Board Games of The Ancient World

For thousands of years, people have been using board games as a great way to pass the time with friends and family. Ancient board games are still played today and are a great way of bringing friends and family together.

I’ve carefully selected the board games in this list, either for their notability or because they inspire (or indeed are the basis of) board games today.

All of them originated at least 1,000 years ago and so carry a lot of history, including different versions. For some of them, we can only guess what the exact rules are!

Yet that doesn’t stop us from having fun!

If you’re just as tired as I am staying at home all day, this list is the solution for you! Reading about these games the next time you play board games can bring an educational value to your family fun night.

Maybe it will even inspire you to recreate one of them.

Since before 3000 BC, people have been entertaining themselves with board games. The first known board game(which I will talk about more later)was invented in Ancient Egypt, potentially to mark the Egyptian calendar. 

I’ll cover different ancient board games and discuss their history. I’ll also describe how the game works and how you can incorporate it into your game night! 

Let’s get into some of the most exciting board games of the ancient world. 

Ancient Board Games

Senet (3500BC)

Game of Senet: A blue box with squares on top and blue playing pieces

Senet is, as far as we know, the first board game. 

Senet’s game is a rectangular board(originally made of wood or limestone) with a pattern of symbols and square shapes carved into it. Senet’s original design was relatively simple and has gained complexity over the years. 

Again, I cannot point to exactly who created the game, but historians believe that the board game held religious values. The name itself, Senet, means ‘passing.’ 

Senet originated in Ancient Egypt, similarly to Mehen. King Tutankhamen once owned a game table with the game of Senet built-in. But it wasn’t just the kings and queens playing the game; the newly found board game had a broad appeal.

But how did the Ancient Egyptians play this game?  I’m not sure, but thousands of years later, here’s how you can play it.

How to Play

Egyptian Lady Playing Senet

Each Senet board has three rows of ten squares carved into the board. Players will start the game with five game pieces. 

Each player should place their pieces on the first row of ten squares, alternating colors along the row. Players use dual-sided throw sticks to determine whether their piece can move and how far. The throw sticks are usually color-coded, with one side being lighter than the other. 

There are symbols on the board marking a beginning and end for the squares. Players take turns to roll the throw sticks(each player will roll four throw sticks)to see if they can move. The movement of each player is determined by the method below:

  • If all sides of the throw sticks are dark, you will move your piece five spaces and receive an extra throw. 
  • If there are three dark throw sticks and one light throw stick, you will move one spot and receive an extra throw.
  • If a player has half of their throw sticks dark and the other half-light, they will move two spaces.
  • If a player rolls three light-sided throw sticks, they will move three spaces. 
  • If all four throw sticks are light-sided, they will move four spaces and receive an extra throw. 

Keep in mind that no spaces on the board can be shared with any other piece. If a game piece lands on a square, no other game pieces may share that space. If this prevents a player from moving any of their pieces, then the turn will no longer be in play.

If a player’s game token lands on their opponent’s piece, that player can claim that spot as their own. The opponent will have to switch places with the attacker. 

There are other symbols on the Senet board as well. One square is known as the House of Happiness. You cannot pass the House of Happiness square without landing on it first.

Another square, known as the House of Water, is a danger zone. If a game piece lands on this square, that piece is must return to the beginning. 

Pieces can only be removed from the board by rolling the numbers indicated on the last three squares. The first player to clear the board of all of their pieces is the winner!

Mehen (3100 BC)

Game of Mehen: A stone spiral disk with green playing pieces

Mehen is an Ancient Egyptian board game that dates back to 3100 BC. The board game is a disk that has had a spiral design etched onto it. There is typically a snakehead in the center of the disk, alluding to the snake-god Mehen. 

This Egyptian game was one among the first of its kind. Mehen was a multiplayer game with up to six players. Until this point, games were typically single or two-player

Unfortunately, it’s hard to pinpoint this game’s invention to one person. As with most things that existed in that era, Mehen is likely to have held a religious significance to Egypt’s people. 

The game of Mehen had died off for the most part by 2300 BC. As a result, the original rules of the game do not exist. 

There are variations of the game found throughout the world that keep the spirit of the game alive. By putting together these variations, historians and game nerds have created a general set of rules for Mehen. 

How to Play

There’s a lot to playing this game.  If the rules below are too much for you, then check out this video:

Up to six players(you will need at least two players)will gather around the spiral disk. There are six playable pieces in the shape of lions, and each player will receive a collection of six balls.

Throwing sticks known as throw sticks will serve as two-sided dice, and each player will receive three of these. 

Every player starts with one of their six marbles at the outer edge of the spiral disk. Don’t worry about your lion piece for now, but you will need it later. Players will then roll their throw sticks to score points. 

The exact method of scoring in Mehen is still debatable since we currently do not know how the game’s original players kept score. Nowadays, many players use the following points system:

  • 2 sticks on the flat side, 1 stick on the round side would equal 2 points
  • 1 flat stick and 2 round sticks would equal 1 point
  • 3 flat sticks equal 4 points
  • 3 round sticks equal 6 points (this is the highest score that you can roll)

The game of Mehen is often split into two parts. The first part of the game is to use your six balls and reach the spiral disk’s center. After reaching the center with all six balls, you will then reverse the process and bring the balls from the center of the disk to the outer edge. Once you have done this, you can then use your lion piece.

The second part of the game is to use your lion piece and get to the disk’s center once again. However, this time, you will be using your lion piece to eliminate the enemy balls. 

Every player’s goal is to obtain their lion piece and use their lion to consume as many balls on the spiral disk as possible. 

Only scores of 2, 3, and 6 earned from the throwing sticks will progress a ball or lion on the game board. Players save scores of one until they have reached the center. If you have four or more saved scores of 1, you may exit. If not, you will have to keep rolling the throw sticks until you have four scores of 1. 

The game ends when all lion pieces have gone through the board, regardless of how many balls remain on the disk. The winner of the game is the player whose lion ate the most balls. If all of the balls on the disk are eaten before the game ends, the player whose lion reaches the start of the spiral on the game board first wins. 

Backgammon (Est: 3000 BC)

wooden Board with backgammon, pawns, dice, close up
wooden Board with backgammon, pawns with dice, close up

Backgammon is another well-known board game that originated in ancient times. 

Backgammon is among the oldest games in existence. This game is roughly 5,000 years old, though it’s hard to put a definitive date on when it was invented.

The game of Backgammon originated in Mesopotamia (early Iraq), but historians have found variations of Backgammon boards in King Tut’s tomb. This suggests that Backgammon (or at least, variations of the game) was popular enough to spread into different regions. 

At the time of Backgammon’s origin, the game rules changed depending on a person’s social class. While, initially, anyone could play, the game became so popular among soldiers that certain soldiers’ ranks were prohibited from playing. This is largely due to the amount of money people were losing when betting on the game. 

Unlike Senet or Mehen, it is uncertain why the game was named Backgammon. In fact, the game was not called Backgammon until the mid-1600s.

The word Backgammon is widely believed to translate to “back game.”

How to Play

Backgammon is a two-player game. The board has 24 triangles and is referred to as ‘points.’ The points on the board alternate in color and are put into four groups, each containing six points. 

Each player receives their own pair of dice and a dice cup to shake the dice. Alongside the dice, each player gets fifteen game pieces that they play with. Similar to Mancala, each player also has a home board.

The setup and allowed movement of a backgammon board.  Movement is always anti clockwise.  Setup is (anticlockwise from opponent's home): T1:2;T12:6;T17:3;T19:5

When you throw the dice, you end up with two numbers, one from each die.  You can add the numbers together to move one piece twice or use each number for a piece–thereby moving two pieces in one turn.

The exception is if you roll a double.  Then you have four times that number to use.  So if you roll a double 1 then you have four 1s to use, in any combination you like.  You can move 1 piece 4 times or 4 pieces 1 time (or indeed 2 pieces 2 times).

You always move anti-clockwise around the board.

You can’t land on a point where your opponent has two or more pieces.  Yet if they only have one piece, you can take that piece by landing on it.

If one of your pieces is taken, it goes off the board.  You can’t move any piece until it has returned.  To return you have to roll a number that isn’t blocked on your opponent’s home board.  So if you roll a 1 and the first point on your opponent’s home board is unoccupied, or your opponent has only one piece on it, then your piece can return there.

As you can see, being taken can be a pain as not only do you risk not being able to play for a while, but the taken piece ends up in your opponent’s home board.

Once all of your pieces have returned to your home board, you can start removing them from the board.  You can remove any piece on your home board that is on a number you roll.  So if you roll a 4, you can remove the piece from 4.

You can also remove from lesser numbered points if all the higher-numbered points are unoccupied.  So you can remove a piece from 2 if you roll a 4 AND 3,4,5, and 6 are all unoccupied.

The winner is the first player to remove all their pieces from the board.

Gambling

Two people playing backgammon: Black and white pieces on an old backgammon board

Backgammon is about more than just one game.  With a game set, you will also get a rather strange die, called a doubling cube.  Instead of the numbers 1 to 6, it actually has 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64.

The idea is that as you play, you can propose doubling the value of the win.  Your opponent can either accept this or resign the game immediately.

You can only propose a double on your turn, before you roll the dice.

Once you’ve double once, you can’t do it again, until your opponent proposes a doubling.  Then you can accept it (and the game will be worth four times its original value), or decline and lose.

You can just gamble with game points and say the first one to a fixed number (eg 20) is the winner.

Some people like to use money instead of points to make it interesting.  Personally, I never recommend gambling with board games–I play for pure fun.  But then I usually play with my children…

Checkers (3000 BC)

An old looking checkers board

If you are anything like me, you love a good game of checkers. 

Historians believe that the oldest version of checkers originated in 3000 BC. Archeologists found the game in an ancient city named Ur.

Our modern-day version of checkers probably developed sometime in the 12th century. The game was given a new board design and a new set of rules. This version of the game quickly found its way to the Western world. 

Today, a checkerboard typically consists of 64-spaces. Some versions of the game have boards with 4 times that amount.

Checkers is still incredibly popular to this day. The game is more than fun; it is also thought to improve people’s thought-processing skills. 

How to Play

Checker pieces arranged on a board.  All the pieces always occupy only black squares so can only be next to each other diagonally

Each checkerboard is made of 64 squares, alternating between white and black colored squares. Likewise, the 24 checker pieces that will come with the game are also black and white. 

Pieces can only be placed on the black squares.

Unlike chess (which I’ll come to shortly), checker pieces can only move diagonally. If your checker piece moves diagonally over your opponent’s, then you have captured their piece. The player who has captured all of their opponent’s checker pieces is the winner.

Here are some other rules you need to bear in mind when playing checkers:

  1. If you can capture – you must
  2. You can capture sequentially.  So if you capture one piece and land next to another piece that can be captured – then you can and must capture it in the same turn.
  3. Single pieces can only move forwards
  4. When you reach the end, you get an extra piece and become a King
  5. Kings can move forwards and backwards

My favorite trick in checkers is trapping someone by forcing them to take one of my pieces.  This can open the door to getting my piece past their final pieces and creating Kings.

Better yet, if you do it right you can sacrifice one piece in exchange for a whole chain of your opponent’s pieces. 

Royal Game of Ur (2500 BC)

Royal Game of Ur; board and pieces

The Royal Game of Ur is among the most fascinating entries on this list. This is because humanity would not have known about this game had it not been discovered by archaeologists. 

In the early 1920s, an archaeologist found ancient gaming sets within royal tombs located in Ur, Iraq. Historians have dated the board game to 2500 BCThis dates from about 2500 BC, and the newly discovered game was later named the “Royal Game of Ur” due to where it was found. 

Upon discovery of the game, there were no rules found on how to play it. This caused both historians and archaeologists to create their own rules. However, this has changed in recent times. 

An ancient cuneiform tablet was found that detailed nearly every aspect of the game. While the interpreted rules in the 1920s are still available, many game players like to follow the original rules.

The board for the Royal Game of Ur is a figure-of-8-shaped board, and players are given 7 pieces.

How to Play

How the Royal Game of Ur was most likely played

Royal Game of Ur is another ‘circling the board’ style game. This board has 20 squares that are separated into three rows of eight. Each player will receive 7 pieces and a pair of dice.  Players need to remove their pieces from the board by navigating through each square. 

The first player to have all of their pieces off of the board wins.

Weiqi (Go) (1500 BC)

Go game stones in bowls on wooden board ready for play - copy sp

Weiqi, a game now more commonly referred to as ‘Go,’ is a complex and ancient Chinese game. 

The game is believed to have originated around 1500 BC and is the oldest game to still be played with its original rules. 

Although it is not certain, it has been rumored that Emperor Yao created the game of Weiqi to help educate his son, Dan Zhu. There are also rumors that Emperor Shun invented Weiqi to educate his child. These conflicting rumors have left historians stumped about the origin of the game. 

However, there is no uncertainty about the rules of the game. While the game board has evolved, the rules have stayed intact. It was believed that the boards for Weiqi were relatively small in ancient times. In modern times, Weiqi boards have a 19 x 19 grid. 

How to Play

The Weiqi(Go) board is made up of squares and points. Each player receives playing pieces known as ‘stones.’ 

Unlike in other games, you place your stones on the intersections of the squares, not the middle of the squares.

Each player takes their turn to place a stone on the board, Black going first.

When you surround your opponent’s stone or group of stones, you capture them

You aren’t allowed to place stones where they would be immediately captured.

The game ends when neither player wishes to or can play another move.

The winner is the player with the most territory.  Territory is the number of stones on the board, plus any intersections surrounded by that player’s stones.

For more details, check out this video:

Nine Men’s Morris (Est: 1400 BC)

Nine Men’s Morris is a game that was played regularly by ancient Romans

Again, it’s hard to pinpoint when the game was first played. There is some evidence dating its invention as early as 1400 BC. 

The game rules are well known, mostly because the game has been played continuously in Europe since the Roman period.

How to Play

Old painting of Nine Men's Morris being played

A Nine Men’s Morris board has 24 points, and each player gets nine-game pieces. These pieces are to be placed on the board, and the aim is to form lines of three pieces at a time. 

Once three game pieces have been lined up, the player that made a move may remove an opponent’s piece from the board. The first player to have under three pieces left loses the game.

Ludus Latrunculorum (100 BC)

Game of Ludus Latrunculorum.  Two black pieces above and below a single white piece on a grid with other pieces in the pockets on the side.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia and Wolfgang Sauber. CC BY-SA 3.0

Ludus Latrunculorum is a game of strategy that originated in ancient Roman times. 

The boards come in various sizes and grids. The game is similar to checkers, in which players will strategically move their pieces to overpower their opponent. The name, Ludus Latrunculorum, means The Game of Mercenaries.

The game’s invention probably dates to around 100 BC. 

How to Play

The game of Ludus Latrunculorum is a little bit unique because there are many ways to play the game and different levels of intensity.

The boards typically have grids, and players use game pieces to capture their opponents. The first player to capture all of the opposing forces wins.

For more details, check out this video:

Mancala (500 AD)

If you have grown up playing board games, you may have played Mancala at some point in your life. Unlike the first two entries on this list, Mancala is well-known among many board game players 1500 years after it was created.

If you’ve never heard of Mancala, that there are many versions, all with different names.  These include:

  • Kalah
  • Bao
  • Oware
  • Alemengula
  • Toguz
Bao (Mancala Version) game being played

Mancala is a two-player game that is thousands of years old, so it is hard to tell who invented the game or precisely where it was invented. However, most historians believe that people started playing Mancala around 1500 years ago.

Because some ancient Mancala boards have been found in temples, it is believed that the game has also been used as a ritual tool. Historians are under the assumption that the game of Mancala started in Africa and spread into the Middle East and Asia. 

Eventually, Mancala was introduced to the United States.

Mancala is believed to have originated in either Ancient Ghana or Sudan. The name “Mancala” stems from the Arabic word “Naqala.” When translated, “Naqala” means “to move.” Mancala is a board game that is said to represent the process of sowing and harvesting. 

While I know many of you who are reading may already know the rules of Mancala, I will give a re-cap for those who have never played. 

How to Play

Mancala sets will usually come with one board and 48 marbles. 

The board itself is a rectangular, wooden slab that has 14 holes carved into it. The holes are divided into two rows of six, with two of those holes being significantly larger than the other 12. These holes are used to store the bulk of a player’s marbles. 

Before the game begins, each of the smaller holes should be filled with four marbles. Both players will pick a side of the board to start on. Players often refer to the two rows as side A or side B to tell the two sides apart.

Mancala board.  One Large hole on each side with 2 rows of 5 small holes each filled with four marbles

Once the first player has selected a hole to start on, they will pick up the four marbles within the hole. Next, they drop one into each hole they encounter, going counter-clockwise. 

These holes include the big ones as well, also known as the “Mancala.” But players should only aim to deposit marbles into their own Mancala, as the game’s goal is to end up with the most marbles in their Mancala. Once the player has run out of marbles to deposit, their turn is over.

If the last marble in your turn lands in your Mancala, you will get to continue your turn. Once either side A or side B has been cleared of all marbles, the player with the most marbles in their Mancala wins. 

Chaturanga (Chess) (600 AD)

Like many other ancient board games, it’s nearly impossible to tell when the game originated. In this case, the uncertainty is due to conflicting information about the game from both the past and present. 

Portrait of man in russian ethnic suit playing chess

Ancient texts that talk about Chess will typically refer to a former variant and not the original game. Chess historians have found that Chess most likely originated in 600 AD, in India. The game soon expanded to Persia and Arabia.

An Ancient form of Chess known as Chaturanga had many of the same components featured in modern-day Chess, though there are a few differences. 

How to Play

Chaturanga is very similar to Chess. 

In this case, the biggest difference is that the stalemated king is the winner, though the objective is still to capture the opponent’s king. Another difference is that Chaturanga was often played with four people at a time, instead of just two. 

If you want more information on how to play Chaturanga, and even where you can play it, check out this video:

Conclusion / Where to Go From Here

After the research I have done, I’m eager to share the information with fellow board gamers. Being able to incorporate education and fun is one of my biggest priorities as a father. I hope that I can help inspire other parents with this information. There is a lot more to board games than people may realize!

I think that children genuinely like to learn, as long as they are having fun while they do it. Incorporating education into your children’s lives doesn’t have to stop at board games. You can find ways to sprinkle in history no matter the topic. I choose board games because they are an easy way for me to connect with my children.  

Regardless of whether or not you are a parent, there is never a bad time to learn new things about the daily activities in our lives. Now that you know more about the history of some of the most famous board games out there, you can go out and create your own spin on some of these historic games!