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It’s Your Move!

Libi Astaire

There’s no better cure for boredom than board games, which have been entertaining royalty and ordinary people alike for thousands of years

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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GAME ON! One might think that moving plastic pieces around a cardboard board wouldn’t be able to compete with the fast-paced, interactive world found online. Yet sales of board games have been steadily increasing during the past decade, and there are even trendy cafés where people gather to play their favorite games or try new ones

T he white queen has been captured. The wheat harbor is blocked. And Colonel Mustard is lying in a heap in the library, with a knife in his heart.

No, these aren’t the latest news headlines, proclaiming a world gone mad. Nor is this a nightmare from which you’re desperately trying to wake up. The culprits for all the chaos can be found in a cupboard in your home, because we’re talking about board games, of course!

Games like chess have entertained people for thousands of years. But every generation has its new favorite, whether it’s Clue or the Settlers of Catan. What’s the appeal, and what separates the winners from the duds? Place your maker on the starting line — which in this case is Egypt, circa 3000 BCE — and find out.

The Never-Ending Game

Long before there were selfies, cameras, or even portraits painted on canvas, there were tomb paintings. In Egypt, where no self-respecting pharaoh or queen would have a tomb with bare walls, the paintings sometimes depicted the pastimes the ruler enjoyed during his or her earthly life — and which the person hoped to continue doing for eternity, after death. Of interest to board game enthusiasts is a painting in the tomb of Queen Nefertari, who died in 1255 BCE, which shows her seated at a table and playing Senet, one of the earliest board games in history.

Senet had been around for about 1,800 years before Nefertari was born. What accounted for its enduring popularity, and why would anyone want to play it for eternity? Sadly, though there are paintings of the game, and archaeologists even found a gaming board and pieces belonging to Pharaoh Amenhotep III intact and ready for play, no one thought to paint the rules on tomb walls. We therefore don’t know what made this game so intriguing.

We do know that the Senet board was comprised of three rows with ten squares each. The two players each had at least five pawns to move about the board. Was the game therefore similar to checkers (that’s draughts, to board game players from England), which can trace its lineage back to Ur circa 3000 BCE and was mentioned by the Greek poet Homer? We’ll probably never know.

Another ancient game, the Royal Game of Ur, circa 2650 BCE, has had more luck. In this board game, each side has seven markers that move around the board — one side is black, the other is white — and there are four four-sided dice, which are in the shape of a pyramid and determine how far the player can move. (Yes, dice have been rolling for thousands of years; they even predate board games, making them the earliest of games.)


We know how to play the Royal Game of Ur thanks to Dr. Irving Finkel, who spotted the rules on a cuneiform tablet of Babylonian origin dating from 177–176 BCE. Of course, the cuneiform script used by ancient Sumerians would be Greek to most of us. But in addition to being a board-game enthusiast, Dr. Finkel is the British Museum’s curator in charge of cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia. Therefore, deciphering ancient tablets is part of his job.

Dr. Finkel also discovered that a version of the game is still played in India, making this the longest-running board game in history. By talking to modern-day players, he was able to better understand the rules, and through video demonstrations he’s shown that even today it’s still an exciting game. But like most games, its popularity didn’t last forever; its fortunes dimmed when backgammon, another ancient board game that dates back to the Egyptians, became the favorite during Roman times. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 556)

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