Saturday, 30 June 2012

History of the Bored: Being Board Back in B.C.

Hey there, we’re a pair of gay gamers from the land of Kangaroos, and today we’ve got the first of our posts on ye board games of olde.

Long ago, when Gods were believed to roam the earth, when philosophy and mathematics were in their first golden age, when statues of inconceivable grandeur were built, and when men pulled each other’s brains out through their noses after death….people were bored. Very bored. Building pyramids and harvesting crops gets old after a while, and sometimes there isn’t even a civil war to keep you entertained. So, the bored Egyptians invented the first board games. Back then, sadly, this was not a pun, until the Proto-Germans in their great wisdom chose to make the two words somewhat similar (buron and burdam), a great linguistic development which I like to believe was not a coincidence but in fact a product of proto-germanic enlightenment about the relationship between the two concepts.

There is much debate as to exactly what is the oldest board game of all time.  The two contenders for the prize are the game Senet, from Egypt and the Royal Game of Ur from…well, from Ur actually, which is located in modern day Iraq.


An Original Senet Set. Photo not From Egyptian Timez

Senet is a seriously ancient board game. Archaeologists found it in tombs from the First Egyptian Dynasty – dating 3500B.C - 1500 years before anyone tasted a peach and a whopping 5200 years before mankind was gifted the grapefruit.  Since then, it’s popped up in tombs all over the place, and apparently was a great hit in Egypt, particularly among the dead.  The rules of Senet are not known, but what we do know is Senet is a race game, where players roll….roll…something….to get their five pawns to jump like lemmings off the edge of the board before their opponent. Senet was essentially a game of luck, but the Egyptians didn’t believe in luck, they believed ALL FATE was written by the mighty gods. Therefore, the winner of a game of Senet was not just a champion of chance, but CHOSEN by the power of THOTH, RA, and OSIRIS to TRIUMPH. The victor was considered to be under their patronage. Which is a good thing, because you wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of three guys who cut things to tiny pieces, doll out eternal punishments, and generally hold all the secrets of the universe. The game apparently made it as far as Crete and Cyprus, but since no one there really went for the whole Gods-with-animal-heads thing, they played it just for the kicks.

The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur lookin' pretty royal

The Royal Game of Ur is was around from at least 2500 B.C, but it may be as old as 5500 B.C, if it were named and claimed by Ur not long after the city itself was established. In a naming conundrum almost as bad as “Die Fugger” (quite a decent game from Adlung-Spiele), it seems that the Royal Game of Ur was indeed not a royal game but was in fact more widely played by commoners who, often too poor to afford a set, scratched boards out on bits of stone (reminds me of the Chinese chess set I made out of paper in English class.) The rules of the RGoU are handily transcribed on a 175 B.C. stone tablet from Babylon (when the literacy rate had probably increased from 0.00000001% to 0.0000001%).

Rules in Easy To Read Format

It is a race game, much like Senet, or how we think Senet was played. But wait, there’s an added demonic twist. A player can take his opponents pieces and remove them from the board, unless they have landed on a safe space. With seven pieces, it’s possible for one lucky player to occupy all the safe spaces and screw over his opponent utterly. Tactical play in 2500 B.C? Awesome.

Who Wins?

Like so many things in history, we don’t actually know for sure which game is the oldest. But the true winner in modern eyes is Senet, which has a BBG rating of 5.86, beating the Royal Game of Ur which scored only 5.47. It’s nice to know that even though these games were invented thousands of years ago we can still evaluate them online next to Puerto Rico and Memoir 44. The internet, they say, cares not for carbon dating.

What in the Weird?

Another very ancient Egyptian game was Mehen, which dates back to 3000 B.C. Mehen was played on a board depicting a coiled snake which is cut into segments – but not every board is divided into the same number. It is also played with 3 lion or lioness tokens per player, and 6 round marbley things. None of the components actually fit neatly within the segments of the snake. 

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what on earth the rules were?

Because all I can imagine is a group of Egyptians burying the thing especially for archaeologists to find and sniggering smugly to themselves.

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