Game on! 5 ancient board games that we still play today

Board games

Did you know that some of your favorite childhood games are actually thousands of years old? Boredom is nothing new, and people have entertained themselves by playing board games for millennia. In fact, tons of games have been found at archaeological sites and referenced in ancient works, many of which we no longer know how to play. Others have managed to survive into modern times, and it’s likely that you’ve played an ancient game without even realizing it. For your entertainment, we’ve dug up the history of five popular games that are a bit older than you might expect. Enjoy!

Backgammon

It’s pretty amazing to consider that a game played on every continent in the modern world may have been around for about 5,000 years. Backgammon artifacts (or rather, precursors to Backgammon) dating from about 3,000 BCE have been excavated from Shahr-e Sukhteh, Iran, making it one of the oldest two player games still in play today. Various people have been credited with the game’s invention at later dates, but its exact time of origin is unknown.

Backgammon

Roman backgammon board (Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum) from the 2nd century, Aphrodisias.

Go

Go, a strategy game in which two players each try to surround a larger area of the game board using colored stones, originated in China over 2,500 years ago. The earliest reference to Go has been found in the Zuo Zhuan, one of the earliest examples of Chinese narrative history, in 548 BCE. Go was one of the Four Arts that the Chinese scholar gentleman were expected to learn (the other three Arts were calligraphy, painting, and playing the qin, a musical instrument).

Go

Fragment of a homemade Go board found in the Shaanxi province of China, dating to an estimated 206 BCE – 25 CE.

Checkers

The gameplay of checkers has likely evolved quite a bit over time, but the basic premise of this simple game has been around for thousands of years. An archaeological dig in Ur (modern Iraq) revealed an early form of checkers dating back to about 3,000 BCE, but many believe modern checkers comes from alquerque, which originated in the Middle East. Versions of the game eventually spread around the western world – checkerboards have been found in Egyptian tombs, mentioned in the works of both Plato and Homer, and made their way into Northern Europe by means other than the Romans (a substantial feat during that time).

Alquerque

Illustration of alquerque being played, from Libro de los juegos (13th century).

Chess

Chess is one of the most popular and well-known games in the world today, but did you know it’s believed to be nearly 2,000 years old? Historians think it was developed somewhere around 280 – 550 CE in Eastern India. Known back then as chatura?ga (four divisions of the military), the pieces consisted of infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry – still represented by today’s pawn, knight, bishop, and rook. The game became popular in the Muslim world after the 633–44 CE Islamic conquest of Persia, and spread throughout Europe by 1000 CE. The Persian influence on chess remains evident today in its terminology. For example, checkmate originates from the Persian sh?h m?t, or “the king is left helpless”.

Chess

Islamic chess set from 12th century Iran.

Snakes and Ladders

Also known as Chutes and Ladders, this childhood classic is based on an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam. Moksha Patam was much more than a simple race around the board – it was a complex morality lesson intended to teach children about good and evil. Navigating the board represented the journey of life, and philosophies of karma (destiny) and kama (desire) were incorporated in order to give lessons on good versus bad deeds. The ladders represented virtues such as faith and humility, while the snakes represented vices like lust and anger. Snakes outnumbered ladders in this version of the game in order to serve as a reminder that the path of good was more difficult to take than the path of evil. After the game was brought to England, Victorian ideals replaced the original virtues and vices, with ladders representing, for example, thrift and industry, and snakes representing indulgence and disobedience. The Victorians also decided to use equal numbers of snakes and ladders.

Snakes_and_Ladders

Jain version of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century.

Five great games, all of which remain just as popular today as they were thousands of years ago. Grab a partner and get to playing, because in our opinion, it counts as a history lesson! But before you do that, be sure to let us know in the comments which of these games is your favorite.

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5 replies
  1. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    What about JENGA? I hear it’s an ancient game and takes a lot of skill.Only the most superior people can excel at this

    Reply
    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      Yes, this ancient game dating back to the 1970s is something few people in the world will ever master. And actually, the exact secrets of Jenga skill have long been lost to the sands of time and only those with an innate talent will ever excel.

      Reply
  2. Potty
    Potty says:

    The one thing all these games have in common with the glaring exception of snakes and ladders is that they’re great to play and easy to transport.

    Reply

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