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Great Board Games of the Ancient World

Learn the fascinating origins of some of the world’s most beloved games of luck and strategy with an expert on gaming history.
Great Board Games of the Ancient World is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 5.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Worst of the dozens of courses I have purchased I wish I could rate this course zero stars, because it was so dreadful. There was one aspect of this course that I would rate as good: the typically excellent selection of photographs to illustrate historical artifacts. But the animated graphics that are used to demonstrate game rules/play are amateurish in the extreme. The instructor — the most important element of any course — was truly awful. Besides his apparent inability to pronounce English (despite presumably being a native speaker of the English language), his presentation was utterly flat and expressionless, obviously just reading from a teleprompter. Some excellent instructors get by with no hand gestures at all (John McWhorter comes to mind), but this fellow was apparently coached to *do something* with his hands, and he performed the same repetitive, meaningless hand gestures throughout every minute of the lectures. I’ve read some reviews where the reviewer lambasted the production because of camera angles, or set dressing, or other (to them) annoying features, and I usually roll my eyes and ask “yes but what about the *content*, and what about the *instructor*? To me, those are the aspects of a course that *really* matter. Those things are what make this particular course so awful. The topic seemed so promising. The execution was so disappointing.
Date published: 2022-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Historical Information! I was particularly fascinated by how the 'rook' in chess acquired its name: From the game's beginnings in India as one of practicing military strategy, the piece was in the shape of a chariot, which, when the game reached Persia, acquired the Persian name for 'chariot': 'rokh'. By the time chess reached Europe via Islamic Spain, the militarily outdated chariot was replaced by a siege tower but retained its name, hence our 'rook'. Incidentally, the original name for chess is still retained in its name in the Arabic-speaking world: 'chatarang'. As for backgammon, with a history going back 5,000 years, the fact that the Romans called it 'tabula', in time becoming 'tables', was of great interest to me because the game of backgammon in Arabic is 'towla', which is itself a word for 'table' in Arabic - 'table', in the sense of the item of furniture.
Date published: 2022-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of good history While I don't really play board games much anymore, it was fascinating to see where so many games originated and how old they actually are. Who knew I've played a game that originated on the other side of the planet that was created so long ago. Loved it.
Date published: 2022-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unusual topic but fascinating Firstly, the Great Courses should be applauded for taking a punt on something that initially seems a bit off the beaten track. But you don't need to be an avid board gamer to get a lot out of this course. Each lecture takes one or two historically influential games and looks at their invention, development, flourishing and, in several cases, eventual demise. Along the way the presenter highlights the importance of situating the games in their social context and how game historians often have to tease out facts from ambiguous archeological and literary clues. The visuals are first class, and the presenter is clear and unhurried in his delivery (although some of his pronunciation of names is, shall we say, idiosyncratic.) The rules of many of the games are presented, accurately but by necessity rather briefly; but at the least they allow the viewer to decide whether that particular game is worth pursuing further as a potential player. But even if you are not interested in actually playing the games yourself, this course gives a fresh, unusual approach to many cultural, historical, and religious topics. Recommended.
Date published: 2022-07-18
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Overview

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.

About

Tristan Donovan

The games of our ancestors help us to understand how they lived and how they saw the world around them. Board games are a window on our past, a time capsule providing insights into long-lost civilizations.

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.

By This Expert

Great Board Games of the Ancient World
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Great Board Games of the Ancient World

Trailer

Bearing Off: The Story of Backgammon

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.

32 min
Senet: Egypt’s Game of the Afterlife

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.

32 min
Chess: The Evolution of a Strategy Icon

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.

33 min
Chess’s Eastern Cousins: Shogi and Xiangqi

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?

34 min
Go: A Game of Near-Infinite Complexity

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.

33 min
Sowing Seeds: Africa’s Mancala Family

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.

33 min
Decoding the Past: The Royal Game of Ur

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.

28 min
Pachisi: India’s Iconic Racing Game

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.

31 min
Patolli: The Lost Game of the Aztecs

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.

30 min
All in a Row: Men’s Morris to Tic-Tac-Toe

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.

31 min
King Me! Alquerque and Checkers

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.

31 min
Morality Play: Snakes, Ladders, and Geese

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.

33 min