Humans are curious creatures and our large brains have given us over to numerous activities that other species do not engage in. Games and logic puzzles are some of the most common ways people chose to entertain themselves and board games have existed for millennia.
Today, board games are played for entertainment purposes, but in ancient times these games often had additional religious significance.
Through this list, we will be examining the precursors to today’s modern games and catch glimpses of how they came to be. Some games are eerily similar to what we play today and help us connect with our ancient ancestors.
Now sit back and let’s explore the best board games of the ancient world!
Table of Contents
🏆 Our Top Picks for Best Board Games of the Ancient World
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Dating back as early as 3100 BCE, Senet was a game played by ancient Egyptians of all social classes although their boards differed greatly. Egyptian aristocracy played on intricately carved boards with beautiful designs and dazzling colors.
Lower classes without many financial resources played on any surface that could be carved upon, from the ground to tables to stone surfaces.
The board consists of a grid of ten squares by three squares, with the rows running parallel to each other. Some squares had special symbols that triggered special events during gameplay.
Players would move by using casting sticks or bones showing how far the player could move. If the player landed on a special square, such as square 27, known as the “waters of chaos”, it would trigger the player to move back to square 15, erasing that player’s progress.
Senet began as a secular game and over time evolved into one with deep religious meaning. The board itself contained a number of religious symbols carved into it and the journey of the players symbolized the journey of the soul into the afterlife.
Royal Game of Ur
Dating from 2600-2400 BCE, the Royal Game of Ur originated in ancient Mesopotamia and was popular for centuries across the Middle East. The game board consists of 20 squares in a configuration of two grids, one four by three squares and the other two by three, connected by a bridge of two squares.
The game was played by rolling knucklebone dice that determined how far a player could move across the board. Some squares on the board were lucky and helped the player retain pieces or be sent back.
Many Senet boards were found in Egypt with variations of the Royal Game of Ur on the back, indicating they were both popular in the ancient world.
Chaturanga is hailed as the ancestor of the modern game of Chess and looking at the board it appears to be true. The pieces resembled the era they were created in, portraying the Gupta Empire’s military with infantry, chariots, cavalry, and battle elephants being represented.
Some figures on the board had specific movements they could make, whereas others were determined by casting sticks. Much is still unknown about how the game worked, but the board was a grid of squares eight by eight, just like modern Chess.
Also known as the “game of the snake,” Mehen is another game that traces its origin to ancient Egypt. In Egyptian religion, Mehen was a snake-like deity that protected Ra as he traveled through the night. The board for Mehen resembles a coiled object, much like a snake.
The rules of the game have been largely lost to time as the game fell out of popularity around 2300 BCE. Historians conjecture that the point of the game was to travel around the coils into the center of the spiral, toward the head of the serpent. It almost appears to be an ancient version of Sorry.
Referred to in English as “Game of Mercenaries,” Ludus was a favorite game of Roman soldiers and many others across that grand empire. Although ancient authors wrote about the game, the exact way to play the game is a bit unclear.
Modern theorists postulate that players moved their pieces across the board and attempted to take over isolated pieces from others. Captured tokens would be collected by the victorious player and held in a special bag of stones or colored glass pieces.
Mahjong or Mah Jongg
Mahjong was developed in China and has since spread around the world. Mahjong is played with a stunning set of 144 tiles with Chinese characters and symbols inscribed on them. Due to the scope of the Chinese diaspora, the game has many regional variations that may confuse new players.
Mahjong is typically played by groups of 4 players and resembles a type of Rummy. Players attempt to assemble groups of the same tiles and connect them with a so-called eye in the middle.
Snakes & Ladders: An Indian Game of Good & Evil
Snakes and Ladders originated in ancient India around 200BCE, under the name Moksha Patam, and is known to the modern world as Chutes and Ladders. Players navigate a board by rolling dice from the bottom to the top by climbing ladders and potentially losing ground by falling down snakes.
The game represents ideas from Hindu religion, highlighting the concepts of dharma and moksha. Later introduced in Victorian England, through the British colonization of the Indian subcontinent, Victorians assigned special meanings to gameplay.
Ladders represented virtues that could elevate someone in the eyes of Victorians, whereas snakes represented vices that could see someone fall from favor.
Backgammon, or Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum
The origins of Backgammon remain shrouded in mystery, however, elements of it can be found in games from across the ancient world, such as The Royal Game of Ur, Nardi, Senet, and Pachisi. The game is also linked to the ancient Roman game ludus duodecim scriptorum or game of twelve markings.
Modern Backgammon seems to originate in England and consists of a board of two sides with twelve long triangles across them. Players’ main goal is to move their pieces or men off the board. Players move their pieces by rolling pairs of dice and the game is famous for its mix of skill and luck in succeeding.
The Aztec game of Patolli (Patole)
Patolli seems to be the game with the highest stakes included in this list. The game was famous in the Aztec empire and was first played by residents of Teotihuacan in 200 BCE. The game then spread across the various iterations of Aztec civilization until the Spanish Conquest around 1521. The game is played by moving pebbles from one end of the cross-shaped board to the other by using drilled beans as dice.
Reports from Spanish missionaries who accompanied the conquistadors say that players would wager material goods even sometimes their own lives on the game. The Aztecs are known for their interest in human sacrifice, so it seems to make sense that even their board games would include it.
Slightly less serious, players could also wager their freedom and essentially sell themselves into slavery by losing.
Go or Weiqi
Go is a classic game of ancient China and is played by placing stones on a board of squares 19×19 across. The goal is to capture enemy squares and thereby conquer the most territory. Go is essentially a precursor to Risk in that players are trying to conquer the known world of the gameboard.
Chess can be viewed as a single battle, but Go features numerous battles of smaller territories on a huge board. In that way, Go resembles an entire war, whereas chess is merely a subsection of a war.
Those who play Go and succeed must have the mind and scope of a general to plan and execute the right moves for domination. The ancient Chinese believed success at Go signaled the players’ aptitude and military prowess, much in the same way that Chess has been viewed by Western nations.
Mancala appears to be the most ancient game on the list and evidence of its existence has been found across the known world. The game (or truly group of games) called Mancala, seem to have many variants but is typified by moving seeds or beans across a board made up of holes carved into a flat surface.
The goal of Mancala is to capture the most tokens by using well-thought-out moves. Even the determination of winning gameplay is different across the many versions of the game.
In the North American variant of Mancala, known simply as Kala, players get a chance to get extra turns, increasing the length of the game and keeping it going longer if played correctly.
One of the most famous versions of Mancala is the Nigerian version called Oware. In this version, players use seeds and sow them into the pits on the board.
Oware can be viewed as a game for diplomats or those who value genteel manners. If one player loses all of their seeds, the opposing player must help them to stay in the game by purposefully making plays to gain them seeds.
We hope you enjoyed our list of the best board games of the ancient world! Through this list, you can see the evolution of ancient games to our modern-day renditions of games of strategy, logic, dice, and entertainment. If you love historical board games, be sure to check out the History of Board Games too!
Have you tried any of the games on this list? Do you know of any other ancient board games that we missed? Are there any games that have a modern analog you love? Drop a comment below and let us know what you think! We’d love to hear from you.
Daniel Roberts is a full-time Fantasy nerd and part-time games enthusiast. As an Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah, he spends most of his time battling Dreadlords and Darkfriends. He combines his love of politics and battle with a passion for strategy games such as Risk and The Resistance. If you seek him at the Tower, invite him over for a game of Snakes and Foxes. It’s time to toss the dice again!