The first board game in history is the “senet” of Ancient Egypt: what it is and how it was played

The oldest game of which we have news is the senetborn in Egypt towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC and also spread to other Mediterranean territories. It is not known precisely what the rules of the game were, but modern scholars have developed various theories and even proposed one modern version. However, unlike what is often believed, senet it is not the direct progenitor of chess, backgammon and other modern games.

What is senet and what was used to play it

The oldest board game we know of is senet (or senat), which was popular in ancient Egypt. In the Egyptian language, the word senet means “ride” and originally the game had a religious meaningsymbolizing the passage from life to death.

To play they used one chessboard of thirty squares arranged in three columns of ten, 14 pawns (seven for each of the two players), and four cylindrical pieces with two faces of different colors (one white and one black), which had the function of dice. The two players moved the pieces based on the score achieved by throwing the cylindrical pieces, until they all moved off the board.

How to play senet? Kendall’s rules

It is unclear how senet was played in Egypt and probably the rules over the centuries they changed several times. Scholars have proposed different interpretations and an American historian, Youmothy kendallhe even formulated modern rules (largely invented by him and not documented by Egyptian sources).

In Kendall’s version, the object of the game is to get all of your pieces off the board. The movement of the pieces is determined by launching of cylindrical pieceswhich assign a score depending on the combination that comes out: one white face and three black ones give one point; two white ones and two black ones give two points, etc.

At the beginning of the game the pieces are arranged alternately on the first squares. The player moves forward, following a Z-shaped path, based on the score obtained by throwing the cylindrical pieces; if the piece ends up on a square occupied by the opponent, it is forced to move back and take the position of the piece that “attacked” it.

There are also particular situations. For example, two tokens of the same color on two adjacent squares form a wall that the opposing player cannot attack (i.e. he cannot move his token onto one of the two squares).

The origins and spread of senet

The oldest depiction of the senet is found on a fresco of the Hesy’s gravea high official who lived between 2683 and 2613 BC. Scholars, however, believe that the game had already appeared in Egypt at the time of the First Dynasty, around 3100 BC. What is certain is that senet is depicted in several wall paintings and papyrus from the second and first millennium. Archaeologists have also found several intact chessboard specimensthe oldest of which dates back to the years of the Middle Kingdom (roughly between 2000 and 1700 BC).

Senet also spread outside Egypt. It was certainly known on the island of Cyprus and perhaps it also arrived in Mesopotamiagiving rise to the board games played by the civilizations settled in the area: the Ur Royal Gamefirst attested around 2600, and the Game of 20dating back to the second millennium BC The senet, according to the most accredited theories, disappeared after the Roman conquest of Egypt (30 BC).

Chess board from the 14th century BC.  C.

Senet and modern board games

Some scholars believe that senet was the progenitor of all board games played in the ancient world and that, consequently, it had also gave rise to modern games (chess, checkers, backgammon, etc.), derived from those of the ancient world. More recent research has questioned this theory and highlighted that other ancient games, such as repent grammai of the Greeks and the chaturanga of India (direct predecessor of chess), were born independently. Senet therefore cannot be considered the direct antecedent of modern board games. Certainly, however, it is the oldest board game known.

The senet today

In recent times, interest in Egyptian civilization has been rediscover the game of senetwhich is mentioned in various books on Egypt and even appears in some video games set in the time of the Pharaohs, such as Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation of 1999. There are also modern version of the playset, in which generally the cylindrical pieces to determine the score are replaced by dice. Senet can be played also online: Some websites allow you to challenge a human opponent or artificial intelligence.

history of the game of dice