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Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game by famous Greek vase painter Exekias

The surprisingly ancient history of board games

Image: Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game by famous Greek vase painter Exekias | Sergey Goryachev /

From ancient times to the modern day, board games have been a source of entertainment, education and intellectual stimulus for centuries. It was thought that they might fall out of favour with the advent of digital technology, but they’re now more popular than ever. We take a look at the fascinating history of board games.

The ancient origins of board games

The oldest board game that we know about is Senet, which appeared in ancient Egypt approximately 5,000 years ago. The game, apparently popular with varying social classes, is believed to take players on a symbolic journey through the afterlife. Senet sets have been found in burial sites and the game is featured in murals and hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, Senet fell out of favour during Roman times and the rules are no longer known.

Board games also emerged outside of ancient Egypt. One of the earliest examples, unearthed by archaeologists digging amongst the ruins of the city of Ur in modern-day Iraq, was The Royal Game of Ur. Dating from about 3,500 thousand years ago, Ur is a strategy game that’s a bit like backgammon and it continued to be played until the Middle Ages when it fell into obscurity. Interestingly, there was one place where it remained popular - the city of Kochi in India, whose Jewish population carried on playing Ur into the 1950s until they emigrated to Israel.

Far Eastern board games

Around the same time Ur emerged in Iraq, the board game Go appeared in China. A deceptively complex game with a simple set of rules that make it easy to pick up and play but hard to master, Go is a strategy game where the aim for each player is to capture more territory on the board than their opponent. Go is still played to this day and is believed to be the oldest continuously played board game in the world.

Also from Asia came the best-known board game of all time - chess. Originating in India in the 6th century, chess quickly spread to Persia, and from there travelled with merchants, migrants and soldiers west into Europe and east to the Orient. The classic conquest game proved immensely popular wherever it went, and chess - still played around the world 1,600 years later - is the best-selling board game of all time.

Board games in Medieval Europe

Several board games emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages. One that proved especially popular for its educational value was Rithmomachia, or the Battle of Numbers. Dating from the 11th century, the game was similar to chess, but instead of using knights, kings and rooks to capture opponents’ pieces, players used numbered counters instead. The game proved very useful for the teaching of arithmetic; so useful, in fact, that Rithmomachia did not fade into obscurity until the 17th century.

Other games that became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance include Fidchell, an Irish strategy game played with counters, and Hnefatafl, a Norse strategy game that is often called Viking Chess which appeared sometime before 400AD.

Chess, meanwhile, increased in popularity around the world, especially during the Renaissance in Europe, in no small part because its depiction of warfare and emphasis on tactical manoeuvring made it popular amongst the nobility, as well as the growing number of intellectuals and academics. Chess, along with the aforementioned Battle of Numbers, also proved a useful tool when teaching military strategy. Indeed, board games have proven so useful in the field of military strategy that soldiers have even developed their own games, such as those produced by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in the 19th century.

16th and 17th century board games

The most famous game to emerge after the Middle Ages was backgammon. Backgammon appeared in England in the 17th century and descended from the 16th century strategy and chance game Irish, basically a faster-paced backgammon.

The most widely played of all the so-called ‘table games’, backgammon was spread around the world thanks to the expansion of the British Empire. It is now one of the most widely played board games on the planet, with its own international federation that promotes the game worldwide.

Industrial Revolution, mass production and the 20th century

The Industrial Revolution transformed board games. Boards, cards, dice and playing pieces could now be manufactured on a mass scale and sold at a fraction of the price of a handmade board. This meant that more people than ever before could play board games, and both old favourites, such as chess and backgammon, and new games, such as the German strategy game Ringo and the American children’s board game The Mansion of Happiness, grew in popularity as a result.

The 20th century saw the introduction of three of the biggest-selling board games of all time - Monopoly, Scrabble and Cluedo. Based on an early 20th century anti-capitalist board game called The Landlord’s Game, Monopoly was released in both US and UK versions in 1935 and spread quickly around the world thanks to the British Commonwealth. Scrabble, invented by a crossword enthusiast, and Cluedo, invented by a factory worker to relieve his boredom during the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Birmingham, both emerged shortly after the war. All three proved hugely popular and remain so to this day.

Postwar, board games entered a golden age. A huge range of children’s games, such as Mousetrap and Hungry Hungry Hippos, were released and became firm favourites. Fantasy games, such as Germany’s Settlers of Catan, expanded the boundaries of what board games could be, and instant hits, such as Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary, proved that even as technology advanced at astonishing speed, a good, well-designed board game could still attract millions of players.

Board gaming in the 21st century

The biggest challenge to board gaming emerged with the advent of digital technology, in particular from video games and internet entertainment. However, thanks to the emergence of online board gaming communities such as Tabletop Simulator and BoardGameGeek, board games continue to attract new players keen to experience a physical game.

Today, more new board games are released than at any time before, and it’s not just the big publishers controlling what people play. Board gaming has been to some extent wrestled from corporate hands and democratised thanks to websites like KickStarter. Today, if you have a good idea for a board game and can get your idea out there, there’s a very good chance people will chip in and help you turn your dreams into reality. The future of board games - one of mankind’s most enduring ways of entertaining itself - is looking healthy and bright.

Facts About Board Games

  • Snakes and Ladders, one of the most popular board games for children, originated in India and was brought over to Victorian Britain in 1892. Other games that come from the subcontinent include Ludo and Parchis - a race game that became particularly popular in Spain.

  • The largest cash prize in chess history was won in 1992. Retired grandmaster Bobby Fisher was tempted out of retirement for a rematch against the Russian Boris Spassy by a prize pot of $5 million. Fisher won the game, pocketing $3.5 million, while Spassky had to make do with just $1.5 million.

  • To celebrate Scrabble’s 50th anniversary in 1998, a giant replica of the board was set up in Wembley Stadium that covered most of the pitch.

  • The Guinness World Record for most players of Monopoly in a single venue is jointly held by the Rustic Cuff and Addicted 2 Cuffs jewellers from Tulsa, Oklahoma. 733 people played the game, using jewellery to represent the properties on the board.