games of chance with tali (four-sided die inscribed with the numbers one, three, four, and six — a term sometimes used interchangeably for knucklebone die) and tesserae (traditional six-sided die), along with D20s, your standard twenty-sided die, which were used by Ptolemaic Egyptians as early as the second century BC.

With all of this dicing, it’s hard to believe someone had made gambling illegal in Rome. Octavius could say all he wanted, but dice-based gambling remained rampant and the laws against it were notoriously difficult to enforce. Even the Princeps himself was known to privately indulge in it.

[Egyptian twenty-sided die made of serpentinite]

Back in one of my earlier posts, I called the Mahabharata India’s Iliad, so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that dicing and games of chance appear in that narrative as well. The most famous example of this is the Pandavas’ disastrous game of dice with their jealous cousin, Duryodhana; a game that is depicted as either simple dicing, or as the Indian dice-and-pawn game that would evolve into modern Parcheesi. The Kaurava prince goads the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, into increasingly high-stakes bets, knowing that dice are the otherwise sensible Yudhishthira’s only weakness. Yudhishthira proceeds to lose the Pandavas’ kingdom, his four brothers, and eventually himself to Duryodhana in these games, making the Pandavas slaves to their cousin. Having lost seemingly everything, Duryodhana points out that Yudhishthira has one more thing to wager, and he offers an all-or-nothing wager for the Pandavas’ collective wife, Draupadi. His brothers urge Yudhishthira to refuse, but he cannot resist one last bet. So the Kaurava court looks on in fascinated horror as Yudhishthira proceeds to stake Draupadi… and loses.

Duryodhana demands the attendance of his newest slave, and when an aghast Draupadi refuses to appear, he has her dragged by her hair to the public presence of the court. Enraged by Draupadi’s clever argument that since Yudhishthira had lost his kingship prior to staking her, he had no legal right to offer her, a queen, as a wager, Duryodhana orders that Draupadi be stripped naked in front of all of the men of the court, a grave insult. Draupadi is saved from this humiliation by the intervention of Krishna, who makes the drape of her sari infinite so that she cannot be exposed. Cowed by this obviously divine occurrence, Duryodhana’s father, Dhritarashtra, offers Draupadi boons to ward off the displeasure of the gods, by which she secures the restoration of her husbands’ kingdom and their freedom.

[The Royal Game of Ur]

But the Pandavas forfeiting their wife in possibly the first instance of Strip-Parcheesi is a good segue way into ancient board games. Perhaps the oldest board game is known as the Royal Game of Ur, discovered in ancient Mesopotamian burial plots as far back as the 2600s BC. Also referred to as the Game of Twenty Squares, this game had remarkable staying power throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia, a slightly different version of it was still popular among the Jewish community in the Indian city of Kochi as recently as the 1950s.

Based on translated cuneiform tablets, the Sumerian rules suggest the Royal Game of Ur was one of several ancient games that would become the forerunners of modern backgammon. Players raced their seven pieces around the twenty board squares with a combination of luck (dice throws with a set of four-sided tetrahedron dice) and individual strategy. Certain squares were “safe spaces” and others left one’s pieces open to capture by the opposing player, with the object being to move all of one’s pieces safely through the board to the other side. Like knucklebones, there is evidence of ancient betting on game outcomes, as well as forms of divination cast by landing on certain spaces.

[Senet]

Based on tomb contents and hieroglyphic depictions, senet was invented in Egypt at around the same time (perhaps slightly earlier) as the Royal Game of Ur, and indeed, they appear very similar. A senet board is thirty squares arranged in three rows of ten, meant for two players with somewhere between five to nine pieces each. Unlike the Royal Game of Ur,  despite being popular throughout the ancient Levant, we don’t have a contemporary set of rules for how senet was meant to be played. Scholars and Egyptologists have used papyrus textual fragments to reconstruct how it might have been played, but because these fragments are sometimes thousands of years apart, it is likely what have been generally accepted as the rules of the game are at best a hybrid model for a game that also very likely change over time on its own as well.

[Ramses II’s favorite wife Nefertari playing senet]

Modern senet works in a way similar to backgammon and the Royal Game of Ur. The goal of each player is to move their pieces (usually either cone or drum-shaped) across the board to the end space. Movements are dictated by tossing sticks, the ends marked by numerals, rather than die. While not able to capture the other player’s pieces, one is able, based on rolls, to swap positions with one’s opponent’s pieces, or potentially send them back to the start. Certain spaces on the board grant immunity to a piece on them, give the player an extra toss, or send a piece back to the start. The goal is to be the first player to get all of their pieces to the end space, which since the New Kingdom period has represented the Field of Reeds in the afterlife — the entire game of senet thought to be a Duat-crossing sim. Because everything is about death for the Egyptians: the world’s original goth kids.

[Not to be confused with these original Goth kids…]

Another Egyptian board game we don’t really understand is one originally discovered by Tut-locating archeologist Howard Carter in the tomb of Amenemhat IV, which he delightfully dubbed Hounds and Jackals. As you can see from the picture below, the gaming board is comprised of fifty-eight holes and the pieces are two sets of pegs, five pegs per player. For the record, the pegs could be decorated in any way desired, archeologists having found other sets with horses, cats, hawks, or palm trees. Hence why the game is sometimes referred to as Fifty-Eight Holes, but that is a lot less catchy.

[Parker Brothers would not approve.]

Based on the the two end holes are slightly larger than the others, it is speculated that a player was meant to move their pegs around the board until they reached these finish holes, but we’re not certain. Again, the board layout suggests that it’s another race game like senet and the Royal Game of Ur. It, too, was popular throughout the Middle East, though Hounds and Jackals seems to have reached the height of its popularity during the Middle Kingdom period, while senet survived until the Romans arrived.

One last mysterious Egyptian board game is Mehen, a coiled board game with moving pieces dating from at least 3000 BC. The game is named for a prehistoric snake deity of the same name (whose name literally means “Coiled One”), and it has been found with boards with enough variation in the coils and segmentation that it seems that the design of the coiled snake was largely an artistic choice, rather than impacting the gameplay. 

[Mehen]

But while we’re not exactly sure how Mehen was played, Egypt’s North African neighbors have a similar-looking traditional game, wonderfully called Hyena Chase, which might give us an idea of how Mehen worked. In Hyena Chase, the outer ring of the board represents the village, and the innermost, a well at an oasis. Each player is a mother sent from the village to get water from the well, players moving with dice or the more traditional tossing sticks. Once a mother reaches the well, she must also wash clothes (aka, wait to roll a six) before she can return to the village. The first player to successfully return wins.

Now, you might be wondering where the hyena comes in. If the players wish, the first returning mother turns into a hyena, who can hunt down the remaining players and prevent them from returning to the village. The hyena moves at double the amount of any throw, and any mother it passes on the board is eaten and removed from the game. 

[A hyena from a Roman mosaic from Palestrina]

On the other side of the Mediterranean, Rome’s backgammon forerunner was a game called Ludus duodecim scriptorum, or XII scripta (“Game of twelve markings”). We don’t have the specific rules of the game, it likely was similar to the Greek-Byzantine game Tabula (τάβλι), which literally became backgammon over time. XII scripta had three rows of twelve points each, with fifteen pieces moving across all the rows according to the throws of three tesserae. The object of the game, like in Tabula and backgammon, is to move all of your pieces off of the board. Because Tabula, unlike modern backgammon, begins the game with the players’ pieces already on the board, it is likely XII scripta did also. Archeologists have also found scripta boards with letters on the spaces that might have been for beginners, to give them an idea of how to move on the board.

[The earliest literary evidence of XII scripta comes from Ovid’s Ars amatoria in early first century AD.]

Incidentally, the Persian version these games is nard, supposedly invented by Borzūya, the legendary court physician of the great Sasanian king Khosrow I. In the poet Ferdowsi’s great epic, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), an Indian raaja introduces Khosrow’s court to the game of chess, and Borzūya offers the game of nard in return. 

And this literary scene actually demonstrates an important part of ancient gaming, as a diplomatic tool. Part of the reason so many of these games were often found so far afield from their origins was that exchanging games was a low-stakes, informal way to exchange cultural ties among different people. The rules of most of these games were fairly simple and easy to convey to a novice. Also, as frequently beautiful pieces of local craftsmanship, they made lovely gifts to visiting dignitaries, who in turn would take them home and display them to the local ruling elite. In this way, gaming fads would spread across the ancient world much in the way they do today.

[Just imagine ancient ambassadors sitting across from one another playing Angry Birds.]

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