The Best Board Games of the Ancient World
By Meilan Solly │Pocket│16 min
Thousands of years before Monopoly, people were playing games like Senet, Patolli and Chaturanga
Long before Settlers of Catan, Scrabble and Risk won legions of fans, actual Roman legions passed the time by playing Ludus Latrunculorum, a strategic showdown whose Latin name translates loosely to “Game of Mercenaries.” In northwest Europe, meanwhile, the Viking game Hnefatafl popped up in such far-flung locales as Scotland, Norway and Iceland. Farther south, the ancient Egyptian games of Senet and Mehen dominated. To the east in India, Chaturanga emerged as a precursor to modern chess. And 5,000 years ago, in what is now southeast Turkey, a group of Bronze Age humans created an elaborate set of sculpted stones hailed as the world’s oldest gaming pieces upon their discovery in 2013. From Go to backgammon, Nine Men’s Morris and mancala, these were the cutthroat, quirky and surprisingly spiritual board games of the ancient world.
Beloved by such luminaries as the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II, Senet is one of the earliest known board games. Archaeological and artistic evidence suggest it was played as early as 3100 B.C., when Egypt’s First Dynasty was just beginning to fade from power.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, upper-class members of Egyptian society played Senet using ornate game boards, examples of which still survive today. Those with fewer resources at their disposal made do with grids scratched on stone surfaces, tables or the floor.
Senet boards were long and lithe, consisting of 30 squares laid out in three parallel rows of ten. Two players received equal numbers of gaming tokens, usually between five to seven, and raced to send all of their pieces to the end of the board. Rather than rolling dice to determine the number of squares moved, participants threw casting sticks or bones. As in most complex strategy games, players had the opportunity to thwart their opponent, blocking the competition from moving forward or even sending them backward on the board.
Originally a “pastime with no religious significance,” writes Egyptologist Peter A. Piccione in the journal Archaeology, Senet evolved into a “simulation of the netherworld, with its squares depicting major divinities and events in the afterlife.”
Earlier game boards boast completely blank playing squares, but in most later versions, the final five squares feature hieroglyphics denoting special playing circumstances. Pieces that landed in square 27’s “waters of chaos,” for example, were sent all the way back to square 15—or removed from the board entirely.
The ancient Egyptians believed “ritualistic” gaming sessions provided a glimpse into the afterlife, according to Tristan Donovan’s It’s All a Game: The History of Board Games From Monopoly to Settlers of Catan. Players believed that Senet revealed what obstacles lay ahead, warned dissolute souls of their fiery fates, and offered reassurance of the deceased’s eventual escape from the underworld, as represented by successfully moving one’s pieces off the board.
“The final space represented Re-Horakhty, the god of the rising sun,” explains Donovan, “and signified the moment when worthy souls would join [the sun god] Ra for eternity.”
The Royal Game of Ur
Researchers often struggle to determine the rules of games played millennia ago.
But thanks to an unassuming cuneiform tablet translated by British Museum curator Irving Finkel during the 1980s, experts have a detailed set of instructions for the Royal Game of Ur, or Twenty Squares.
The roughly 4,500-year-old game’s modern rediscovery dates to Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavation of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur’s Royal Cemetery between 1922 and 1934. Woolley unearthed five boards, the most impressive of which featured shell plaque squares encircled by strips of lapis lazuli and decorated with intricate floral and geometric designs.
This game board, now housed at the British Museum, is structured similarly to Senet boards, with three rows of squares placed in parallel rows. The Royal Game of Ur, however, uses 20 squares rather than 30. Its shape, consisting of a 4- by 3-panel block connected to a 2- by 3-panel block by a “bridge” of two squares, is “reminiscent of an unevenly loaded dumbbell,” according to It’s All a Game.
To win, players raced their opponent to the opposite end of the board, moving pieces according to knucklebone dice rolls. Per the Met, squares inlaid with floral rosettes were “lucky fields,” preventing pieces from being captured or giving players an extra turn.
Though the Royal Game of Ur derives its name from the Mesopotamian metropolis where it was first unearthed, Finkel notes that archaeologists have since found more than 100 examples of the game across Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus and Crete. Later versions of the board have a slightly different layout, swapping the right block and bridge for a single line of eight squares. (This format, better known by the name Twenty Squares, was popular in ancient Egypt, where Senet boxes often had 20-square boards on the reverse side.)
In his encyclopedic Oxford History of Board Games, David Parlett describes Mehen, which derives its name from a serpentine deity, as the “Egyptian snake game.” Played between roughly 3100 B.C. and 2300 B.C., the multiplayer matchup involved up to six participants tasked with guiding lion- and sphere-shaped pieces across a spiral racetrack reminiscent of a coiled snake.
The rules of Mehen remain unclear, as the game faded from popularity following the decline of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is sparsely represented in the archaeological record.
Writing in 1990, Egyptologist Peter A. Piccione explained, “Based upon what we know of this game … the feline game pieces moved in a spiral along the squares, apparently, from the tail on the outside to the head of the serpent at the center.” The spherical, marble-like tokens may have been similarly rolled through the “longer spiralling grooves.”
Surprisingly, notes Parlett, none of the probable Mehen pieces known to survive today are small enough to fit into the individual segments of the boards with which they were found, adding yet another layer of intrigue to an already mysterious game.
Nine Men’s Morris
In fall 2018, excavations at the Russian fortress of Vyborg Castle revealed a long-forgotten medieval game board etched into the surface of a clay brick. While the find itself dates to the comparatively recent 16th century, the game it represents was first played as early as 1400 B.C., when Egyptian workmen building the temple of Kurna inscribed a Morris board onto a roofing slab.
Comparable to modern-day checkers, Nine Men’s Morris found opponents directing their army of nine “men,” each represented by a different game piece, across a grid-like playing field. Erecting a mill, or row of three men, enabled a player to capture one of their opponent’s pieces. The first person unable to form a mill, or the first to lose all but two men, forfeited the match. Alternate versions of the game called for each player to rely on an arsenal of 3, 6 or 12 pieces.
Examples of Nine Men’s Morris abound, unearthed in Greece, Norway, Ireland, France, Germany, England and other countries across the globe, according to Games of the World: How to Make Them, How to Play Them, How They Came to Be. The game was especially popular in medieval Europe and even earned a mention in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
One of ancient Scandinavia’s most popular pastimes was a family of strategy games known collectively as Tafl. Norsemen played Tafl as early as 400 A.D., according to the Oxford History of Board Games. A hybrid of war and chase games, Tafl spread from Scandinavia to Iceland, Britain and Ireland, but fell out of favor as chess gained traction in England and Nordic countries during the 11th and 12th centuries.
A disk-shaped gaming board unearthed in 2018 at the site of the Scottish Monastery of Deer testifies to Tafl’s widespread appeal. Dated to the seventh or eighth century, the board is a “very rare object,” according to archaeologist Ali Cameron.
Speaking with the Scotsman, Cameron added, “Only a few have been found in Scotland, mainly on monastic or at least religious sites. These gaming boards are not something everyone would have had access to.”
The most popular Tafl variation, Hnefatafl, deviated from standard two-player games in its use of highly unequal sides. To play, a king and his defenders battled a group of taflmen, or attackers, that outnumbered them by roughly two-to-one. As the king’s men attempted to herd him to safety in one of the four burgs, or refuges, located in the corners of the grid-like game board, taflmen worked to thwart the escape. To end the game, the king had to either reach sanctuary or yield to captivity.
The toast of the Roman Empire, Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi was a two-player strategy game designed to test participants’ military prowess. Played on grids of varying sizes—the largest known example measures 17-by-18 squares—the so-called “Game of Mercenaries” was likely a variant of the ancient Greek game Petteia. (Aristotle sheds some light on Petteia’s rules, likening a “man without a city-state” to an “isolated piece in Petteia” left vulnerable to capture by an opponent.)
The first documented mention of Ludus Latrunculorum dates to the first century B.C., when Roman writer Varro described its colored glass or precious stone playing pieces. Two hundred or so years later, the anonymously authored Laus Pisonis painted a vivid picture of gameplay, explaining, “[T]he enemy ranks are split, and you victoriously emerge with ranks unbroken, or with the loss of one or two men, and both your hands rattle with the horde of captives.” The poets Ovid and Martial also referenced the game in their works.
Despite its recurrence in both written and archaeological evidence, Ludus Latrunculorum’s exact rules remain unclear. Various scholars have proposed potential reconstructions of the game over the past 130 years, according to Ancient Games. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these is Ulrich Schädler’s 1994 essay, translated into English in 2001, which suggests players moved pieces forward, backward and sideways in hopes of surrounding an isolated enemy piece with two of their own. Captured tokens were then removed from the board, leaving victorious players’ hands “rattl[ing] with the crowd of pieces,” as Laus Pisonis put it.
In Patolli, a gambling game invented by the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica, players raced to move pebbles from one end of a cross-shaped track to the other. Drilled beans used as dice dictated gameplay, but the exact rules of “entry and movement” remain unknown, as Parlett notes in the Oxford History of Board Games.
Among the Aztecs, Patolli held unusually high stakes, with participants wagering not just physical goods or currency, but their own lives. As Diego Durán, a Dominican friar who authored a 16th-century tome on Aztec history and culture, explained, “At this and other games the Indians not only would gamble themselves into slavery, but even came to be legally put to death as human sacrifices.”
Commoners and aristocrats alike played Patolli, which was particularly popular in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. According to fellow 16th-century chronicler Francisco López de Gómara, even Emperor Montezuma enjoyed the game and would “sometimes look on as they played at patoliztli, which much resembles the game of tables, and is played with beans marked like one-faced die which they call patolli.”
Like many aspects of Aztec culture, Patolli was banned by the Spanish conquistadors who defeated the Mexican empire in the 1520s and ‘30s. Parlett writes that the Spaniards destroyed every gaming mat and burned every drilled bean they could find, making it difficult for later historians to piece together the game’s exact rules.
Modern-day chess traces its origins to the ancient Indian game of Chaturanga, whose Sanskrit name refers to the “four limbs” of the Gupta Empire’s army: infantry, cavalry, chariots and war elephants. First recorded around the sixth century A.D., but presumably played prior to this period, Chaturanga pitted four players, each assuming the role of an imperial military arm, against each other. Pieces moved in patterns similar to those seen in modern chess, according to Donovan’s It’s All a Game. Infantry, for instance, marched forward and captured diagonally like pawns, while cavalry traveled in L-shapes like knights. Unlike today’s game, however, Chaturanga involved an element of chance, with players casting sticks to determine pieces’ movement.
During the mid-sixth century, Indian merchants introduced a revised two-player version of Chaturanga to Persia’s Sasanian Empire, where it was quickly transformed into the improved game of Shatranj. (Declaring “check” and “checkmate” stems from the Persian practice of saying “shah mat” when an opponent’s shah, or king, was cornered.) When Arabic armies conquered the Sasanian Empire in the mid-seventh century, the game further evolved, its pieces assuming an abstract shape in compliance with Islam’s ban on figurative images.
Chess arrived in Europe by way of Arabic-held territories in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. A Swiss monastery manuscript dated to the 990s contains the earliest known literary reference to the game, which rapidly gained popularity across the continent. By the end of the 12th century, chess was a staple everywhere from France to Germany, Scandinavia and Scotland, all of which followed a slightly different set of rules.
Per Donovan, the “most radical change of all” was the emergence of the queen as chess’ most powerful player during the 15th and 16th centuries. The shift was far from random. Instead, it reflected the previously unheard of rise of empowered female monarchs. Isabella I of Castile led her armies against the Moorish occupiers of Granada, while her granddaughter, Mary I, became the first woman to rule England in her own right. Other prominent female royals of the period included Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I, Marguerite of Navarre and Marie de Guise.
Like many entries on this list, the exact origins of backgammon, a two-player game in which rivals race to “bear off,” or remove, all 15 of their pieces from the board, remain unclear. But elements of the beloved game are evident in such diverse offerings as the Royal Game of Ur, Senet, Parcheesi, Tabula, Nard and Shwan-liu, suggesting its basic premise found favor across both cultures and centuries. As Oswald Jacoby and John R. Crawford write in The Backgammon Book, the earliest conceivable ancestor of what is now called backgammon is the aforementioned Royal Game of Ur, which emerged in Mesopotamia around 4,500 years ago.
Modern backgammon’s most memorable characteristic is its board, which features 24 narrow triangles divided into two sets of 12. Players roll pairs of dice to determine movement across these geometric arenas, making backgammon victories a “near-even mix of skill and luck,” according to Donovan.
“Rolls of the dice are crucial but so is how you use those rolls,” he explains. “This balance has made backgammon popular with gamblers since time immemorial”—a tendency exemplified by a Pompeiian wall painting featuring an innkeeper throwing two brawling backgammon competitors out of his establishment.
Variations of the game eventually spread to Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Europe. During the medieval period, as many as 25 versions of backgammon, including France’s Tric-Trac, Sweden’s Bräde and Britain’s somewhat confusingly titled Irish, popped up across the continent. By the 1640s, the last of these had evolved into the modern game of backgammon, so named in a nod to the words “back” and “game.”
Go, then called Weiqi, arose in China around 3,000 years ago. A game of “territorial occupation,” according to the Oxford History of Board Games, Go is far more complex than it seems on the surface. Players take turns placing stones on a grid of 19-by-19 squares with the dual goals of capturing enemy tokens and controlling the largest amount of territory.
“Although simple in its rules,” writes Donovan, “the size of the board coupled with the intricacies of capturing and recapturing territory and stones create a game of great complexity, closer in spirit to an entire military campaign filled with local battles rather than the single battle represented in chess.”
Popular lore suggests Weiqi was first used as a fortune-telling device, or perhaps invented by the legendary Emperor Yao in hopes of reforming his wayward son. Whatever its true origins, Weiqi had become a staple of Chinese culture by the sixth century B.C., when Confucius mentioned it in his Analects. Later, the game was included as one of the four arts Chinese scholar-gentlemen were required to master. (In addition to Weiqi, aspiring academics had to learn Chinese calligraphy and painting, as well as how to play a seven-stringed instrument called the guqin.)
China may be the birthplace of Go, but Japan deserves much of the credit for developing the game that Parlett describes as involving “a higher degree of sophistication than any of the world’s great board games, with the possible exception of chess.” Go reached China’s eastern neighbor around 500 A.D. and was initially played by the seemingly discordant groups of aristocrats and Buddhist monks.
By the 11th century, however, nobles and commoners alike had embraced what they called I-go, paving the way for the game’s ascendance in Japanese culture. During the 17th century, the ruling Tokugawa shogunate even established four schools dedicated to the study of Go.
“Thus arose the system of hereditary professionals, including both masters and disciples, which raised Go to unparalleled heights of skill and cultivation,” Parlett writes.
Japan’s elaborate Go training system fell apart when the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed in 1868, and the game lost popularity in the ensuing decades. But by the early 1900s, Go was back in full swing, and over the course of the 20th century, it gained a small but not insignificant following in the Western world.
Mancala, from the Arabic word naqala, meaning “to move,” is not one game, but hundreds united by several shared characteristics: namely, moving beans, seeds or similarly shaped tokens across a board filled with shallow pits or holes. The family of games emerged between roughly 3000 and 1000 B.C., with examples of mancala-like rows of holes appearing at archaeological sites across Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia.
The most popular mancala variant, Oware, finds two participants playing on a board with two rows of six holes. Players take turns “sowing” seeds by picking up tokens in a given pit and depositing them, one-by-one, in sequence around the board. Fast gameplay is encouraged, as taking one’s time is considered anathema to the spirit of the game.
Mancala’s goal is usually to capture more seeds than one’s rival by counting and calculating strategic moves. But in some cultures, ensuring the game’s longevity is actually more important than winning. Though nothing is left to chance in most variations, mancala is often viewed as a gambling or ritualistic game, with its outcome considered “at least partly fate-determined,” according to Parlett.
“[It] is a game of perfect information, perfect equality, much freedom of significant choice, and hence great skill,” he writes. “The complexity of chess lies in its depth, that of mancala in its length.”
The Game of the Goose
Though not technically an ancient creation, the Game of the Goose warrants inclusion on this list as the earliest commercially produced board game. A race governed purely by chance, the competition involves “not the slightest element of skill or true player interaction towards the winning of stakes,” according to Parlett.
The earliest reference to the Game of the Goose dates to between 1574 and 1587, when Duke Francesco de Medici gifted a game called Gioco dell’Oca to Spain’s Philip II. Per the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, the pastime quickly spread across Europe. As soon as June 1597, one John Wolfe described it as “the newe and most pleasant game of the Goose.” Over the following centuries, various versions emerged, each with its own distinct illustrations and theming.
Though the Game of the Goose’s visual elements varied widely, the basic premise remained the same. Players vied to send their pieces to the center of a coiled, snake-like board, traveling counter-clockwise as guided by dice rolls. Six of the board’s 63 numbered spaces were illustrated with symbols denoting special rules, such as skip ahead to space 12 after landing on space 6, “The Bridge,” or start over entirely upon arriving at space 58, the ominously named “Death” tile. As suggested by the game’s name, images of geese feature heavily on most game boards.
To win—or claim a pot established at the start of the race—a player has to land on space 63 with an exact dice throw. Those who roll higher numbers than needed are forced to retreat back down the track.
“In many ways,” argues Parlett, the Game of the Goose “may be said to usher in that modern period of board-gaming characterized by the introduction of illustrative and thematic elements to what had hitherto been primarily symbolic and mathematical.”
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine’s assistant digital editor, humanities.