Game On

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Happy New Year! I’m excited to kick off another year of Museum Bites. In 2017, we made a castle run through Scotland, toured the glittery Kristallwelten in the Austrian Alps, basked in the glow of Las Vegas neon, and took a breathtaking hike atop the Great Wall of China. In the year ahead, we’ll be traveling to fresh places and meeting new faces. We begin 2018 with a trip far back in time when our ancient ancestors whiled away their leisure time playing…board games. Yes, board games! From Queen Nefertiti to marauding Vikings, ancient gamers took perilous journeys through the afterlife, besieged and vanquished their enemies, and made humble offerings to their gaming gods. Board games not only played a significant role in a culture’s pastime, they also provide clues into their lifestyle, values, and beliefs. Join me for a brief look at some of the lesser known games played by the ancients.  We begin with the Egyptians.

Couple Playing Senet, Royal Ontario Museum, Photo by cjverb (2016)
Couple Playing Senet, Royal Ontario Museum, Photo by cjverb (2016)

The Game of Passing:  The ancient Egyptians were mad for Senet, a board game dating back to the pre-Dynastic era over 5,000 years ago. Senet means “passing”, and Egyptians were obsessed with making preparations for passing into the afterlife. Elaborate mummification rituals, The Book of the Dead (a guide to a successful afterlife passage) and building opulent tombs packed with supplies and riches for one’s afterlife were deeply ingrained in ancient Egyptian culture (click on this Museum Bites: The Game of Life post to learn more). It’s no wonder this preoccupation with death carried over to their leisure activities.

Senet Game Board, Royal Ontario Museum, Photo by cjverb (2016)
Senet Game Board, Royal Ontario Museum, Photo by cjverb (2016)

The object of Senet is to be the first to successfully complete the journey through the afterlife. The game board is comprised of 30 squares, four throwing sticks (a precursor to dice) and five to seven game pieces. Instructions are sketchy, but players take turns with the throwing sticks and race to move all their pieces across and off the game board. Various hazards like water and fate-wielding judges are met along the way. But that’s not all, opponents also have the ability to knock one another off the board with a lucky throw of the sticks.

Egyptians rich and poor all played Senet. The wealthy gamed on lavish, inlaid boards while the peasants scratched Senet grids into the dirt. Queen Nefertiti was apparently quite the gamer and commissioned a painting of her playing Senet, on one of her tomb walls. King Tut was also a fan and had not one, but four Senet game boards placed inside his burial chamber. Click on this How to Play Senet video clip to learn this ancient game.

Royal Game of Ur, ©Trustees of the British Museum
Royal Game of Ur, ©Trustees of the British Museum

The Game of Royalty: Like the Egyptians, the ancient Sumerians were buried in extravagant tombs packed with provisions for the afterlife. Burial chambers included lapis lazuli (a Sumerian favorite), gold, weapons, servants and in some cases, the Royal Game of Ur. British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) discovered a wooden game board while excavating the royal cemetery of Sumer. Despite being partially rotted, the game was a delightful discovery. The board is inlaid with lapis lazuli and includes a cleverly designed drawer for storing game pieces. Game boards have also been found in Egypt, India and along the Mediterranean Coast. This is not surprising since the Sumerians developed some of the earliest trade routes. Merchants traveled far and wide to barter for precious goods, and especially to satisfy their population’s lust for lapis lazuli.

A cuneiform tablet containing the Royal Game of Ur instructions was also unearthed, and Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum, recently deciphered it. Like Senet, the object of the game is a race to the finish. Players take turns throwing pyramid-shaped dice and moving game pieces across and off a 20-square board. Obstacles are met along the way and attempts are made to bump off one’s opponent without suffering the same fate. Click on this British Museum video to watch Dr. Finkel challenge YouTuber, Tom Scott, to a Royal Game of Ur.

Patolli Players making offerings to Macuilxochitl, Codex Magliabecchiano, WikiMedia Commons
Patolli Players making offerings to Macuilxochitl, Codex Magliabecchiano, WikiMedia Commons

The Game of Offerings: The Aztecs whiled away their leisure time in heated matches of Patolli, another two-player board game. Opponents raced their counters around a cross-shaped game board using their wits and skill to maneuver all their game pieces over the finish line. Moves were based on a roll of stones or beans sporting varied numbers of dots (ancient dice!). Heavy betting was a key part of the game. Players burned incense and made offerings to Macuilxochitl, the Aztec god of games with the hope of bringing about good luck and fortune. Patolli was played by the young, old, rich and poor. Variations of the game have been discovered throughout Mesoamerica. You too can learn how to play by clicking on this Patolli video clip.

Sketch of Ancient Gamers Playing Petteia, by Wilhelm Richter (1887)
Sketch of Ancient Gamers Playing Petteia, by Wilhelm Richter (1887), WikiMedia Commons

The Game of War:  The ancient Greeks were captivated by the game Petteia, a cross between checkers and chess.  Players move their pieces in rook-like fashion across an 8×8 grid. The object of the game is to methodically eliminate an opponent’s counters by surrounding them with one’s own game pieces. Petteia is featured in the writings of Aristotle and Plato. In the Odyssey, Homer writes of Penelope’s insufferable suitors lounging around and playing Petteia while feasting on her slaughtered livestock.

Amphora by Exekias featuring Ajax and Achilles playing Petteia (c530 BCE) WikiMedia Commons
Amphora by Exekias featuring Ajax and Achilles playing Petteia (c530 BCE) WikiMedia Commons

Ancient amphorae also depict players locked in games of Petteia, most notably, Achilles and Ajax. Greek lore claims the warriors were so engrossed in the game they missed a key battle in the Trojan War. The rules of Petteia were and still are, hotly debated. The Romans had their own version called Latrunculi. Click on this Latrunculi video to sample a quick game.

The Game of Marauders:  Our final board game, the tongue-twisting Hnefatafl, was a favorite among the Vikings. Depending on which side you’re on, the object of the game is to either capture the king or vanquish the rebel scum. One player controls the king and his loyal soldiers, who are stationed at the center of the game board. The opposing player controls the rebels, who are positioned around the edges. In true Viking form, the rebels outnumber the nobles two-to-one. Like Petteia there are no dice, and players navigate their game pieces across the board in a rook-like fashion. Opponents are captured when surrounded by two or more pieces. A winner is declared when the king is apprehended or only one rebel is left remaining on the board. The Hnefatafl game board is unique in that it is comprised of an odd-numbered grid (e.g., 11×11, 13×13).

Hnefatafl, Photo by Andreas Zautner (2015), Wikimedia Commons
Hnefatafl, Photo by Andreas Zautner (2015), Wikimedia Commons

Fetlar, a remote island located off the northern coast of Scotland was once the former stomping grounds of the Vikings. Each year Hnefatafl enthusiasts gather on this sparsely populated isle for the Hnefatafl World Championship. The Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel has also developed a standardized set of Hnefatafl rules. Click on this Hnefatafl link to get a glimpse at this ancient Viking pastime.

Fun Fetlar Fact: According to the, the 2012 Scottish census reported Fetlar’s population had “soared to 79”.

That wraps up our discussion of ancient board games. Next week, we’ll be taking a magical, mythical tour through the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Until then, have a great week!

Sources: On the Rule for the Royal Game of Ur by I. Finkel (2007)

Ancient Origins

BBC: Royal Game of Ur


Britannica: Ur

British Museum

British Museum: The Royal Game of Ur

Fordham University


Richter, W., Die Spiele der Griechen und Römer (1887)

Rome, B.H., Games’ Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Players, Pawns, and Power-ups (2013)


Shenk, D., The Immortal Game: Or How 32 Carved Pieces On a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain (2011)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Spruce

Walker, D.G., An Introduction to Hnefatafl (2015)

YouTube: How to Play Patolli, WikiAudio (2016)

YouTube: Senet – How to Play this Ancient Game by Tarsasoznijo (2013)

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