The first board games

Games have been played since the dawn of civilization some ten Ihousand years ago. The earliest writings regularly refer to games similar in concept to tic-tac-toe. As a society progressed, so did the complexity of its games.

Irving Fi like I of the Western Asiatic Antiquities Department at (he British Museum is an expert on the earliest board games:

There are different schools of thought on the origins of games. Some people think that they came out of divination practice. The apparatus for divination —dice and ritual boards—may have later been used for entertainment. Others think it was the other way around. In 1923, when Sir Leonard Wool ley excavated the royal graves at Ur in Mesopotamia, he discovered five sets of a game played around 3000 to 2600 b.c. This game has become known as the Royal Game of Ur and it is usually quoted as the earliest known. It was a ferocious gambling game. Some insight as to how it was played can be gleaned from a detailed inscription within the tombs. Around this time there was a belief that the deceased must play the game with one of the underworld deities to guarantee safe passage into the afterlife. The inscription concentrates on betting strategy—presumably advice to the dead king from the game's contemporary experts.

Play was similar to modern ludo or backgammon, with pieces being moved into, along, and off the board according to the throw of pyramid-shaped dice. A fine example is on exhibit at the Museum.

According to Dr. Finkel, more recent archaeological discoveries in Palestine and Jordan may make the Royal Game of Ur a relative newcomer. Game boards have been found that can be dated back to Neolithic times, some 4000 years before the Royal Game of Ur. "At that time," he says, "we had large urban conglomerations of people with controlled livestock, domesticated plants and animals. There was specialization of labor. And there was obviously, in daily life, room for amusements."

In 19B9, Gary Rollefson of San Diego State University discovered a stone game board at Ain Ghazal, Jordan. This and other similar discoveries have been dated to between 7000 and 6000 B.C. Though we cannot be certain of their purpose, there is strong evidence to suggest they are game boards. Their layout is very similar to the traditional seed-sowing game of mancala, which is popular to this day across Africa. If these tablets were indeed used for recreation, Middle Eastern civilizations had developed board-type games before they could write or even make pottery.


The ancient ancestor of chess was an Arabic game called sha-tranj. It was popular in Baghdad by the eighth century a.d., but its origins can be traced back as far as 350 b.c. Shatranj was a slow-moving game in which the queen and bishop had much less freedom of movement than their modern counterparts; nonetheless it was recognizably chess.

The ancestry of shatranj spanned two continents and -

appropriately for a war game-was a by-product of a military campaign. The bloodline may be traced back more than 2000 years to ancient Greece. In his Politics, Aristotle mentions a group of classical board games called petteia. 'These were battle games that demanded skill, logic, and reason, not simply the fortuitous throw of a die. In the Republic, Plato compares victims of Socrates' debating skill with "weak petteia players . . . cornered and rendered unable to move." In about 330 b.c. Alexander (lie Great invaded Persia and marched on toward Asia Minor and India. Along the way he founded Hellenic colonies in which (he Greeks continued their passion for petteia. At the same lime India had a battle game of its own. It shared its Sanskrit name, chaturanga, meaning "four divisions," with the Indian army. The divisions in question were elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry, all mobilized in the game by throws of dice.

It did not take long for chaturanga, the Indian war game of chance, to meet and marry petteia, the Greek game of reason. The effect of petteia on chaturanga was to eliminate the dice, and from this collision of cultures, chess —Greek thought expressed in Indian language — was born. The Muslim Arabs adopted it, and translated the Indian chaturanga into the Arabic shatranj.

Via the squares on a chessboard- the Indians expiain the movement of time and the age, the higher influences which control the world and the ties which link chess with the human soul.

—The Arabian historian Al-Masudi, writing In a.d, 947

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