Chaturanga board

Anthropology: Board Games and Their Evolution Through Time and Space

Introduction

Who doesn’t love board games? The perfect combination of luck and skill that inevitably boils over into an argument. But, even before rulebook debates, board games have been entertaining us. For thousands of years, board games have been developed all over the world. Across civilizations and centuries, board games have been an integral part of society. They inform us about strategy and probability. About how some days the dice are on your side and other days they aren’t. Most people know the big names like Monopoly and dominoes, but there are countless board games that have been lost in time. There are board games that can tell us about the people who used to play them.

Games that we can still play today to get a taste of what life was like when board games were the most popular source of entertainment. We can learn a lot about ourselves from what we like to do for fun. Games like the Egyptian Senet are so old that we’ve lost the rules on how to play them. Games like chess and backgammon evolved from even older games. Newer games like Monopoly and Dungeons and Dragons can teach us about how we view the world by looking at how we escape from it.

This is a look at eight of the most popular board games throughout history, some you might know and love. There are some that you might want to give a shot. Whether you are a board game enthusiast or you only play Candyland to satisfy your kid cousins, you can learn something about life through games.

Egyptian Senet

Ancient senet board
A version of senet that was found by archeologists in Egypt. The specially marked squares are visible on the right. Source: Charles Edwin Wilbour Foundation

Egyptian Senet is the most famous board game from ancient Egypt.  It’s not the only ancient Egyptian board game we know of. There are others like Mehen, named after the snake God that wrapped itself around the Sun, that has a similar concept to Senet and was likely its predecessor. Senet was so popular that dozens of copies of the game have survived in the tombs of various rulers and aristocrats dating back 3500 years ago. The game was so popular that several copies were found in the tomb of Tutankammen. We know that the game was played across Egypt for over 2,000 years, we don’t know exactly how it was played. There are several versions of the rules that have been reconstructed from the archeological evidence discovered in ancient tombs.

From what we know, the game was played by two players on a board with three parallel rows of ten squares, pictured above. Each player gets five to seven pieces, depending on the version of the game, called pawns. It’s a race to get each of your pieces off the board, a race. The movement of pieces is dependent on a dice roll. In ancient Egypt they used either sticks or the six-sided die we know today.

Senet continued

A few of the squares are named after ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife, like the House of Rebirth and the House of Happiness. Those squares have special effects, but for the most part they allow you to take your piece off the board once you roll a certain number. A race to the finish is a concept that is familiar in so many modern board games that it’s easy to see why Senet was so popular in Egypt. You can decide which pieces to move but not how far to move them. The mix of luck and strategy makes for a great game. 

There are countless tombs and temples in Egypt from Pharaohs to powerful families and deities. Here is a great look at five of the most mysterious.

Kolowis Awithlaknannai: The Fighting Serpents

Beautifully adorned fighting serpents board.
A colourful fighting serpent board complete with beads and a hand moving one of the pieces. Source: Bead Game

Kolowis Awithlaknannai is a game that was popularized by the Zuni tribe in what is nowadays New Mexico. The game is thought to be a variation of a game called Alquerque, which was invented in the Middle East and is a bit like checkers. Alquerque was brought to the Americas by the Spanish shortly after the Spanish conquest. Kolowis Awithlaknannai can be translated to  ‘fighting serpents,’ although it is a rough translation. Fighting Serpents is one of the oldest Native American board games that we know of and it tells a bizarre story about how games can travel around the world and how invaders can introduce something that becomes a beloved pastime. 

To learn more about Native American passtimes read this article about dance and its cultural significance in pre-colonial North America.

Hyena Chase

Drawing of hyena chase.
A simplistic drawing of a Hyena Chase board. Source: Medium

The Hyena Chase, or l’ib el merafib, is a racing board game that originated in Sudan. No one knows exactly how old the game is, but a British anthropologist named R. Davies wrote about it in 1925. He was based in Sudan but traveled around Africa and recorded the rules and popularity of a number of different games, the most popular being Hyena Chase. People play Hyena Chase on a spiral board and is similar to Mehen, a precursor to the previously mentioned Senet.

Any number of players can play Hyena Chase and it involves little strategy. Players throw dice, or six marked sticks that act as dice, to control the movement of their pieces. In order to win, a player has to reach the center of the board and return to the beginning. The first player to make it to the center and back then gets to control the hyena. The hyena moves double the amount of a regular piece and if it overtakes another player, then the hyena eats them and they lose the game. Although the premise is simple, the game is an exciting race and R. Davies said it is more engaging than the games they used to play in England. 

Tafl

Tafl board
A tafl board showing how the pieces are arranged with one player’s pieces around the outside and the other’s in the center. Source: Andrea Zauter

The Vikings of Scandinavia are known to have played a predecessor to chess called tafl, or hnefatafl. It’s a war strategy game played by two players, but one side has more pieces. There are different versions of the game with different sized boards and a different number of pieces, but in most versions the side with fewer pieces has a king who begins in the center of the board on the ‘throne’. Historians and archeologists have found Tafl boards of various sizes and styles across Celtic and Nordic countries, some dating back to 400 CE. Tafl went wherever Vikings travelled, including England and as far as Iceland. You can buy tafl boards online today and there are a lot of resources to help you learn how to play.

Chaturanga 

A chaturanga set that is in a museum.
An ancient chaturanga set was discovered in Rajasthan, India. Source: Yanajin33

Chaturanga is arguably the oldest game that resembles chess. The name comes from a Sanskrit epic from India called Mahabharata which describes huge battles between two groups. Archaeologists have found boards and pieces of chaturanga in places like the city of Lothal. Those boards are are thousands of years old. It’s the oldest game that had different pieces with different abilities and had one piece to determine a winner, like the king in chess.

The main difference between the pieces of chaturanga and the pieces in chess is the modern bishop’s piece. In chaturanga it is an elephant in chaturanga and moves only two squares diagonally. The rules are similar to the rules of modern chess and the board was the same size. People likely borrowed the boards from a different, unknown game. Chaturanga’s popularity spread and players eventually adapted it to shatranj in Persia. People then brought shatranj to Europe and adapted it into modern day chess.

Mancala

Mancala board
A numbered, top-down view of a mancala board. Source: Stack Exchange

Mancala, also known as Nim, is another one of the world’s most ancient board games. Archeological evidence shows that the game is around 3600 years old and originates in Sudan and Ghana. Archeologists and anthropologists have found countless mancala boards all around Africa. Much like other ancient board games, there are countless iterations of mancala with slightly varying rules. However, the most popular version of the game uses 48 seeds on a board with 12 holes.

Two players put 4 seeds in each hole. The objective is to collect seeds on your side of the board. To collect seeds on your turn, you take all the seeds from a hole and go counter-clockwise as you place, or ‘sow’, one in each hole leading to your side. Once you reach your side you can collect a seed and the rest of the pile keeps going around the board. There are different rules around when you can move multiple piles, but most involve how many seeds are in the pile.

Mancala is similar to chess because there is no element of luck. Mancala is about strategy and calculation. In the 1940 World Fair, a scientist named Edward Condon designed a computer that could play a perfect game of mancala. Even though the game has existed for thousands of years, it’s still a great game to play on a rainy day or in a bar.

There are so many different games and cultures around the world. If you want to take a look at one country’s cultural relationship with games, read this article.

Dominoes

A dominoes set.
An ancient set of dominoes that shows how the game hasn’t changed in centuries. Source: Museum of Rotterdam

You can use Dominoes, like playing cards, to play countless games. People used the first dominoes in China exactly the same way as playing cards. The word for both is even the same. Experts think that people originally used dominoes to count dice rolls in a dice throwing game that resembles craps. Dominoes were likely first used in the 1200s in China but were also used as early as 1400 in Italy. No one knows whether or not there is a link between Chinese dominoes and Italian dominoes, but people use them in similar ways to play different games. Whether you play Mexican train dominoes or you just like to line them up and watch them fall, dominoes are a staple of tabletop games.

The Landlord’s Game (Monopoly)

A view of the landlord's game.
The Landlord’s Game board. Source: Casual Game Revolution

Ancient board games taught people about the things that were important in their lives. Such as battle strategy in tafl or sowing seeds in mancala. The Landlord’s Game used the same principles as games like Senet and the Hyena Game to teach people about modern day economics. Elizabeth Magie invented The Landlord’s Game. She was from Delaware, U.S.A in 1904. Magie was a feminist and economic activist.

She designed the board game to teach people about the principles of land ownership and taxation, and the consequences of both. Magie successfully published and released the game on her own in 1906.  She tried to sell the patent to Parker Brothers in 1909 but they rejected it because the game was too complicated for consumers. However, in 1935, Parker Brothers released Monopoly. Charles Durrow claimed to have invented Monopoly on his own but Magie managed to prove that she created the game first. Magie then sold her patent on The Landlord’s Game to Parker Brothers that same year for $500. 

Conclusion

Board games have taught people about probability and strategy for thousands of years. Table top simulations of different facets of life. Board games are as old as agriculture and math, they are an integral part of human existence.  Board games have evolved and changed as they travelled around the world over hundreds of years. People adapted chaturanga from a different game to then eventually become chess. Games similar to backgammon like Fighting Serpents travelled from the Middle East to North America. They change as each group of people adapted the rules to make the game more exciting for them.

Whether they were a revolutionary in the US during the 1900s or a child in ancient Egypt, board games have always been a popular pastime. Today we have so many board games with complex premises, like Catan, Mousetrap and Dungeons and Dragons, but you should remember that sometimes the simplest games can be the most exciting.

Board games have a history as long as sports. As the Tokyo Olympics ramp up, read this article to learn more about the history of the Olympic games.


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