When it comes to board games today, the average person first remembers dominoes and cards (less often, chess and checkers). It seems that these games fell from the sky in time immemorial, and before them humanity had not played anything. Of course this is not true. The evolution of board games has been long and difficult, with people going through trial and error to create different gaming systems. Some of them existed for thousands of years and then were lost in the darkness of centuries. Archaeologists find a lot of evidence, descriptions, even details of board games of ancient times. Their story is full of secrets, mysteries, strange coincidences and amazing discoveries.

The first “board game” appeared when there were no tables as such: it was a lot hidden in a fist, or a flat pebble with a marked side. Most legends and myths attribute the invention of gambling to gods and heroes, but, probably, everything happened more prosaically: shamans scattered the bones of sacrificial animals, twigs and pebbles, from which they read the present and predicted the future. History is silent about who first thought of collecting pebbles and pouring them into holes, but it happened somewhere in eastern Africa, in the cradle of civilization.


Mancala is considered the oldest board game. Strictly speaking, there is no game with this name: mancala (distorted Arabic naqala - moving) is a large family of games with moving pebbles. Its history, according to the strictest assumptions, goes back five thousand years, and many scientists give it all seven. Stones with rows of holes carved into them have been found in the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria, in the temples of Memphis, Thebes and Luxor in Egypt, and along caravan routes in the Kalahari Desert (hence another name for the game - kalah). Even in the Cheops pyramid they found such a “board” with a playing field. These games spread widely and have survived to this day. Mancala has been popular among nomadic peoples since ancient times: you don’t need to carry a board and figures with you - just dig a dozen holes in the ground, take a handful of coffee beans, and you can play. Today, almost all the peoples of Africa and Asia have similar games. In West Africa these are oua and ovari, among the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz they are togyz kumalak, and among the Indians they are pallantuji and olinda keliya. The rarest game of this family is the three-row gabata from Ethiopia and Somalia, and the most difficult are the four-row bao and omweso from central Africa. In Germany, a children's version of the game is sold under the name Apfelklau (“Steal an Apple”), in the USSR it was called Kalah. There are many names, the number of rows, holes and stones varies, but the basic principles are similar: you need to occupy a hole that gives you the right to take stones from your opponent, and eventually accumulate more stones for yourself.

In addition to the purely entertaining aspect, such games contain the “genetic” memory of humanity about the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Movement in a circle symbolizes the cyclical nature of the year and the change of seasons, laying out pebbles symbolizes simultaneously sowing grain and harvesting, and empty holes symbolize hunger and shortages. Ancient fortune-telling rituals and the very first counting boards are “hidden” here.

Mancala is fascinating and gives the impression of pure shamanism to the inexperienced observer. It is interesting for both beginners and masters. The rules can be learned in five minutes, but the game itself is not as simple as it might seem: it has special, elusive tactics based on precise calculation. The opponent should not “starve”, and if he loses all the seeds, you need to give him yours to continue the game. A good mancalist cannot be greedy and selfish at all, because in this game the rules “He who wants to receive must learn to give” and “He who sows better will reap more” apply. It’s all about the nuances, every move completely changes the situation on the board, the number of combinations is huge, and analyzing them is an exciting thing. In particular, for this reason, mancala is now recommended by teachers and educators to develop children's attentiveness, counting skills and fine motor skills. Many companies produce this game (there are even versions for four players), but everyone is outshone by the famous carvers of the Republic of Ghana, who make amazingly beautiful game sets.

This game is surrounded by many myths. The Maasai believe that mancala was invented by Sindillo, the first man. In Ghana, the game of owari was part of combat training - before a campaign, warriors played it to test their reaction. And if the king died, the council organized a tournament, and the winner became successor. The same game is mentioned in the Malian epic "Sundyata" of the Mandingo people. And modern Malian students play owari after school.

Burkina Faso hosts regular tournaments between cities. Professional Tanzanian players study bao tactics and strategy as seriously as chess players, and no European has yet beaten even the worst of them. The Yoruba tribe has two varieties of this game: one (abapa or ayoayo) is played by men, the other (nam-nam or simply ayo) is played by women and children.

The name owari is associated with the name of Katakie Opoku Ware I, the king of Ashanti (an ancient state on the territory of modern Ghana), who had the habit of settling family quarrels with the help of a game: after the game, the spouses began to understand each other much better, and the word “warri” in Ghana still since then they call a married person. However, in neighboring Togo there is a warning proverb for ardent gambling addicts: “Owari is the main cause of divorce.” And the king of Ghana, Shunba Balonbobo, loved this game so much that he bequeathed to have himself sculpted in the form of a statue with an owari board on his knees and another on his head as symbols of power and intelligence.

The game was also used in funeral rituals: people entertained the spirit of the deceased until the body was buried. In the village square there were usually two boards - straight and curved, and the villagers chose the one that the deceased did not like, so that his spirit would not want to join them. For the same reason, it was considered dangerous to continue the game after sunset, and the boards were put outside the threshold at night so that the spirits could also play.

Surprisingly, there is no element of luck in this ancient game; everything depends on attention and intelligence. When it comes to games, humanity will not return to this approach anytime soon.


With the emergence of the first large cities, which became the centers of ancient civilization, the first “real” board games with moving chips around the board appeared. Several claim to be the oldest; They all belong to the racing family and are played with dice.

The first, “Chess of Babylon,” an ancient Sumerian game, was discovered in 1927 by the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during excavations of the ancient city-state of Ur in Mesopotamia, on the territory of modern Iraq. There are 20 squares on the game board. They are grouped into two blocks - large and small - connected by a bridge. The board comes with seven chips and dice in the form of tetrahedrons. This royal set is exceptionally beautiful, richly inlaid with plates of mother-of-pearl, red limestone and lapis lazuli, and the complex marking of the fields clearly carries not only an ornamental, but also a semantic meaning. On all the tomb boards there are eight squares marked with rosettes - such eight-petalled flowers were depicted at the entrance to the Ishtar Gate. The pattern of other squares on different boards varied or was missing. History has not preserved the name and rules of this game, so now it is called “The Royal Game from the City of Ur” or simply Ur. There are supposed reconstructions of the rules based on records from later clay tablets, but it is not certain that they apply specifically to this tablet.

It was the era of the first great kingdoms and conquests, which could not but affect the game. The grooves symbolized the river, and the game symbolized a military campaign across this river and returning home with booty. The chips were introduced onto the board, moved across the bridge to a small block, described a loop and returned, and along the way they chopped off the enemy’s chips. The Ur game was also a fortune-telling practice (whether the campaign will be successful or not) and part of the warrior’s initiation ritual - after all, games of the backgammon type develop thinking and reaction, teach you to make quick decisions in a rapidly changing environment and act almost intuitively.


Another contender for the championship is the Egyptian game senet.

In ancient Egypt, senet was the most popular and important game. Senet has been known as a secular entertainment since the 5th Dynasty (about 3500 BC), and in later times it became associated with travel to the other world (the word “senet” means “passing”). Senet is mentioned in Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead and other religious texts of the New Kingdom. The Egyptians believed that after death the soul goes on a journey through the world of the dead, during which a person’s earthly affairs are evaluated. If they are found pure, the soul will merge with the sun god Ra, and the deceased will become immortal. This plot was often depicted by artists. In the fresco from Nefertari's tomb, the queen plays with the invisible forces of the other world. The various stages of the game reflect the soul's journey, and victory symbolizes its union with God.

To understand the essence of such an act, you need to see the world through the eyes of the ancient Egyptians. For them, death was not the end of life - it was a part of life, the same period as childhood, adolescence, and maturity. It is difficult for people of the 21st century to realize that for the Egyptian the game did not just take place under the auspices of the gods, no, the ancient man played directly with the gods. He knew that in the afterlife he would have a magical test, but it was not at all necessary to wait for death: by throwing sticks and moving chips, a person already ensured safe passage of the labyrinths and traps of the afterlife, and due to the inherent element of chance in the game, it was believed that the lucky one the player is under the protection of the gods.

The first discoveries of game sets for senet are among the sensational discoveries of the early 20th century. Then archaeologists discovered, among other things, mysterious palettes and boxes made of stone, wood and ceramics that looked like cosmetic bags. During the New Kingdom era, these sets took the canonical shape of an elongated oblong box, and the counters from turrets and cakes became cones and coils. Pharaohs Amenhotep III and Ramesses III were passionate lovers of senet; several sets of amazingly preserved sets were also discovered in the tomb of the young Tutankhamun. One of them, black and gold, on a stand with legs in the shape of a lion's paws, is an unsurpassed example of late Egyptian art. Senet was widespread in Egypt for three thousand years from the time of the Old Kingdom (2600 BC) to the end of the Roman period (350 AD) and sank into oblivion with the decline of the entire ancient Egyptian civilization. Some of its elements were inherited from the Arabic game tab, played by the Bedouins in Sudan.

The Egyptians did not write down the rules of the games, except that in the papyrus of Ramesses III there is a spell for passing the senet (that's when the first cheat codes appeared!). This knowledge was probably considered something elementary. The manner of Egyptian drawing is such that the images, for all their accuracy, do not allow one to draw conclusions about the moves of the figures, but their number and initial arrangement are clearly visible. There are several reconstructions of the proposed rules.

Senet is played on a 3x10 field. Each player has 5 chips (in ancient sets there were 7); they are placed on the first 10 cells in the top row, alternating coils and cones. In Egyptian, the chips were called Ibau - “dancers”. It's unusual. Most tactical board games operate in military terms, and only the Egyptians based their passage on dance: the cut piece was not removed from the board, but swapped places with the one that chopped. The dice were four flat sticks with a mark on one side - they were tossed and counted how many fell with the clean side up. The sticks were called “fingers” and they even drew lines on them, similar to folds of skin. The maximum number of points rolled under this system was five. The rules of senet boil down to passing the pieces along a route in the form of a reverse “s” and removing them from the board. The five fields at the end of the last row are marked with hieroglyphs; these are “houses”; each of them has special laws.

There is a legend about the origin of Senet. When the sun god Ra learned that the sky goddess Nut cohabited with the earth god Geb at night, he became angry and imposed a curse: from now on Nut could not give birth to children on any of the 360 ​​days of the year. Nut asked the god of wisdom Thoth for help. It was impossible to cancel the curse of Ra, and He decided to get new days. He stopped by to visit Luna and invited her to play senet. They put 1/72 of the “light” of each of the 360 ​​days of the lunar year on the line, and Thoth won five days. Thoth placed these five new days at the end of the year. The power of Ra did not extend to them, and Nut could henceforth give birth to one child on each of the five days before the New Year. On the first day she gave birth to Osiris, on the second - Horus of Bekhdet, on the third - Seth, on the fourth - Isis and on the fifth - Nebethet. This is how the younger gods of the Great Nine appeared, the solar year became 365 days, and the lunar year only 355, while people received a new game and five extra days in the calendar.

Today, senet is popular as an educational game for children, an office accessory and an original gift, and after the TV series “Lost” the general public learned about it (in the 6th season it serves as a plot-forming element, dictating the rules of behavior for the heroes).

Senet is beautiful. It is not as dynamic as backgammon, but more original. The main techniques in this game are chopping and locking, as well as the specific properties of “houses”. As a result, the senet, slow at the beginning, by the middle of the game turns into a gambling “meat grinder”, a frantic dance with the exchange of partners, and in the final - into a race for survival. Much depends on luck: when one of its elements (dice) is multiplied by another (“houses”), then even a completely hopeless position can turn into an unexpected victory.

For a long time it was believed that senet came from the Sumerian game ur, but today many people tend to think that these games have different roots. The Ur game is shorter, the starting tracks in it are divided, the pieces enter the board gradually and describe a loop, and the sockets are at an equal distance from each other. The senet board is one long path, curved for convenience; the pieces are placed on the board before the game begins, and the “houses” are grouped on the “finish line.” Perhaps the ancestor of senet is the game mehen: the field for it also consists of one path - an image of a snake curled into a spiral (the hieroglyph “mhn”, in fact, means “coil”, “spiral”).


This third game, also a “snake” game, like senet, is very old - it was played only during the era of the Egyptian Ancient Kingdom. Its roots are lost in the darkness of pre-dynastic times. The first round limestone boards with spiral markings were discovered in the tombs of the Third Dynasty (2868-2613 BC), and one of the best sets was found in the tomb of Pharaoh Hesu; it included six more lion chips and marbles. On most boards the snake coils counterclockwise, on some it coils clockwise, but the head is always in the center. There are fields of 40 cells, others reach 70, 80 and a larger number of cells - 127 and even 400. In essence, for the gameplay it does not matter how many cells there are on the snake’s body - their number was determined by some other, non-game considerations. Scientists are inclined to believe that the mehen symbolized various aspects in the life of the Egyptians - solar and lunar calendars, a system for calculating favorable days, etc. In general, many ancient games were a cross between fortune telling, astrological forecasting, religious ritual and the game itself in its modern sense.

The rules of mehen have been lost. The reconstruction of the historian and famous game researcher Timothy Kendall is considered the most successful and consistent, but it is also quite confusing. It's safe to say that mehen is the only known multiplayer ancient Egyptian board game: it could be played by up to six players simultaneously. The board came with a set of six lion pieces and a set of traveler pieces. The number of moves was determined by three sticks, and the entry and exit of a chip from the board was regulated by a complex system of accumulating dropped units. The chips moved from the snake's tail to the head and back. The player who reached the finish line received a lion chip - it could eat the “travelers”. The winner was the player whose lion chip ate the most simple chips.

The Egyptians recognized the role of the mehen as no less sacred than that of the senet. Mehen is a protective goddess in the form of a snake who guards Ra's boat as it sails through the night. In images of the solar boat, Mehen encircles the throne of Ra, protecting him from another deity - the evil serpent Apep. Apep is the embodiment of chaos, he seeks to break the cosmic order, while Mehen preserves and protects it. Mehen is the female hypostasis of the god Set (the Egyptians often united their gods and goddesses), and Set is a contradictory character: he is the killer of Osiris, but at the same time the protector of Ra (Aten). He was often depicted as a man with the head of a snake, standing on the bow of Ra's boat with a spear, or as a snake with two heads, ready to repel a threat from any side.

The game symbolized the approach of the soul in the afterlife to the god Ra, approved by his bodyguard. It is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts and the Sarcophagi Texts, in chapter 172 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and was definitely part of the initiation rites. It is possible that mehen was also a fortune-telling practice, and the balls were not so much moved as rolled, because on the early boards there are no fields: the ancients believed that making notches on the divine back meant trying to “kill” the snake, which was regarded as an unkind act. The game disappeared completely from Egypt around 2300 BC, during the early period of the Middle Kingdom, but around the same time mehen begins to be found in Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Crete, as well as in the deserts surrounding Egypt and Nubia. Surprisingly, in some way, mehen has survived to our times in the form of the Moorish game siq and the Sudanese hyena.


And the Sumerian game ur, in a slightly modified form, nevertheless penetrated into Egypt! Around the time of the 17th Dynasty (about 1783-1552 BC), senet boards with short margins of 20 squares on the back began to appear in Egypt. In the works of authoritative game researchers Bell and Murray, this game is called tyau, but David Parlett (game scientist, consultant to the Encyclopedia Britannica, creator of the game “The Hare and the Tortoise”) believes that it was called aseb, and this word is clearly not Egyptian. This was the Second Intermediate Period, the collapse of the Middle Kingdom, the era of slave revolts, schism and anarchy. The nomadic Hyksos tribes invaded from the Middle East, and they probably brought the game of Ur with them: characteristic images of their chariots are found on game sets of those years. At the same time, the game has changed quite a lot and become simpler. Tyau (among the ancient Egyptians it was simply an emotional exclamation like “Hold!”, “Caught!”, “Bingo!” and the like) was popular during the New Kingdom, boards for it were found throughout Egypt, in Sudan, in Crete, and recently (which is quite surprising) they were discovered in the Jewish enclave of the city of Cochin in India. Often it is also called a senet, causing confusion (in the video game Tomb Rider there is a quest where Lara Croft needs to win “the senet”; so, in fact, this is tyau).

Tyau is really similar to the Sumerian Ur: they have 20 cells, separate starting tracks, a narrow “bridge”, a similar arrangement of marked squares, a multiple of four, and the boards are empty at the beginning of the game. There are five chips in tyau, they enter the field from the side paths, the total distance for them is only the middle row of 12 cells. Chips chop each other, and those cut down are reintroduced into the game. If the chip lands on a marked square, the player receives an additional throw.

By this time, the Egyptians began to suspect that sticks were not the best random number generator. It is easy to calculate that most often with the 5xD2 system a two is rolled (6 out of 16 throws), followed by a one and a three (4 out of 16), and 4 and 0 (that is, 5) gives 1 throw out of 16. A new generation of dice has appeared: two “knuckles” modeled after the hoof joints of a cow. They already have 4 significant sides (although two of them are the same), which in total gives 4 combination options. Soon they were replaced by one square stick, like a thick match with numbers on the long sides. It is worth noting that the three “pyramids” of the Sumerian game give the same result.

Both ur and tyau are fraught with a lot of mysteries. They are too beautiful, harmonious and conceptually complete - this is clearly the result of much trial and error. The Sumerians fought a lot, and perhaps the game came to the city of Ur ready-made as a trophy. About fifty boards were found during excavations at Shahri Sukhteh ("Burnt City") in Iraq, and they vary quite a bit. And in 2001, in Iran, in the valley of the Khalil River near the city of Jiroft, the ruins of an ancient city-state from the end of the 3rd millennium BC were found, belonging to a forgotten people whose cultural and ethnic affiliation has not yet been established. There is a version that the Jiroft culture could be the kingdom of Aratta mentioned in Sumerian texts, which competed with Uruk. The inhabitants of these cities were skilled farmers and artisans, but archaeologists did not find any weapons, it was such a peaceful civilization.

The products of Jiroft craftsmen have a unique “intercultural” style. Among them there are flat figurines made of terracotta and chlorite with characteristic markings. Scientists date these playing boards in the shape of eagles and scorpions to 2600 BC. Some palettes have a straight “tail”, others have a bent one, the most ancient boards have not even 20, but only 16 fields and no markings. They most likely played with beads. Is this where the evolution of this game took place? Unfortunately, these excavations were carried out uncontrolled for a long time, museums were flooded with fakes, and the mysteries of Jiroft are still waiting for their researchers.

Surely the ancient Egyptians more than once had the idea of ​​combining the advantages of several games. Confirmation is the “Double Thiau” on the “augmented” board. Only three boards of this type have been found, and all three are different. It looks very much like the first board is just a tyau with a loop for turning around; on the second type of board, players started the game from different ends and moved towards each other, and the third option is designed for four players. Surely these games were made at the request of desperate gamers and turned out to be too cumbersome, and therefore did not gain distribution.


The last game is not as ancient as Senet and Mehen, and did not have any sacred meaning, but it is definitely the most beautiful and certainly the most recognizable of all the games that appeared in ancient Egypt. Its name is lost. Sir William Flinders Petrie, who discovered the first such board, classified it as a "Game of 58 Holes". It is called “Dogs and Jackals” because of the characteristic shape of the chips, shen - after the hieroglyph written near the finish line, as well as the “Shield” and “Palm” games, since a palm tree was drawn on a board shaped like a shield. The game appeared during the IX Dynasty (2135-1986 BC) and by the XII Dynasty it had gained such popularity that the Egyptians began to take it with them into the “afterlife.” Many chips and fragments of boards were found during excavations in Egypt, in Syria, in the city of Ur, in the ruins of the ancient city of Gezer in modern Israel, in Susa in Iran and in adjacent territories.

The board has two tracks and many fields. A board of 58 squares would have turned out to be huge, and the ancient players found a solution that was brilliant in its simplicity: make holes instead of squares and play with thin sticks. The shape of the field was different. Sumerian boards resemble the sole of a shoe, Coptic boards resemble a stepped “brick,” Egyptian boards resemble a shield, and Hebrew boards resemble a violin. Perhaps the Egyptians did not decorate any game with such love as shen. The Theban set from the tomb of Princess Renhisenheb (Middle Kingdom, 1810-1700 BC) is simply mesmerizing. In terms of the complexity of its design, the grace of its lines and the subtlety of its finishing, it is similar to a musical instrument. Ancient craftsmen spent a long time cutting and bending wood and bone to achieve such elegant forms. The features are also very finely crafted: these characteristic heads of fold-eared Egyptian hounds and the “heraldic” sharp muzzles of jackals with huge erect ears have become models for copying today. It was this find that served as the model for the props in the 1956 Oscar-winning film “The 10 Commandments,” in which Pharaoh Sethi and Princess Nefertari play such a game.

One can only guess by what rules the ancient Egyptians played it, but there are marks, lines and even inscriptions on the field that direct the movement of the chips. The races took place around an “oasis” with a palm tree, and the first player whose chip reached the finish line (where they drew the eye of a snake or the hieroglyph “shen” - “closed circle” or “eternity”) captured the source of water. The curvature of the penalty and bonus tracks was intended to represent snakes and lizards.

The dog and the jackal meant a lot in the culture and religion of ancient Egypt, personifying the border of two worlds. A dog is a friend, a watchman, an animal of the day, its barking is a signaling system for communicating with people. The jackal is its complete opposite: a trickster, a thief, lives in the desert, hunts at night, and his high and loud howl resembles the cry of a child. The dog is simple-minded, the jackal is a cunning and pretender. The dog is promiscuous, jackals mate for life. At the same time, they interbreed well. Anubis, the Egyptian patron god of the dead, was depicted as a man with the head of a jackal, and his wife Input, the goddess of the Duat (the place of residence of the dead), was depicted as a woman with the head of a dog. Their daughter, Kebhet, was the goddess of clean, cool water, and was depicted as a golden snake or a woman with the head of a snake (hence the snakes on the playing field).

Anubis was the son of Osiris and his sister Nebethet; the story of his birth, loss, being in a basket among the reeds and adoption by the goddess Isis deserves a separate story (later it will serve as the reason for the adoption of another, very famous Egyptian baby). Anubis was always considered a noble god, because death in Egypt was also considered a sublime phenomenon. Before the advent of the cult of Osiris, he was the main deity of the West, a guide of souls through the Kingdom of the Dead. Anubis weighed the heart of the deceased on the Scales of Truth, and then laid his hands on the mummy, turning the deceased pharaoh into “ah” (“enlightened”), and he came to life. He was a god on the edge, a trickster god, at the same time a guardian of graves and a patron of thieves and merchants. You couldn't laugh at him, but you could make fun of him - he would have appreciated it. The Greeks identified him with Hermes. When the Ptolemies ruled Egypt, they calmly combined their Hermes with the Egyptian Anubis and got... Hermanubis.

If senet was the game of Thoth, the god of wisdom, and mehen was the game of Seth, then “Dogs and Jackals” were the domain of the Egyptian trickster, the dog-headed god, one in two forms. This was the easiest, most fun and harmless game of Ancient Egypt: the paths of the players do not intersect, and the pieces chop each other in an unusual and funny way - as soon as the player reaches the oasis, the last piece of his opponent is removed from the board. The one who brings the most chips to the finish line wins. For some reason, it seems that this game was not serious - the players were fooling around, making jokes and calling them “lazy dogs” and “cunning jackals.” Who got there? Who was cut down? It’s just Input and Anubis having fun: they are united, but our reward is cool water from their beloved daughter Kebkhet.

Well, as the game ages, it’s not so simple. There are almost 60 holes on the board, and this number was important in Egyptian astronomy: it correlates with both the Sun and the Moon, as well as Sirius, and therefore with the change of seasons and the floods of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians considered the number 60 sacred and the god Anubis was named after him (Anu). Such an intriguing coincidence may shed light on the origins of this game, which turned out to be not so commonplace. Who knows, perhaps shen will one day appear before us as the most ancient of all games, dating back to the first astronomical calendars.

And the young states of Greece and Rome were already preparing to enter the scene, adding new milestones in the development of board games.