In today's world of 3D movies, intricate video games and complex electronic toys, an evening spent playing board games has become something of a novelty -- a nostalgic moment to tackle the same pastimes our grandparents might have enjoyed back when they were kids.
And having been developed around the middle of the 20th century, that's about as far back as the majority of today's classic board games go. But if you're sitting down to play
one of a handful of genuinely historic board games -- like backgammon, Go, or
chess -- you're following in the footsteps of countless generations. Humans
have been playing board games since the dawn of civilization. Here are some of
the oldest and most celebrated.
The Royal Game of Ur
Is this the oldest board game? - Zzztriple2000 (Wikipedia) It's perhaps not the best of names, but maybe standards were lower around 2600 B.C., which is
when the earliest known example of this board game was made. Discovered in the tombs of the Sumerian monarchs of the Ur dynasty by British Indiana Jones-type Sir Leonard Wooley, the ornate boards were crafted from wood, shell, and red
limestone, and studded with lapis lazuli.
We don't know exactly how the Sumerians played the game, but we have a general idea thanks to a Babylonian cuneiform dating back to around 177 B.C. It was a race game
somewhat similar to more familiar games like Backgammon and Sorry, using seven
pieces per side. Players threw either four-sided dice or knucklebones,
depending on the particular variation of the game.
If you want to see Wooley's find, head for the British Museum in London, where one of the two surviving Ur dynasty boards is on display. Want to play it? Well, if you want
to play with the original, you're probably going to have to pull some serious
Mission Impossible stunt or get a job with the museum. But if that doesn't
appeal, replica sets are widely available. The British Museum has even made a
computerized, online version, and if all else fails, the game is still popular in
modern-day Mesopotamia -- or Iraq, as it's more commonly known.
A game enjoyed by pharaohs. Played by ancient Egyptian civilizations, depictions of the ten-by-three board of Senet appear in hieroglyphs dating back as far as 3100 B.C. Boards have been found amid the burial chambers of pharaohs. Tutankhamen's tomb contained a particularly fine example, preserved today in a Cairo museum.
Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians didn't think to throw in a set of instructions, presumably assuming the resurrected pharaoh would remember how to play. No explanations of how to play Senet survive, although it's thought to have been based on Egyptian ideas of death and the afterlife. Modern scholars and board game fans have attempted to recreate the rules, and again some replica sets are available, but the true mechanics are lost to history.
Backgammon, Medieval style. Although backgammon's unmistakable board is a comparatively recent design, games that follow the same principles have been around for thousands of years. At least five of them, to be exact; evidence from dig sites in Iran indicates a similar game was already widely popular among Bronze Age civilizations around 3000 B.C.
Is that enough to make it the oldest board game of all time? It's a question that remains a matter of some debate, and is unlikely to ever be properly settled. Certainly
Backgammon, Senet, and the Game of Ur are all of similar vintage, and they seem
to share enough common gameplay features to make some wonder if they might be
related, or descended from some older, long-forgotten ancestor.
But backgammon's certainly stood the test of time better than its competition, at least in
Western countries. Modern backgammon variants continue to be popular across
Europe and the Americas, and with the exception of a handful of modern
innovations (like the game's doubling cube, a dice-like marker that allows
players to double their stakes mid-game) they'd probably be a familiar sight to
our very, very distant ancestors.
16th-century Go players. A simple-to-learn game involving nothing more than a grid and a handful of black and white stones, Go is first recorded in Ancient China around 600 B.C. It's mentioned in the works of Confucius a few centuries later, and by about 700 A.D. had spread
from China into Korea and Japan. It remains phenomenally popular in the region,
but Western gamers proved slow to adopt it. Go wouldn't take off in Europe until around the turn of the 20th century.
As well as being one of the oldest games, it's also one of the most complex. Programming a
competent computer Go player is proving remarkably difficult -- much harder than chess or backgammon, for example. At any one time, a chess player might have a choice of 20 or 30 legal moves, but a Go player typically faces hundreds of options every turn. All those
variations make the game a serious challenge for artificial intelligence
programs, and it remains one of the few board games where human grand masters
still have the edge over machines.
Knights Templar playing chess. Though it's often thought of as an ancient game, chess is a comparative newcomer. Chess-like games were first recorded on the Indian subcontinent around 600 A.D., but you'd have to wait another seven centuries before anything resembling modern chess,
with its distinctive playing pieces and moves, would emerge. The dominating strength of the modern queen and bishop pieces, in particular, was originally a
rule variation that wouldn't become popular until the 15th century.
But despite its relative youth, it's still one of the oldest board games to be commonly played -- and chess has its own set of prized historical artifacts. Chief among them
is a set discovered in the 19th century on the Scottish island of Lewis: the
pieces are beautifully carved from walrus ivory, and are thought to have been
created by Norwegian craftsmen around the 12th century. The Lewis chessmen are
considered among the most significant archaeological relics ever found in the
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