Board games in the ancient world

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Today I’m thinking about ancient world board games, for a couple of reasons. The first is that one such game, Senet, features quite prominently in my work-in-progress novel. This has the provisional title Scenes from a Life and, all being well, I hope to get that out into the wide world sometime next year. That story starts in Egypt, in and around the town now called Luxor but at the time Waset. It ends… well, you’ll have to wait and see! But along the way the game of Senet features quite prominently, both as a recreational pursuit and as a metaphor of progress and disappointment.

Senet is the Egyptian game about which we know most detail, since we have numerous preserved boards as well as pictures in tombs. But there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. We don’t exactly know the rules used in play, but there are more profound unanswered questions as well. Was it just a game? Or did people see deeper religious meanings in it? Could it have had a similar range of uses as a deck of cards today, which can be used for simple recreation, for gambling at both low and high stakes, for fortune telling, and a multitude of uses in between? So we know most about Senet – but there were others, with varying mixtures of chance versus skill factors. Sometimes we come across skilfully made, purpose-built boards, but other times we have found just rough hand-sketched outlines. The British Museum has one such, on the side of a large Assyrian bull figure – see http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/colossal_winged_bull.aspx. Other boards have been found roughly cut into stone in the ancient city of Petra, though in this case it is not clear what game is intended.

The second reason for thinking about this today has to do with one of my other interests, namely writing mobile and tablet apps. Under the banner DataScenes Development, the games of Senet and Aseb (also known as the Royal Game of Ur) are already on the various app stores – Apple, Google, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Search for them by name for whatever phone or tablet you have! Currently under development is Seega, a game which many people think is the ancestor of several games in Greece, Rome, and Europe all the way up to the Viking north. Development is going well on that, and the game now plays through successfully on my phone… though with a rather dismal computer strategy which gets bogged down about half way through the game! Keep watching this space…

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