In just the last few years, board games have been steadily skyrocketing in popularity. The trend can’t be denied and is evidenced by a quick Google search or a glance at the proliferation of board game cafes worldwide. In 2012, The Guardian claimed that we are now living in “A Golden Age of Boardgames,” citing an annual growth in the market of over 40% each year.
Widespread interest in board gaming and the surrounding culture can surely be credited to the internet, which has empowered fan pages, mass market sales, and even crowdfunded creations. This is apparent in the statistics of Kickstarter, where board games are one of the most-funded categories of crowdfunded projects. YouTube is complicit in this “board game renaissance,” with series like Will Wheaton’s Table Top sparking a renewed enthusiasm in gaming.
The recent rise of the popularity of board games — and tabletop gaming in general — got us thinking about the origins of this leisure activity.
- What was the first board game?
- When did people start playing board games?
- What kinds of games have people played through the ages (and around the world)?
As you’ll quickly learn, I am a huge history nerd and love looking at the historical precedents of ideas. Welcome to my history/board game nerdgasm. I hope you have fun with this exploratory look at the history of board games — and hopefully learn something too!
Prehistoric Board Games
Board Gaming in Ancient Times
Merriment in the Medieval Period
Linguistics FTW: A Look at Language
Board Games in the Enlightenment and Beyond
Board Games in the Twentieth Century
The Stone Age Had Stones, So Probably Board Games Too
The board game market today is filled with a wide variety of games: strategy, roleplaying, chance, trivia, educational, abstract, etc. The list goes on and on. The increasingly popular hobby of playing games is not a new phenomenon. People have been playing board games since the Stone Age (or perhaps earlier) as humans started living together in groups, the natural desire for entertainment and competition inevitably produced the first games of skill, strategy, and chance.
The pastime goes back millennia and has been shaped by culture and tradition, evolving through the ages and appearing in many manifestations throughout human history. As you gather around your table for your weekly gaming session with friends or family, let’s take a quick look back into history to see where some of our favorite games have their origins.
Games have existed since before written history! Do you know that dice was very first game ever played? Dice is a very simple game, with a variety of rules and variations, that could be made of wood, bones, or stones.
Sophocles claimed that Palamedes invented dice in about 1400BC and, sure enough, cubical stones and clay dice have been found from this period with numbers on their faces. In truth, dice were developed independently by many ancient cultures around the world — and long before that!
Archeologists found board games dating as far back as the Stone Age. A series of 49 small carved painted stones were found at the 5,000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey. These are the earliest gaming pieces ever found. Similar pieces have been found in Syria and Iraq and to point to board games originating in the Fertile Crescent.
In case you didn’t know, the Fertile Crescent, also known as “The Cradle of Civilization,” is located in the Middle East where the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers created the optimum conditions in which the earliest foundations of cities, learning, and development were able to flourish.
Other early dice games were created by painting a single side of flat sticks. These sticks would be tossed in unison, the painted sides showing were counted, constituting the player’s “roll”. Mesopotamian dice were made from a variety of materials, including carved knuckle bones, wood, painted stones, and turtle shells.
Due to the scarcity of historical documentation, it’s hard to say which games were truly the first to be played, but archaeology has turned up clues that can give us a general idea of the earliest games in human history.
- The Royal Game of Ur
- Snakes and Ladders
- Backgammon, or Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum
- Ludus Latrunculorum
Backgammon originated in ancient Persia over 5,000 years ago. Chess, Pachisi, and Chaupar originated in India. Go and Liubo originated in China. Shax originated in Somalia. Bao (mancala game) is still played throughout eastern Africa. Patolli originated in Mesoamerica played by the ancient Aztec and The Royal Game of Ur was found in the Royal Tombs of Ur, dating to Mesopotamia around 4,600 years ago.
The ancient Royal Game Of Ur is probably the oldest board game (with a board) in the world. This game is at least 4,500 years old and was played in the Middle East by the Sumerians. It is a basic race game (similar to Backgammon) with very simple rules, but perhaps unsurprisingly, can have extremely complex strategic mechanics.
British Museum historian, Irving Finkle, spent years researching this enigmatic game and was finally able to decipher the rules. It can be played accurately now and looks like quite a lot of fun! Check out the British Museum official playthrough here:
Egyptians played a board game called Senet (Senat or Sen’t), which was an ancestor of Backgammon. It is not known how the game was played exactly but popular conjecture has deduced some generic rules to allow us, modern folks, to give it a try.
Senet is a race game, similar to the Royal Game of Ur and Backgammon. The board was divided into squares with counters. Players would throw sticks rather than dice. Senet was pictured in a fresco found in Merknera’s tomb (3300–2700 BC).
Also from predynastic Egypt is a game called Mehen. The first evidence of the game Mehen is as old as 3,000 BC. It was very popular during the Old Kingdom and remained in popular use throughout many dynasties. Mehen was played on a board which looks like a snail shell at first glance but actually represents a snake. The most detailed playing pieces were shaped like lions. The set of pieces included three to six game bits and a few small marbles.
Snakes and Ladders originated in India as a morality-based game, where the progression up the board was to teach children about good and evil, with climbing up ladders representing good and sliding down snakes representing evil.
During the British occupation of India, the game found its way to the West where it was modified and rebranded as “Chutes and Ladders” in the United States in 1943 by Milton Bradley.
Mah Jongg or (Mahjong) is another ancient game that continues to be played today, despite being about 4000 years old! As a closely guarded secret of the Chinese aristocracy, it only emerged in popularity in the West in the 20th century.
The current version of the game – a four-player game played with tiles on a board – came from China in the 1920s, and has many similarities with the card game Rummy. Mahjong is usually played by four people, in which tiles bearing various designs are drawn and discarded until one player has an entire hand of winning combinations.
The Romans played a game called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (‘the Twelve Line game’ or the ‘game of twelve markings’), which was similar to modern Backgammon. The Roman Emperor Claudius was said to be a very avid player of Tabula, a predecessor to the game of Backgammon.
Although we know the Romans were fond of this game, it predates even the Roman Republic by about 1500 years.
Recently, archaeologists in Colchester in the United Kingdom unearthed a remarkably well-preserved board game called Latruncui or Ludus Latrunculorum (‘the game of brigands’). It has references as early as Homer’s time (12th century BC) and is said to resemble chess.
This game had already been discovered in pieces and parts throughout the Roman Empire (and in excerpts from Latin literature) but never in full or set up for play as it was found in Colchester.
They excavated the complete game of 12×10 squares with 24 glass pieces, 12 of white and 12 of blue. Due to limited sources, reconstruction of the game’s rules is difficult but is generally accepted to be a game of military tactics. Game historians are still arguing about the mechanism of play in this archaic ancestor of strategic games.
Examples of Ancient Board Games
Merriment in the Medieval Period: If people were playing board games, these were NOT the “Dark Ages”
- Mancala – in Africa
- Nine Men’s Morris
- Fox & Geese
- Pachisi / Ludo – in India
- Game of the Goose
In the early medieval period, wealthy Saxon nobles played games similar to our concept of Chess. Historians are not certain where or when Chess was invented, but popular conjecture places its invention in India in the 6th or 7th century AD (or possibly earlier). The game’s popularity eventually led to it being played in Europe by the 10th century.
The Vikings played a board game called Hnefatafl (‘king’s table’). Hnefatafl and the many variants of Tafl that go by different names is a game where one player’s objective is to guide the white king to an escape square, while black’s is to surround and capture him (black plays without a king). The pieces move orthogonally, like rooks in chess, and capture is by surrounding a piece on two opposite sides.
It is, in essence, an abstract game which depicts a very specific war scenario with unequal sides. It is very similar to chess, as an abstract military strategy game, but has been criticized for its slow-moving offense and lopsided power between the participants.
Evidence of Mancala games have been found by archaeologists in Aksumite Ethiopia in Matara (now in Eritrea) and Yeha (in Ethiopia), dating back to between 500 and 700 AD. The word mancala is derived from the Arabic word naqala, which means “to move.” It is thought that Mancala was originally played with seeds or stones and holes dug into the dirt, which makes sense when you think of how the placement of the tokens into the holes mimics the act of sowing seeds into the earth.
In agrarian civilizations, it is reasonable to assume that many games stemmed from what people did most often. Whether, farming, warfare, or hunting, it goes to show that people play what they know! Many variations of the game exist, and evidence of Mancala boards have been found in Egyptian pyramids, Saharan ruins, and Neolithic settlements in modern-day Kenya.
By the way, a good example of a modern ‘mancala’ game is Five Tribes. (Awesome game, definitely worth adding to your collection.)
Archaeology has been extremely helpful in enlightening us about the board games of the past. Even as recently as August 2018, archaeologists discovered a medieval board game in a secret castle crypt in Russia! A hidden chamber in Vyborg Castle, which dates back to the 13th century, contained a brick that had a grid-like pattern etched into its surface, prior to being baked.
The game played on the brick is actually very well known, and it dates back to the Roman Empire. It goes by several names, including Mill, Merrills, and Cowboy Checkers, and it’s very reminiscent of Nine Men’s Morris—a game, which like Checkers and Chess, involves intersecting squares and small pieces, called “men,” that are engaged in combat.
In Tudor England, the upper classes played board games like Chess and Backgammon (a backgammon set was found on the wreck of the Mary Rose, identical to the modern version).
The Tudors were also known to have played Checkers (Draughts) and Fox & Geese. Possibly a relative of Hnefatafl, Fox & Geese dates back to the 14th century in Britain and is a simple strategy game for two players, where the fox attempts to eliminate the geese, while they try to trap him.
Fox & Geese is played by one player moving the fox while the other controls the gaggle of geese. The fox can jump over and capture the geese one at a time so long as there is a vacant space beyond. The geese try to push the fox into a corner while avoiding being eaten. The fox wins if he captures all the geese; the geese if they can trap the fox.
The game remained popular into the 17th century when new rules to the game were introduced, making it popular during the English Civil War. Later, more militarily-oriented games evolving from Fox & Geese appeared during the Napoleonic Wars of the 18th century.
Pachisi (Parcheesi, Parchisi, Parchisi, Parchesi; also known as Twenty-Five) is the National Game of India. The name comes from the Indian word “pacis” which means twenty-five, the highest score you could throw in the game.
The Indian Emperor Akbar I of the Mogul Empire in the 16th century is thought to have played Chaupar with human pieces on great courts constructed of inlaid marble. He would sit on a platform in the center of the court and throw the cowry shells. On the red and white squares around him, 16 women from the harem, dressed in corresponding colors, would move around according to his directions.
Pachisi boards as played in the street are often constructed of cloth, 6 cowry shells are thrown to determine the moves and the counters are made of wood in a beehive shape. Pachisi is a ‘Cross and Circle’ game, variations of which appear all over the world.
The origins of Pachisi and Chaupar are lost in time but uncertain evidence indicates that forms of the game were in existence in the Indian region from at least the 4th century AD. Both have hardly changed since Emperor Akbar played.
Game of the Goose holds the record for being the first modern commercial board game. It is connected with ancient spiral race games like the Egyptian Mehen, and to artifacts like the Phaistos Disc of the Minoans.
The game is a simple race game governed only by the throw of dice – the game pieces (often in the shape of Geese) move from the outside of the spiral towards the middle. Invented in Italy as early as 1500, Game of the Goose (‘Gioco dell’Oca’) was given by Francesco de Medici (1574-1587) as a present to King Phillip of Spain.
Though more a gambling game of pure amusement, adaptations of the Game of the Goose appeared with an educational purpose, teaching the players about geography, history, and morals. Its influence lasted well into the 20th century, where similar race games were tied in with popular culture and current events.
Games were not limited to the Old World though. There is evidence for games being a popular pastime (at least among the nobles and elites) in the New World too! For example, there are drawings in the Codex Magliabecchiano of the Aztec god Macuilxochitl overseeing a game known as Patolli.
Patolli was played by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish arrival in Mexico. It was a gambling game and is recorded as having been played by nobles for high stakes such as precious stones and gold beads.
Patolli (or patole) was a race game on a cross-shaped board. Pieces raced around the board according to the throws of five beans, which were marked on one side and plain on the other. Complete rules for the game have not survived, but board game historian R. C. Bell proposed a plausible reconstruction for them.
Examples of Medieval Board Games
The English word for “game” has not changed much in the centuries of linguistic development that the Indoeuropean languages have undergone. Even looking back as far as the third century, the word in Gothic, “gamen,” is still recognizable to the modern reader.
Traditional games such as Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, and Dominoes continued in popularity throughout the European Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. With the invention of the printing press, new varieties of games emerged, like games with themes and subjects.
Agon (or Queen’s Guard, Queen’s Guards, Royal Guards) is a strategy game for two players, played on a 6×6×6 hexagonal game board.
Agon may be the oldest board game played on a hexagonally-celled board, first appearing in France as early as the late eighteenth century. The game reached its greatest popularity a century later when the Victorians embraced it for its blend of simple rules and complex strategy.
Conspirateurs (Conspirators) is a two- or four-player strategy board game probably invented in 18th century France. It perhaps dates after 1789 from the French Revolutionary Wars, “a period of feverish political activity with factions conspiring against each other”.
Conspirateurs resembles Halma, Ugolki, Chinese Checkers, and Salta in that pieces jump without capturing over friendly or enemy pieces to help race to their destinations.
Ko Shogi (‘broad chess’) is a large-board variant of shogi or Japanese chess. The game dates back to the turn of the 18th century and is based on xiangqi and go as well as shogi. Credit for its invention has been given to Confucian scholar Ogyū Sorai.
Tori Shogo (‘bird chess’) is a variant of shogi (Japanese chess), which was invented by Toyota Genryu in 1799 despite being traditionally attributed to his master Ōhashi Sōei. It was first published in 1828.
The game is played on a 7×7 board and uses the drop rule; it is the only traditional shogi variant to do so. This is one of the more popular shogi variants whose popularity has continued to the modern day! There were even tournaments in London and Royston in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Halma (from the Greek word meaning “jump”) is a strategy board game invented in 1883 by George Howard Monks, a US thoracic surgeon at Harvard Medical School.
The game board is checkered and divided into 16×16 squares. Pieces may be small checkers or counters, or wooden or plastic cones or men resembling small chess pawns. Piece colors are typically black and white for two-player games, and various colors or other distinction in games for four players.
Ugolki is a variation of Halma that is typically played on an 8×8 grid board with 16 game pieces per player. It is said to have been invented in Europe in the late 18th century.
Due to its simplicity of rules and complexity of strategy, it’s clear that chess has lasted the test of time. London hosted the first international chess tournament in 1851.
Examples of Enlightenment Board Games
The 20th century is where we see the invention of more recognizable games, such as Scrabble, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, the Game of Life, Cluedo (Clue), Sorry, Civilization, Candyland, and Pictionary. These games were probably a staple in your home growing up and most likely the cause of your love (or extreme hatred) of board games today.
The Origins of Monopoly
One of the most well-known board games was invented in America in 1903 by a woman named Lizzie Magie. Called The Landlord’s Game, and was played on a square board which had various ‘properties’ around the outside that players could buy for differing amounts. It also had a jail, railroads, utilities… sound familiar?
Lizzie wanted to highlight how rent charges made property owners rich while keeping the tenants poor and prepare children for the unfairness of adult life. LOL. So now we know why Monopoly is the root of all domestic strife.
Board gaming is now a full-fledged industry with professional gamers, web shows, RPG web series, YouTube tutorials and playthroughs, indie games making history with record-breaking crowdfunding, and festivals dedicated solely to board games.
The market is constantly growing with companies specializing in board game accessories, shelving, storage, protective cases, mobile app scoring systems, and musical scores!
Not bad when you consider we only had sticks, stones, and a few knucklebones around 7,000 years ago.
Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something deeply comforting about the continuities of the human experience, especially positive ones, that show humanity at its most accessible. Our ancient ancestors may have differed from us in many ways, but we still have the commonality of board gaming that links us, helping us understand the peoples of the past.
We are all part of the same community, through the ages, who have enjoyed board games, still play variations of ancient games, and will continue to compete, strategize, socialize, and cooperate in the future, through the wonderful, adaptable, and timeless medium of board games.
What do you think? Do you know the history of your favorite board game? Which games would you like to try? Drop us a comment below and happy gaming!