Getting bored at home? If you’re anything like us, you’ll be missing visiting museums, and learning about history. So why not use some of the extra time on your hands to make (and play!) one of these ancient board games? After all, if there’s one thing we know about at THATMuse, it’s making history into a game.
The history of board games is a long one. The Romans played a wide variety of board games, including Calculi (Roman checkers) and Terni Lapilli (Roman tic-tac-toe). If you’ve been on our Fun and Games Treasure Hunt at the British Museum, you’ll have seen a wonderful statue of a young Roman girl playing with knucklebones, a game a little like Jacks. And there is evidence of much older board games too.
There are many ancient board games, like the Ancient Egyptian Mehen or “serpents game”, whose rules have sadly been lost to time, although we do have records of them being played, and even pieces from game sets.
However, we do know the rules of a handful of ancient or historical games. And recreating them (and then playing!) is a fun activity to do at home while in lockdown.
1) Royal Game of Ur
Also known as “The Game of Twenty Squares”, the Royal Game of Ur is a two-person strategy game. The first records of it come from Ancient Mesopotamia, and it’s thought that it was played as early as 2600 BC. Boards for the game have been found in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and Crete, making it one of the most widespread ancient board games we know about. Four very similar boards were even found in the tomb of Tutankhamun!
British Museum curator Irving Finkel figured out the rules of the game using the gameboards and a Babylonian tablet.
The popularity of the Game of Twenty Squares had largely died out by late antiquity (one theory says that it evolved into modern-day backgammon). But a recognisable form of the game was still being played by the Jewish population of Kochi, in India, when they began emigrating to Israel in the 1950s!
DIY Royal Game of Ur
Want to make your own Royal Game of Ur at home? If you’re feeling ambitious, here’s a helpful tutorial from Instructables for making it out of wood. But you could make a perfectly serviceable version out of cereal boxes or whatever cardboard you have lying around too.
The game of chess is not quite old enough to be classed as an ancient board game. But it has nonetheless been around for a long time. Historians believe the game originated in northwest India in the 6th century AD. The earliest form of chess was a game called chaturaṅga.
From there, the game spread both to the east and west along the Silk Road. The game acquired many of the rules we know today – such as pawns being able to advance two squares on their first move – around 1200 AD, after its arrival in Europe a few centuries earlier.
Want to play chess at home but don’t have a chess set? Well, these days you can easily play online, of course. But somehow that’s not quite the same. If you’re crafty, you could make your own wooden board and pieces, by following a tutorial like this one.
But the good thing about chess is that you could easily make your own board with whatever you have around. First, draw your grid on a piece of cardboard, or even just paper. As for the pieces, as long as you remember what each piece represents, you could use just about anything: coins, lego, buttons, or even bits and pieces from the hardware store.
Senet is the only board game from Ancient Egypt whose rules we know today. Historians have found evidence that it might have been played in Egypt as early as 3100 BC. It certainly existed by around 2600 BC – 4,600 years ago! – and is still played in Egypt today.
The name of the game in Egyptian means “the game of passing”. This could be a literal name, describing the game pieces passing their opponents. But it could also be figurative. By the time of the New Kingdom (16th – 11th century BC) the game was seen as a representation of the journey of the ka (the vital life spark) to the afterlife.
As for making your own Senet game at home, it’s actually pretty simple! This WikiHow tutorial shows you how to make your own Senet Game with just cardboard, papier-mâché, and a bit of artistry, and makes for a fun rainy-day activity to do at home with kids (or without!).
4) Playing Cards
Ok, I must admit that this is a bit of a cheat, as playing cards are neither ancient nor (technically) a board game. But, whether homemade or not, a game of cards is an age-old rainy-day activity.
There’s some debate on when the earliest playing cards were made. Some people believe it was as early as the Tang Dynasty, in 9th century China, thanks to the invention of woodblock printing techniques. There’s also some evidence of a drinking game involving cards that was played in China from the Tang Dynasty onwards. But since these cards were printed with forfeits instead of suits, they’re not generally counted as “playing cards” as we know them.
There were certainly recognisable playing cards in Egypt by the 12th and 13th century, where the oldest surviving playing cards come from.
In Europe, the earliest references to playing cards come from the 14th century, and describe a Moorish game called naib. An almost complete set of 52 cards from around the same time survives today, and though they are still different from modern cards, there are some similarities:
The set consists of four suits, each of which has one card for each of the numbers one to ten, as well as the ranks king, governor, and second governor.
DIY Playing Cards
Though playing cards may not be “ancient”, people have been playing games with cards for the past eight centuries. And a game of cards is still a fun activity you can do at home while you’re in lockdown.
You may well have playing cards already, but if you don’t, no tutorial needed here! Just grab some card, and some pens or paints and get designing. Have fun decorating your Kings, Queens and Jacks (or indeed Kings, Governors and Second Governors) however you like!
Stuck on what games to play once you’ve made your own playing cards? Here’s a list of ten kid-friendly games to get you started.
Bonus: Kottabos, an Ancient Greek Drinking Game
You’ve tired out the kids with a day of making and playing ancient board games. Now it’s time for some adult fun… Ancient Greek style!
The Ancient Greeks were famous for their symposia: big, lavish parties at which men would eat, drink, and play games. Women weren’t invited, apart from slave prostitutes. One game that was often played was known as Kottabos, and involved flinging wine dregs at a target. It was a bit like darts, I suppose – but more fun, and a lot messier.
We don’t want to encourage you to waste precious wine, of course. So if you want to try out this Ancient Greek drinking game, maybe use water, or, like in the video below, diluted grape juice. Also, since unlike the Greeks you don’t have slaves to clean up after you, you might want to play outside!