Are you among the tens of millions who play chess or checkers? Do you have great memories of playing Chutes and Ladders as a child? While the games themselves provide hours of challenge and enjoyment, their storied history can be even more fascinating. In Great Board Games of the Ancient World, your expert Tristan Donovan takes you on a journey into thousands of years of ancient cultures and intrigue as you learn how to play (and win!) more than a dozen ancient games in 12 fascinating lessons.
Great Board Games of the Ancient World
Tristan Donovan is a journalist, nonfiction writer, and gaming enthusiast. His books include Replay: The History of Video Games; It’s All a Game: A Short History of Board Games; Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World; and Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle. He also contributed to the Encyclopedia of Video Games and Video Games around the World. He is a member of the judging panel of The Strong National Museum of Play’s World Video Game Hall of Fame and has peer-reviewed papers on video games for the Digital Games Research Association and MIT Press. As a journalist, he has contributed to the BBC, The Times, Eurogamer, and The Guardian, among other outlets.
01: Bearing Off: The Story of Backgammon
During the Third Crusade, the soldiers of France and England had to wait out the winter before they could travel further into the Middle East. What did the men do? They drank and played a gambling game called tables, a game that had been around for almost four millennia by that time. Learn how to play this ancient game—which you know as backgammon—and discover why a 20th-century innovation has made all the difference.
02: Senet: Egypt’s Game of the Afterlife
The 5,000 artifacts discovered in the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamun included magnificent gold statues, iron blades, and four boards for the game senet—a game played by royalty and commoners alike during the entire 3,000-year lifespan of the Egyptian civilization. Discover what historians have learned from the game boards’ hieroglyphs and why senet disappeared so abruptly.
03: Chess: The Evolution of a Strategy Icon
In the waning years of the Indian Gupta Empire, 6th century CE, a board game was developed called chaturanga. This game of tabletop warfare starred the soldiers, elephants, horse riders, and chariots that had helped the Gupta rajas create their kingdom years earlier. Discover how this ancient game of strategy wound its way westward to eventually become the enduringly popular game we know as chess.
04: Chess’s Eastern Cousins: Shogi and Xiangqi
While the westward development of chaturanga into chess is fairly well documented, its eastward route is somewhat murky. Explore a Chinese game called xiangqi, and a Japanese game called shogi. Are these two games of tabletop warfare closer to each other in play than they are to chess? Or do they both have a definite lineage from chaturanga?
05: Go: A Game of Near-Infinite Complexity
In much of the world, chess is considered the ultimate strategy game, with an average of 35 possible moves to choose from in any given situation. But in Eastern Asia, that exalted status belongs to go, with its average of 250 possible next moves. Explore the fascinating play of this unique game that is so easy to learn and so very difficult to master.
06: Sowing Seeds: Africa’s Mancala Family
Mancala might be the most ancient family of games, with mancala-style pits having been dated back to the Neolithic period, more than 7,000 years ago. Learn how to play awari, one of the simplest mancala games, thought to have originated in the area of modern-day Ghana. You’ll also explore the play of one of the most complex, bao, from eastern Africa.
07: Decoding the Past: The Royal Game of Ur
Similar to senet, the Royal Game of Ur was played by people from all walks of life for thousands of years. Although it was eventually cast aside in favor of other games, archaeologists discovered its game boards and, much later, the cuneiform tablet that explained its rules. Learn what we know today about this ancient Sumerian game that has been resurrected from the dead.
08: Pachisi: India’s Iconic Racing Game
In the late 16th century, Akbar the Great of the Mughal Empire built an enormous “game board” on his palace courtyard. While few had ever seen a game at such scale, the cruciform shape was easily recognized as pachisi, a game that had been played for hundreds of years. Discover how the game is played and which of its many variants you might have in your home today.
09: Patolli: The Lost Game of the Aztecs
When the Spanish decided to “save” all Aztec souls by destroying their culture and forcibly converting everyone to Catholicism, the board game known as patolli was lost along with everything else. Consequently, while we know it played a major role in Aztec life, we know very little about the game itself. Learn why the Spanish felt so threatened by patolli that they went to war against it.
10: All in a Row: Men’s Morris to Tic-Tac-Toe
Nine Men’s Morris is a game that dates back at least to the times of the Roman Empire, and in Europe’s Middle Ages it even rivalled chess in popularity. Explore the larger family of games called merels that it belongs to and learn about their historical importance. Chances are the very first game you ever played was a merel—tic-tac-toe.
11: King Me! Alquerque and Checkers
Libro de los Juegos stands as the most important book on board games created during Europe’s Middle Ages. Almost as an afterthought, the book discusses several games it describes as alquerque games. Learn to play one specific alquerque game, uncover its fascinating history, and trace the journey it took to become the game we know today as checkers.
12: Morality Play: Snakes, Ladders, and Geese
Who created the game we know today as snakes and ladders? Was a Hindu saint, a Jain monk, or a different person from the 2nd century BCE? Whoever invented the game, it is unquestionably a game about religion. Sometimes called a playable sermon, the goal of the game is to teach people the correct road to enlightenment and to teach children the difference between right and wrong.