The Oldest Board Games

I’ve cast around for a way to introduce this article that doesn’t make me sound either like an old man yelling at clouds or a millennial having a crisis at realising my window of relevancy has long closed, but given that I’m absolutely the latter and that I spent the morning whingeing about the gloomy UK weather, I might as well just lean in.

With each new generation there’s a redefining of what is considered “Old”, and a horrific understanding that you are now a part of it. One of my favourite jokes in the Jennifer Lopez movie “Monster-in-Law”, an unironic fave of mine, is when a peppy young 17 year old pop star says she loves watching “Really OLD movies like The Little Mermaid”. Imagine my consternation when, while writing that, I had a chuckle before figuring out that the gap between the Little Mermaid and Monster-in-Law is shorter than the gap between Monster-in-Law and now.

But fortunately, this rock that we call home has been around for so long that it all becomes relative. And as long as there have been humans rattling about on Earth, we’ve needed ways to entertain ourselves. And that’s how I came to soothe my Saturn Return by writing an article all about games that existed millennia ago and that we can all agree are absolutely, unequivocally, ancient.

So this list is designed to make us all feel like we’ve taken a dip into the fountain of youth. Because there’s old, and there’s this lot…

Mehen

Coming out of Ancient Egypt, the game is named for the snake deity that would curl itself around the sun god Ra and protect him along his passage through the night.

The game existed as far back as 3000 BC, with a few boards displayed around the world that date to that time, and with pictures found on various tombs as well. In fact, some of the examples of Mehen appear to date further back than the existence of the written word, so it’s entirely possible that Mehen the game and Mehen the god came into existence at around the same time, inspiring each other in a symbiotic relationship like Coca Cola’s Santa or Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags as the Patron Saint of Greed.

Interestingly, there are no recorded rules for the game, leading people to have a vague guess at how the game actually goes down. The “board” is in the form of a great snake coiled in on itself, with various grooves carved in presumable to hold counters. So from that, we can assume there’d be some form of race involved, perhaps dice based, but there really is absolutely no indication or proof positive either way.

There’s something particularly beguiling about Ancient Egypt and Mehen is just one example of why folks have kept returning to consider how that civilisation lived and influenced the way we live now.

Backgammon

Chess, interestingly, does not make an appearance on this list. In many ways the quintessential board game, the rules were actually only finalised in the 19th century, and it can be seen as an example of how everything evolves over time, cultures merging and various pieces of different games being brought together to make a whole. (And for the theatre kids, please know I wrote this while singing the opening number from the criminally underrated Chess: The Musical).

A similar story can be told of the origins of Backgammon, which is believed to have originated in Persia – modern day Iran, and is roughly 5000 years old. Crikey.

Now, obviously, what we know today as backgammon is a massive evolution of the games played in those times, but it’s fun to see evidence of the game’s grandfathers pop up throughout history.

Egyptian pharaohs enjoyed one of the game’s precursors along the way. Tutankhamun’s tomb was found to contain boards that date back to 1500 BC, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

And, lo, the game spreads across the West, bringing traditions and linguistic conventions with it, to become a game so beloved that it’s considered the national game of many countries across the Mediterranean and beyond. Lovely.

Checkers

The town of Ur pops up in many explorations of board gaming history. Located in ancient Mesopotamia, clearly they didn’t have loads on, because they were constantly inventing ways to entertain themselves. And comprising of just a board and a few counters, it’s easy to see why Checkers has existed for literally millennia.

The game is suggested to have been played in the Trojan War and it even pops up in the writings of Plato and Homer, which is thrilling. Maybe one day long into the future someone will be just as excited to find me writing effusively about Smart10.

Once again, Egyptian Pharaohs took versions of the game to their burial chambers, because you’ve got to have SOMETHING to do in eternity, and the long lifespan of this game and its relatively simple rules mean it has universal appeal when the newer generations of souls leaving this mortal coil show up.

Senet

And speaking of the afterlife, Senet is commonly believed to be a game all about Gods and Kings, suggested by scholars to represent the journey into the afterlife…

Supposedly. Nobody actually knows how to play it. There are squat little tokens and 30 squares but beyond that your guess is as good as mine.

Still cool, though! Another one found in Egyptian tombs, dating to the very first Kings and Queens. There’s a picture of Queen Nefetari playing it, and some pictures go all the way back to the 3rd dynasty. And there’s a reference to it in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This makes me worried that figuring out the rules and subsequently playing it might bring some form of Jumanji energy that I simply do not know what to do with.

Mancala

And this is where we start getting a little existential. Because strictly speaking, Mancala is not a “game” in and of itself, no more so than the idea of “cards” is. Just as a deck of cards springs forth countless game variations and hours of fun, so too does the principle components of Mancala, a family of turn-based strategy games with abundant possibilities.

Those components are tokens – think stones, seeds, beans – and a board of some form, containing holes for those tokens to go in. And when I say “board”, a playing surface of any sort is really all that’s necessary and can include some holes dug into the Earth itself.

And this is where we start getting existential. Because while we can look for physical evidence of boards that look like this and use all manner of wizardy to date them, the reality is some games will have existed in an entirely temporary fashion. How many times have you done a quick game of noughts and crosses on the beach, only for all evidence of it to get washed away? The same can be said of early Mancala.

And I just find that magical. If you’ve got a quiet weekend, head out to a natural history museum and just take some time to take a look at trinkets and tokens and things we’ve uncovered over the years that show how humans have lived together for thousands and thousands of years. Through wars, plagues and the ravages of time, there are unifying things that connect us back to history, and games are prime among them.

Just make sure you pack a little game to bring with you to the pub after your visit.