Play with a Piece of History
The games we enjoy today can often be traced back through time to a predecessor; an ancient game that first introduced the mechanics and rules to the gamers of the past. Chess, Backgammon, Draughts – just about any traditional game in your collection – has evolved over time, the gameplay fine-tuned and matured from a distant, often forgotten relative. Many of these ancient games that preceded and paved the way for our more modern incarnations lasted for centuries, in some cases thousands of years, and that's why they're worth investigating – games generally don’t stand the test of time without being both thought-provoking and entertaining.
It used to be an accepted fact that Senet, the ancient game played by the Egyptians for millennia, was the ancestor of Backgammon. The theory is that Senet led to Duodecim Scripta – a Roman gambling game – and Duodecim Scripta then evolved into the game of Tabula, which certainly is the ancestor of our modern Backgammon. Recent research has however shed doubt on the Senet link, but that's no reason to disregard the 5000 year old game. Senet game boards of 3 x 10 squares have been found extensively in ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. The game was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Game of Thirty Squares or Senet (sometimes spelt Senat) and seems to have been extremely popular. The rules of Senet have been deduced over time by games experts to a reasonable degree and the relatively simple race game is enjoyable for children and adults.
The origin of Chess is somewhat controversial. Whilst the majority of experts agree with the Indian origin theory espoused by the great games historian, H.J.R Murray, there are a few mavericks who argue that it in fact came first from China. Chess first appeared in India earlier than 600AD and was called Chaturanga - meaning 4 limbs, as in the 4 forces of the military: infantry, calvary, elephantry and chariotry. A 4-player version was then extremely popular throughout India around 1000AD, known as Chaturaji (meaning game of 4 kings). There were versions of this game played with and without dice and even today this game makes for a fascinating challenge for the chess aficionado. With origins shrouded in the mystery of ancient Indian history, Chaturanga or Shaturanga is one of the oldest versions of Chess that has ever been found. Indeed it is possible that Chaturanga is the original version of Chess and all the modern two player variants derive from it.
The earliest known Chess pieces were found in Uzbekistan in 1977 and dated with some certainty to around 706 AD. There were 7 ivory pieces: King, General, Elephant, Chariot, Horse & two Soldiers. However, the earliest complete set of pieces was found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In 1831, a local shepherd discovered a small chamber of dry-built stone about 15 feet below the top of a sandbank that had been partially washed away by the sea. Within the chamber were the oldest complete set of chessmen ever found. Most recent evidence suggests the Lewis Chessmen are of Norwegian origin and date back to the twelfth century. Today, the pieces are on display in the British Museum and the Museum of Scotland. They are believed to have been carved between 1150 and 1170 AD.
The ancient game of Hnefatafl (or Scandinavian Chess) is at least 1,500 years old and often thought to have been solely a Viking game, but that's not entirely true. There have been versions of the game found in Iceland, Britain and Ireland. A Latin text written during the reign of King Athelstan (AD 925-40) describes the Saxon form of Hnefatafl which was played in England at the time. It's a fascinating game of unequal forces and different objectives. The attackers aim to surround and kill the enemy King while the defenders must protect their King as he tries to escape to a corner of the board. It's simple to learn but can require deep thought and is a classic game of strategic warfare. Recently, Hnefatafl has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, perhaps fuelled by the game's exposure on the hit TV show, Vikings.
For those of you curious to investigate the world of historical board games further, you could do worse than take a look at Agon, the first hexagonal board game which was invented in the Victorian era, or Surakarta, the roundabouts game which will get your head whirling. And don't forget the grand-daddy of all old board games, the enormously popular Royal Game of Ur. Although no longer considered the oldest board game in the world, it's not too far off at around 4700 years old! Check out this recent video of the game that went viral. It features the epic battle between Tom Scott, the famous vlogger, and Irving Finkel, the inimitable curator at the British Museum.