History of Board Games

History of Board Games

Ever since the dawn of time when humankind
was back home from a hard day’s work and
around the campfire, we’ve tried to find
ways to entertain ourselves. The purpose of
which entertainment was to take our minds
out of the harsh reality but to also have
a safe environment to hone our skills in.
The sharpening of our quick, strategic and
level-headed thinking could be practiced from
home now, enter board games!
So what exactly is a board game? According
to Merriem-Webster dictionary it’s a game
of strategy played by moving pieces on a board.
Although it is true that most board games
require strategic thinking there are exclusions
to the rule. And there are so many categories
to classify board games in today. But what
about yesterday?
What is surprising is that board games could
be older than or as old as written language.
While written language first appears around
3400 B.C., earliest found evidence of a board
game date around the year 3100 B.C.
In 2013 Turkish archeologists were excavating
and researching at a place in the southeast
of Turkey called Başur Höyük, a 5000 year
old burial site. While excavating they unearthed
small carved stones with odd shapes and painted
in different colors of green, red, blue, black
and white.
Some depicted dogs, pigs and pyramids while
others bullet shaped carved stones.
Even though there were similar findings in
North-Eastern Syria and Iraq they were all
isolated, single objects which the researchers
believe to be counting stones. The Başur
Höyük pieces were found all together in
the same cluster which gave more credence
to the hypothesis that it is a proto-board
game of sorts, the strategy and rules of which
still elude us.
full board game however with surviving pieces
and an intact board was found in Egypt.
It was called Senet, which means passage or
gateway in ancient Egyptian, although archeologists
think that the full name of the game might
have been the “game of passing”.
The oldest surviving boards of Senet date
around 2000-1700 B.C..
The board game however is depicted in hieroglyphs
and murals at least 1100 years earlier.
At least by the time of the New Kingdom in
Egypt (1550–1077 BC), senet was conceived
as a representation of the journey of the
ka (the vital spark) to the afterlife.
The game is also referred to in chapter XVII
of the famous Egyptian Book of the Dead, which
is an ancient Egyptian funerary text. (mummy)
The rules of the game are a subject of debate
without any definitive evidence.
If you aren’t convinced by now that Egyptians
love board games, here is Mehen. Mehen is
another board game originating in Egypt, referencing
the snake deity of ancient Egyptian religion.
The gameboard depicts a coiled snake whose
body is divided into rectangular spaces. Dated
around 3000 BC besides the physical boards
this game also appears in pictures in the
tomb of Hesy-Ra and its name appears in the
tomb of Rahotep. The rules of the game however
are lost within the sands of time.
Moving on, Egypt was not the only place to
play the most popular of board games archeological
records indicate that board games were widely
played in Mesopotamia too.
Between the years 1922 and 1934 British archeologists
while digging in the Royal cemetery of Ur,
an ancient Sumerian city, present day in Iraq,
found several beautifully crafted boards.
These boards were dated around the year 2550-2400
B.C. Beautiful tokens related to the game
were found arranged in a row, with the colors
alternating, in another Ur tomb.
This board game is now called the Royal Game
of Ur and it is a two-player strategy race
board game.
The rules of the Game of Ur as it was played
in the second century BC have been preserved
on a Babylonian clay tablet written by the
scribe Itti-Marduk-balāṭu.
The rules are as follow:
The Game of Ur is played using two sets of
seven checker-like game pieces, movement is
dice based and the objective is to move all
seven of the pieces off the board before the
enemy does. In the green squares in the middle
your pieces are not safe, if an opponent lands
on your piece it gets taken off the board
and has to go back to the beginning something
like the modern game Ludo.
This game might be the most popular board
game in human history. Not only was it popular
all across the Middle East but boards of this
game have been found in Crete, Cyprus and
even in Sri Lanka.
Four gameboards bearing resemblance to the
game of Ur were found in the funeral chamber
of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. These gameboards
even came with small boxes to store dice and
game pieces and many also had Senet boards
on the reverse sides so that the same board
could be used to play either game.
This game declined during late antiquity (5th-6th
century AD) although surprisingly enough it
survived among the Jewish population of the
Indian city of Kochi, who continued playing
a version of the Game of Ur until the 1950’s.
But back during Roman times there was a popular board game called Ludus duodecim scriptorium
which translates to “ game of twelve markings”,
referring most likely to the three rows of
12 markings each found on most surviving boards.
Some consider it to be related to Senet but
this has not been proven without a doubt yet.
Very little information about the specifics
of gameplay have survived, it is known that
the game was played with 3 cubic dies and
each player had 15 pieces. The earliest known
mention of the game is in the poems Ars Amatoria
(The Art of Love) by the Roman Poet Ovid which
was written somewhere between the year 1 BC and 8 AD.
Onwards to to the 6th century in Asia, during
the reign of the Gupta Empire in ancient India
a local game was invented called Chaturanga,
looks familiar doesn’t it?
Chaturanga means four divisions in Sanskrit,
which in turn means four divisions of the
military, the infantry, cavalry, chariotry
and elephants which would in turn evolve into
the modern pawn, knight, bishop and rook.
Chaturanga is not a direct ancestor of Chess,
tad later on that, but it also has an 8×8
board like Chess with 16 pieces for each player.
Chaturanga was adopted
by the Sassanid Persians somewhere in the
7th century where it became known as Shatranj
and Shatranj from the Persians travelled to
Europe where it finally became the Chess we
know today, or did it?
The modern rules with which we play chess
today have been put down somewhere around
1475, even though the game became available
in Europe even as early as the 9th century.
Books about the theory of how to play chess
began to appear in that same century too.
A Spanish churchman called Luis Ramirez de
Lucena wrote a book called Repetition of Love
and the Art of Playing Chess in 1497 and later
on other chess masters like Pedro Damiano,
Giovanni Leonardo di Bona, Giulio Cesare Polerio
and Gioachino Greco started to develop elements
of openings and analyzed simple endgames.
After the 15th century people seem to really
have become serious and stopped producing
impactful board games, the big bang of board
games however was yet to come, a several centuries later.
There is a several centuries worth a gap in
the history of board games, only during the
19th century do they make a comeback with
Traveller’s Tour Through the United States
and its sister game Traveller’s Tour Through
Europe which were published by New York City
bookseller F. & R. Lockwood in 1822 and today
claims the distinction of being the first
board game published in the United States.
The next noteworthy game was based around Christian morality and it was called The Mansion of
Happines published in 1843, it sent the players
along a path of virtues and vices that led
to the mansion of happiness i.e. Heaven. There
were also some other Christian games later
on like the Game of Pope and Pagan and The
Siege of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian
Army (1844).
In 1860, The Checkered Game of Life rewarded
players for normal activities such as attending
college, marrying, and getting rich. Daily
life rather than eternal life became the focus
of board games. The game was the first to
focus on secular virtues rather than religious
virtues, and sold 40,000 copies its first
The most famous of all board games is undoubtedly
Monopoly. Monopoly can be traced back to 1903,
when American anti-monopolist Lizzie Magie
created a game which was intended as an educational
tool to illustrate the negative aspects of
concentrating land in private monopolies.
I don’t really need to explain much about
Monopoly since it’s a very popular game,
it’s a common misconception that Monopoly
is a brutal game. But hardcore players know
that friendships aren’t ruined in Monopoly,
so I ask you have you heard of Diplomacy?
So Diplomacy is a game first published in
1959, it’s played with 2-7 players, it is
a board wargame. It is distinctive from other
boardgames because of its negotiation phases
during which time players form new and betray
old alliances with other players, you can
see where that friendship-ruining element
comes in. It has some high-profile fans including
Henry Kissinger, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury,
I’d like to see them roll for initiative.
And now for a game coming out of Europe, from
Germany to be precise, called Settlers of
Catan, this game was published in 1995. In
the standard version 3 to 4 players play the
game and each of them represent settlers which
establish colonies on an imaginary island
called Catan. The objective of the game is
to build and develop holdings while trading
and acquiring new resources, players gain
points as their holdings grow and the one
who gets to 10 points first, wins the game.
Now in the 21st century there are loads of
different board games and new ones are made
every day. A quick look at Kickstarter and
you see enthusiastic people with awesome ideas
about a new concept for a board game waiting
to become the next Risk or Monopoly. But who
decides what becomes the next great thing?
Maybe it’s all just
determined by the roll of a dice!

7 thoughts on “History of Board Games”

  1. Great effort and information.. well done… just if you may note that several parts of the video had your voice lost behind the music…. Great job though…

  2. 7:17 great video. just a little error the image that you put along chaturanga is actually shatranj. chaturanga was a 4 player game and the the persians i think not sure) transformed into a 2 player game

  3. Thank you. I will be using this clip for presentation in my classroom as I am developing a curriculum for students to build their own board game.

  4. Very nice video, just a note, some of the text parts in the video disappear too fast to be read completely, it would be nice if you let them more time.

  5. Not a great video IMO. This guy somehow forgot the elephant in the room. GO is the most ancient game that's still popular among some of the most populous countries today – China, Japan and Korea. By the way, GO is considered the hardest board game for a computer to master given the highest number of possible moves (Google "AlphaGo").

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