The History of Board GamesFebruary 9, 2019
Games are a crucial part of being human. Games are a defining component of the cultures they are apart of, going back into pre-history and looking at today. Children make up their own games to play before they are even able to talk.
Humans used games as a form of social interaction as far back as 5000 years ago in the Middle East. Games were developed all over the world in different societies, proving that it is a natural part of human creativity and an intuitive way of socializing. Cultures used them to compete, teach strategic skills, create and follow rules, and for social parties. Later, they represented high social status in courts and were given as gifts in elite circles.
The first form of game components known to be made by humans were painted stones and dice, using talus bones of animals (this is where the term “roll them bones” comes from). In the ancient civilizations that used these dice, shells, stones, and sticks for gaming, it was deeply tied to religious beliefs. Games were played in religious settings as a form of bonding. On the other hand, while games were sometimes used for religious reasons, Buddhist monks were prohibited from playing board games because they were considered to be a cause for negligence.
I’m going to provide examples of games dating as far back as I can, showing how ingrained into our nature the idea of gaming really is.
The Egyptian game, Senet, dates as far back as the Pyramids. The game itself was found in a tomb from 3100 BC and paintings of people playing the game are found in tombs in 2500 BC. Since the game was found in neighboring societies, it’s believed that it was used as a trade good. Mehen, another Egyptian game found around this same time, is the oldest known multiplayer game as most ancient games were designed for two players.
The Royal Game of Ur was found in ancient Mesopotamia ruins from 3000 BC and a similar game was found in King Tut’s tomb. The rules for the game were found on a clay tablet from 117 BC in Babylon, proving that this game was passed down through generations. This game is still played today and influenced other race games, like Backgammon.
Go was considered one of four art forms in ancient China as far back as 2200 BC, among painting, calligraphy, and playing the musical string instrument guqin.
Shatranj was a Persian game and is the first known precursor to chess. The game was played among kings dated as far back as 224 AD. Given as a gift to a king of India sometime during the 500s, the game was called Chaturanga and the rules were evolved by the court. Over time, variants were created in different cultures and strategy about the game can be found in literature as far back as the 8th century. It’s even thought that the game is referenced in the Shahnameh. The concept was eventually passed from Greek culture to Western Society where chess was developed in Europe around 1475.
Patolli was an Aztec strategy game with a focus on gambling. This game was played all around Mesoamerica, including as a form of entertainment for noble courts. Eventually, Spanish priests claimed this game to be forbidden, burning the hands of people found playing it. It’s speculated that this was due to the game being used as a tool to gain slaves through gambling.
The examples of ancient games are far and wide. The Chinese game Liubo existed as far back as 700 BC. While the exact rules are unknown, it’s thought to be an ancestor to Chinese chess. Mancala was first found in Israel bathhouses from the 2nd century. The Vikings played Tafl games and it is believed that warrior status was related to skill in the game. The Romans played a war game called Petteia. Even books dedicated to the importance board games have existed for centuries.
As a gamer who studied anthropology, this is incredibly insightful and interesting. On a personal note, it makes me feel validated in a career dedicated to games.
I hope you learned something too!