Ancient Board Games
Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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I recently did a Geeklist on the tafl family of games. These are, generally speaking, medieval games rather than ancient in the proper sense of the word, although it is thought the talf games may have been played as early as c.400 C.E. in Northern Europe. Yet, I am frankly more interested in ancient than medieval history and culture; although I chose to pursue an academic career in physics, I can originally intended to study ancient history. This is therefore intended to be a Geeklist of ancient games known to have been played before the start of the common era which we can actually identify. I am using the link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Board_game as a major source but will likely supplment this with additional information. The format followed is alphabetical rather than chronoligcal for easy reference and to avoid duplications, but I will attempt to include an approximate year for the earliest known specimen.

I am excluding from this list things that are not properly board games like knucklebones and darts.

N.B.:

I was originally going to include Snakes and Ladders but according to information I found on-line the Indian government states even the traditional Indian game is quite modern, being credited to a 16th century sage Hindus regard as a saint. The source of the opinion forces me to give it credence, but so many other sources refer to this as an ancient game-- even being pictured as being placed on a modified Ashtapada in some cases-- that I do not wish to completely ignore the opinion. The BGG entry for example gives a year of c.200 B.C.E. Therefore, I am including here the entry I would have posted and soliciting firm evidence on the matter from others who know certainly.
Quote:
This Indian game is called Moksha-Patamu and is a Hindu morality-teaching game. According to http://www.rediff.com/india60/2007/aug/24fact.htm:
Quote:
In Moksha-Patamu, the squares of virtue are faith (12), reliability (51), generosity (57), knowledge (76), asceticism (78), while the squares of evil are disobedience (41), vanity (44), vulgarity (49), theft (52), lying (58), drunkenness (62), debt (69), murder (73), rage (84), greed (92), pride (95) and lust (99). The last square (100) represents Nirvana.

A report in The Hindu newspaper talks of yet another version of the game called Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam. Again, both rebirth and morality have a role to play in the game. The snakes represent death, while the ladders represent life.

The game has 132 squares, with a different picture on each square. They denote either a living creature or a human quality. Once the player reaches the second last square, he has to have the patience to wait for the right number to fall so that he can finally reach home.
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1. Board Game: Alquerque [Average Rating:5.69 Overall Rank:8279]
 
Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.1400 B.C.E. from a tomb in Egypt [19th dynasty]

One of 4 games found but Mancala is already listed.

Most discussions of this game refer to the earliest reference as being in the book of games by spain's king Alfonso X, but while that arguably presents the modern form of the game, the game is far more ancient.
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2. Board Game: Ashtapada [Average Rating:5.00 Unranked]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.400-300 B.C.E. in India

Notably Indian Chess sets are said to thisday to use the Ashtapada which properly refers to the board pictured. The gmae that was played on this board-- whatever that was exactly we do not know-- is mentioned in the text Vinayapitaka as something which good converts to Bhuddism should avoid. Perhaps this is the reason the game was lost.
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3. Board Game: Backgammon [Average Rating:6.52 Overall Rank:917]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.3000 B.C.E. in "the Burnt City" in Iran

The game is classically called Nard. The same word was used in much the same reason to refer to a plant from which the ancients extracted some aromatic spice of the same name which we cannot in the modern era reproduce. Of course, it was often said to stink quite badly and so maybe no one wants to do so, but the question is how the game got the name. [No, saying the game "stinks" is a purely modern figure of speech and so that's out.]
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4. Board Game: Duodecim Scriptorum [Average Rating:5.47 Unranked]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c. 1 B.C.E.-8 C.E. in Rome

Ovid refers to this and "the smaller Merels" [perhaps Six Men's Morris which I have ommitted from this list due only to a lack of certainty] in his Ars Amatoria. [See even Ovid thought one could impress a lover with a board game!]
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5. Board Game: Go [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:71]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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548 B.C.E. China

Earliest written references to Wei Qi or Go in Zuo Zhuan. Unfortunately someone is just referred to as liking the game rather than the text giving copious details.
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6. Board Game: Hounds and Jackals: Game of the Pharaohs [Average Rating:4.39 Unranked]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.1800 B.C.E. in Egypt [12th Dynasty]

The rules are lost to us but those proposed by Bell are given at http://www.gamecabinet.com/history/DogsAndJackals.html.
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7. Board Game: Liubo [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.1500 B.C.E. from China

This is one where we know what the game IS but we're not sure entirely how it was played.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liubo.
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8. Board Game: Mancala [Average Rating:5.84 Overall Rank:3071]
Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.5870 B.C.E. A Manacala game or at least Mancala-like has been found in Jordan at Ain Gazal.

The game has been found in numerous other places as well of course, but this is to date the earliest certain example according to the information I've been able to find.
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9. Board Game: Mehen [Average Rating:5.35 Unranked]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.3000 B.C.E. from pre-dynastic Egypt.

It used to be thought this was not really a board game in the proper sense but some sort of religious ritual. Tomb paintings ow incline archaeologists and historians to think otherwise.
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10. Board Game: Nine Men's Morris [Average Rating:5.31 Overall Rank:10836]
Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.1400 B.C.E. from a tomb in Egypt [19th dynasty]

One of 4 games found but Mancala is already listed.

The more ancient name of this game is Merels-- along with variations on that name.
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11. Board Game: Pachisi [Average Rating:4.45 Overall Rank:11149]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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c.500 B.C.E. in India

The earliest textual reference known to Chaturaji or Pachisi in the Mahabharata
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12. Board Game: Petteia [Average Rating:6.42 Unranked]
Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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116-27 B.C.E. Rome

Varro mentions the game in his Lingua Latina X (II par. 20)
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13. Board Game: The Royal Game of Ur [Average Rating:5.46 Overall Rank:9944]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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c.2560 B.C.E. in Ur

Since we don't known what the ancients called it, we named it after where it was found.
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14. Board Game: Senet [Average Rating:5.91 Overall Rank:4504] [Average Rating:5.91 Unranked]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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c.3500 B.C.E. from predynastic Egypt

This is often found in tombs including that of Merknera. Let's face it; if you go to the afterlife without a board game, you're going to be bored.
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15. Board Game: Snakes and Ladders [Average Rating:2.77 Overall Rank:11166]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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16. Board Game: Three Men's Morris [Average Rating:4.42 Overall Rank:10325]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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c.1400 B.C.E. from a tomb in Egypt [19th dynasty]

One of 4 games found but Mancala is already listed.
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17. Board Game: Xiangqi [Average Rating:7.18 Overall Rank:693]
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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79-8 B.C.E. in China

Liu Xiang refers to the game in his Shuo yuan.

What I personally find most fascinating about this is that I had always understood this game, like Chess, to ultimately derive from the Indian game Chaturanga. Yet, that game is-- so far as I can determine-- only attested from c.600 C.E. The earliest form of Shogi is also much later than this. Does this mean that Xiangqi is the most ancient member of the chess family? Yet nowhere have I ever seen a reputable historian claim as much.
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