We all know what board games are. Some of us have played or at least heard about them. Some people grow up with them, and have enjoyed or learned something by playing board games. In the past few years board games have gone through an explosion of growth. According to The Guardian, in 2012, board games have recently seen a growth rate as high as 40% per year.
However, have you ever wondered where board game are from, or who invented them?
The First Board Game (5000 BC)
Most people don’t realize that we literally had board games before we had a written language. A series of 49 small carved painted stones were found in the 5,000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey. These are the oldest gaming pieces ever found. Similar pieces have been found in Syria and Iraq, and seem to point to board games originating in the Fertile Crescent. The Crescent is comprised of regions around the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates River in the Middle East; the same region that invented booze, papyrus, breath mints, and calendars – all of which are also required when planning your game night!
You probably wonder what was the very first board game? It’s a DICE! A square piece that’s essential in most of today’s board games, it is the basis of humanity’s oldest games.
Dice were made from a large variety of materials, depending on region. For instance, copper, glass, ivory, and marble dice came from areas where these materials could be found. The image above is of dice from the Roman Era, which look very similar to today’s dice.
Board Games become a royal pastime (3100 BC)
Board games became popular among the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. Primarily, the game of Senet. The game has been found in Predynastic and First Dynasty burials. Senet is featured in several illustrations from Ancient Egyptian tombs. By the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BC), it had become a kind of talisman for the journey of the dead.
Ancient Egyptians were strong believers in the concept of “Fate”. It’s thought that the high element of luck in the game of Senet was strongly tied to this concept. It was believed that a successful player was under the protection of the major gods of the Egyptian pantheon: Ra, Thoth, and sometimes Osiris. Consequently, Senet boards were often placed in the grave alongside other useful objects for the dangerous journey through the afterlife.
As far as gameplay, there is some debate. The Senet board itself is a grid of 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten. There are two sets of pawns (at least five of each and, in some sets, more, as well as shorter games with fewer). Historians have made educated guesses for the actual rules of gameplay for Senet, which have been adopted by different companies who offer sets for sale today.
The oldest board game for which we know the rules is probably The Royal Game if Ur (also known as the Game of Twenty Squares). Although Senet appears to predate this game by as much as 900 years, a tablet containing the rules of this game was discovered and translated. Although some of the interpretations of the rules differ, we are able to play this game more or less as it was played more than 2000 years ago.
The First Evidence of Backgammon (2000 Years Ago)
Ludus Duodecim Scriptorium was a board game that was popular during the time of the Roman Empire. The name translates as “game of twelve markings”, likely referring to the three rows of 12 markings found on surviving boards. The game tabula is thought to be a descendant of this game, and both are similar to modern backgammon.
The oldest game with rules known as being nearly identical to backgammon described it as a board with identical 24 points, 12 on each side. As today, each player had 15 checkers and used cubical six-sided dice. The object of the game – to be the first to bear off all of one’s checkers – was also the same. The only differences with modern backgammon were the use of an extra die (three rather than two) and the starting of all pieces off the board. Instead, they entered in the same way that pieces on the bar enter in modern backgammon.
The popularity of backgammon surged in the mid-1960s, in part due to the charisma of Prince Alexis Obolensky, who became known as “The Father of Modern Backgammon”. He co-founded the International Backgammon Association, which published a set of official rules. He also established the World Backgammon Club of Manhattan, which devised a backgammon tournament system in 1963. He later organized the first major international backgammon tournament in March 1964, which attracted royalty, celebrity, and the press.
Board Games Become Part of Childhood (500 BC)
Board games were primarily played by adults in ancient cultures, but with their deep roots in society, they were quickly adopted by children. Although not technically a board game, one of the first games centered towards kids was Hop-Scotch. That’s right, it’s much older than you thought!
The first references of Hop-Scotch date back to Roman Children around 500 BC. There are many variations of the game all over the world, but the general rules stay consistent. The first player tosses the marker (typically a stone, coin, or bean bag) into the first square. The marker must land completely within the designated square and without touching a line or bouncing out. The player then hops through the course, skipping the square with the marker in it.
Tafl Games and the Birth of Chess (400 AD)
Tafl games are a family of ancient Germanic and Celtic strategy board games played on a checkered board with two armies of uneven numbers.
Although the size of the board and the number of pieces varied, all games involved a distinctive 2:1 ratio of pieces, with the lesser side having a king-piece that started in the center. The king’s objective was to escape to the board’s periphery or corners, while the greater force’s objective was to capture him. The attacking force has the natural advantage at the start of each game. It’s presumed this indicates a cultural aspect by mimicking the success of Viking raids.
Tafl spread everywhere Vikings traveled, including Iceland, Britain, Ireland, and Lapland. Several iterations of the game were played across much of Northern Europe.
It’s presumed Tafl branched off into an iteration called Chaturanga. Chaturanga is an ancient Indian strategy game developed in the Gupta Empire, India, around the 6th century AD. In the 7th century, it was adopted as Shatranj in Sassanid Persia, which in turn was the form of chess brought to late-medieval Europe.
Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 uncheckered board, called Ashtāpada. The board sometimes had special markings, the meaning of which is unknown today.
Soon after, the game was turned into its European variant, Chess, which is played on the same 8×8 tile board. The earliest evidence of chess is found in Sassanid Persia around 600 AD. It’s theorized Muslim traders came to European seaports with ornamental chess kings as curios before they brought the game of chess.
The game reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000, it had spread throughout Europe. Introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century, it was described in a famous 13th-century manuscript covering shatranj, backgammon, and dice, named the Libro de Los Juegos. (Book of Games)
Around 1200, the rules of Shatranj (the Persian form of Chess) started to be modified in southern Europe, and around 1475, several major changes made the game essentially as it is known today. These modern rules for the basic moves were adopted in Italy and Spain. Pawns gained the option of advancing two squares on their first move, while bishops and queens acquired their modern abilities. The queen replaced the earlier vizier chess piece towards the end of the 10th century, and by the 15th century had become the most powerful piece. Consequently, modern chess was referred to as “Queen’s Chess” or “Mad Queen Chess”. These new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe. The rules concerning stalemate were finalized in the early 19th century. The results of these rule changes are the standardized the game of Chess we play today.
During the Age of Enlightenment, chess was viewed as a means of self-improvement. Benjamin Franklin even wrote an article titled “The Morals of Chess” in 1750. He stated:
“The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often pointed to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it. By playing at Chess then, we may learn”
Chess was soon after implemented into schools, where the first chess clubs began. While chess isn’t officially in the Olympics, it’s recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It even has its own Olympiad, held every two years as a team event. Most countries have a national chess organization as well.