Top 10 historical board games
If you’re feeling the need to step away from the screen, here are 10 historical board games from the collection – some of which you can still play today. You can buy replicas of some of the games from our online shop.
1. The Royal Game of Ur
The Royal Game of Ur is the oldest playable boardgame in the world, originating around 4,600 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.
The game’s rules were written on a cuneiform tablet by a Babylonian astronomer in 177 BC. From this, curator Irving Finkel was able to decipher the rules – two players compete to race their pieces from one end of the board to the other. The central squares were also used for fortune telling.
If you want to try the game for yourself, you can buy your very own replica from our online shop here.
Discover how to play this game of speed and strategy with Tom Scott and Irving Finkel in this video:
2. The Lewis Chessmen
These charismatic chess pieces are the Lewis Chessmen – some of the most iconic objects in the Museum.
Made in Scandinavia in the late 12th century, the skilfully carved chess pieces were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland around 1831.
It’s thought they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland, and various stories have emerged to explain why they may have been concealed there.
The chessmen are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of berserkers – fierce mythical warriors.
‘Check’ out all our replica chess sets in our online shop here.
Hear how the Lewis Chessmen are linked to a certain boy wizard in this video:
Wari is a game of calculation and strategy played widely within West Africa and also popular elsewhere in the world – you might know it as mancala.
The aim of the game is to capture the seeds of your opponent, moving them from their six playing holes to your bank.
This game board was made in Sierra Leone and is notable for its elaborate sculptural base. It’s decorated with an animal, possibly a pig.
If you don’t have a game board at home, you can play by drawing two rows of six circles on a piece of paper, with an oval at each end, and use 48 marbles, beads, pebbles, or even sweets as your counters.
Find out how to play with a blog from the spruce crafts here (external link).
Beloved by Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari alike, senet is one of the earliest known board games, dating to around 3100 BC.
The game board comprises 30 squares, laid out in three rows of 10. Two players compete to race all their pieces to the end of the board, using casting sticks or bones, rather than dice, to determine the number of squares moved with each throw.
Some boards, like this one made from a hollowed-out piece of wood faced with ivory, have completely blank squares, whereas others include squares decorated with hieroglyphs representing additional game rules.
On this papyrus, dating to around 1250–1150 BC, a lion plays senet with a gazelle, despite having a bit of trouble holding the pieces.
First played during the Qing dynasty in China (1644–1912), mahjong is a strategy based game played using tiles. They are traditionally decorated with Chinese characters, bamboo branches and dots, and special tiles are indicated with winds, dragons, flowers and seasons. This incomplete set has 140 of the original 144 tiles, which are made from bamboo and bone – each tile weighs just six grams.
It is similar in practice to the card game rummy, and four players draw and discard tiles to complete their hand. The aim of the game is to get all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair.
Mahjong was introduced to the West in the 19th century, and has grown in popularity internationally since. You can find an exquisitely-made mahjong set in our online shop here, and master the game for yourself.
6. The Game of the Goose
The earliest commercially produced board game, the Game of the Goose is a game of chance and luck, involving no strategy at all.
Duke Francesco de Medici first gifted the game, then called Gioco dell’Oca to Philip II of Spain between 1574 and 1587, and the pastime quickly spread in popularity throughout Europe. These examples dating from 1774 to the late 19th century include the rules in French, German and Italian.
The aim of the game is to get your counter to the centre of the board, moving counterclockwise according to rolls of a die. Some spaces are accompanied by special rules – for example, if you land on number 58 you must start the game again, or if you land on number 19 you might pay a forfeit and drink until your next turn. Players must score a perfect 63 to win the game.
To play ‘Game of the Goose’ at home, simply copy or print out any of the versions linked in the captions above, which handily hold all the rules on the board, find two dice, and enjoy!
7. Ajax and Achilles’ game of dice
Made in Athens around 530 BC, this amphora shows Ajax and Achilles – two of the heroes of the Trojan war – playing a board game, possibly with pessi, or dice.
Seven counters or dice are visible on the game board, and Ajax reaches out to pick up one of his pieces for the next throw, as they pass the hours between the fighting.
We can’t be sure what game they were playing, or how the dice were scored, but an equivalent might be backgammon, which involves both counters and dice. It dates back nearly 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, and versions were played in the Byzantine Empire in 5th-century and in 6th-century Persia.
Hear from curator Irving Finkel about the history of board games – including chess and backgammon – in this audio clip.
Curator Victoria Donnellan invites us into the world of Ajax and Achilles’ game in this video:
First brought to Japan from China in the 8th century, sugoroku was originally a complex game played by two people with a pair of dice and fifteen counters each, popular among the Japanese elite.
Affordable woodblock-printed sugoroku sheets were developed in the Edo period (1615–1868), meaning this form of the game – e-sugoroku – meaning ‘picture sugoroku’, could be played widely. It is similar in style to western snakes and ladders, and this 18th-century example uses the hierarchical status system, from merchant to artisan, farmer and warrior in ascending order.
It can be played by two or more people, who advance their pieces according to dice rolls around a clockwise spiral. Each player starts at the ‘merchant’ square, in the bottom right-hand corner, and the goal is to reach the largest square in the centre – ‘daimyo lord’s first arrow shooting of the year’, with a picture of a samurai drawing his bow in the presence of high-ranking courtiers.
Each square is illustrated with a different occupation, including fishmongers, pharmacists, plasterers, priests, doctors and scholars. Print the game out and play it for yourself to see if you can spot them all – you’ll just need dice and some counters to get started.
Pachisi is an Indian game played since at least the 16th century on a board shaped like a symmetrical cross. The aim of the game is to move all four of your pieces around the board before your opponents do, with the central square acting as the start and finish point.
The number of spaces moved on each turn is determined by a throw, traditionally of cowrie shells, and the number of shells which land with their opening upwards dictates the number of spaces moved. In other iterations of the game, shells are replaced by beehive-shaped pieces, like these below.
The name of the game is derived from the Hindi word paccīs, meaning twenty-five – the largest score possible with one throw, where none of the pieces land upside down, and so the game is also known as Twenty Five.
The principles of pachisi were taken to create Ludo – a simplified version of the same game – in England in 1896. Find out more here.
Named after the Egyptian snake god, Mehen was played from around 3000 BC until 2300 BC.
The game board is in the shape of a coiled snake, whose body is divided up into rectangular segments, and teams of up to six players race from the tail to the head and back again, with additional lion-shaped gaming pieces.
The rules and scoring system of Mehen are unknown, but a modern equivalent might be Hyena – a North African game where players race a mother piece along a spiral track from the outside (the village), to the centre (the well), and back. The first to finish wins and releases a hyena, which also travels along the spiral, eating other players’ pieces as it goes!
We hope you enjoyed our rundown of some historic board games – let us know if they’ve cured your boredom and if you’re enjoying playing any by tweeting us @britishmuseum.
Find more great games and perplexing puzzles to challenge your mind in our online shop here.