Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ancient Games

by Becky Topol

Monopoly, Clue, Life - these are "classic" games. The ones that we suspect have just existed since the dawn of time, and that everyone we know has played at some point. But none of these even existed before 1903. Today, there are games that are still alive and well after more than 5500 years of play.

King’s Table, also known as The Viking Game, Tafl, Tablut, and Hnefatafl, is an asymmetrical board game. There is some debate as to whether the various games in the tafl (Old Norse for "table" or "board") family may have included dice, but this group of related games consistently have a few things in common: they all included a 2:1 ratio of pieces, with the smaller side aiming to defend a king until it can escape to either the edges or the corner. In our version, one side has twelve soldiers and a king, beginning in a cross formation at the center of the board, and the other consists of 24 soldiers in groups of six around the board’s perimeter. The defender wins by getting the king to “escape” to any of the corner square, while the attacker wins if they can trap the king between two of their pieces. Tafl games spread along with the Vikings, becoming popular with the Welsh, Saxons, and Irish, and its descendants and variants are thought to have been the most popular board games in those regions until they were supplanted by chess. For you Discworld readers out there, this board game inspired Lord Vetinari’s favorite game, Thud!
A tafl game portrayed on the Ockelbo Runestone

Traced back to about 3500 BCE, Senet is an Egyptian game of passing, chasing, and blocking similar to backgammon. Players must throw sticks with two differently-colored sides to determine how many spaces they can move their pieces, and whoever can get all their pawns off the end of the board first is the winner. While many spaces on the board are safe, some of them act as traps, and players can also block their opponent’s movements as in parcheesi. Due to the game’s element of luck and the Egyptian belief in determinism, it was believed by many that if someone did well at Senet, they were favored by important gods. As such, Senet boards were often placed in graves alongside other useful objects to assist the dead in their journey to the afterlife. The game is even mentioned in the famed Book of the Dead.
Queen Nefertari playing Senet

Ur Game, or The Royal Game of Ur, was created in Mesopotamia in about 2600 BCE. The rules for the game were derived from a cuneiform tablet from Babylonia, and the game is believed to be another predecessor of modern backgammon. Rolling tetrahedral dice, players race to get all their pieces off the board first, trying to send their opponent’s pieces back to start and facing the whims of bonus and penalty spaces. Versions of the game board have been found carved into various stone statues and sculptures, including a sentinel statue from the city gates of Khorsabad. This carving was dated to about 700BCE, meaning that the game was still alive and well after nearly 2,000 years of play. 
The Ur board carved into the gate guardian at Khorsabad

These games are all essentially simple, but allow for a mix of luck and strategy that has kept them thriving since near the time society began. Easy to learn but tricky to master, these predecessors to some of the most popular modern games in the world allow you to take a gaming trip back in time.

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