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A Brief History of the Ancient and Medieval Board Games of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

By Jeffrey Duff

As is true of cultures today, even the most ancient civilizations entertained themselves with card and board games involving luck or skill (or both).

Focusing on board games, even going back as far as 4,000 B.C. (and probably earlier), the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures had board games that were mainly educational (such as the oldest known board game: 'Senet' from Egypt), or were about racing ('The Royal Game of Ur' from Mesopotamia), or were focused on combat tactics and strategy (the oldest known being 'Petteia' from Greece - or perhaps Egypt?).

 


This tomb painting is of Queen Nefertari of Egypt playing the board game Senet (from approximately 1250 B.C.). Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY.


STRATEGY GAMES

One of the oldest board games in the world, from which a wide variety of tactics and strategy games (including the Viking 'Tafl' games and checkers/draughts) apparently evolved, was called by the ancient Greeks, 'Petteia'. Petteia is a fairly simple game of strategy and was the most popular game of strategy throughout the Greek Empire and well beyond. It seems to have been invented around 600 B.C., either by the Greeks, or more likely, the Egyptians.

But, around 200 B.C., it was modified within the Roman Empire by the introduction to Petteia of a more powerful game piece, that the Romans called the Dux. ("Dux" later evolved into our modern word, "Duke", which was a Roman term for a leader). They renamed the game as 'Ludus Latrunculorum' (meaning the "Game of Brigands", or most commonly, the "Game of Small Soldiers"). It supplanted Petteia as the most popular board game of skill, throughout the era of the Roman Empire and well beyond it.

Then, about a century after the fall of Rome in 451 A.D., the Norse - Vikings of Scandinavia began their climb as a prominent European people. With their rise in prominence, the Vikings brought along their culture. The Vikings had recently (550-600 A.D.?) developed several more challenging variations of of the Roman Empire's favorite strategy board game, Ludus Latrunculorum. As a group, these new Viking board games that evolved from Ludus are now known as the 'Tafl' (Old Norse for "table") family of games. The tafl games evolved with variations based on the cultures of different areas of northern and western Europe. Among the eight known variations of Viking-era tafl games were these five popular ones, with their likely cultural and geographical area of origin: 'Ard Ri' (Celtic: Scotland - Ireland), 'Alea Evangelii' (Anglo-Saxon: England), 'Brandubh' (Celtic: Ireland), 'Hnefatafl' (Viking: Norway - Denmark - Iceland) and 'Tablut' (Viking: Sweden - Finland - Sami/Lapland). The Viking - designed tafl games were Europe's most popular strategy games until about 1200 A.D. and the rapid spread northward of the Indian and Middle Eastern game we now call Chess.

Hnefatafl
Brandubh
Tablut

 

Chess had little in common with Petteia, Ludus Latrunculorum or the Tafl Games, so had the advantage of being ‘new and fresh’ (to use modern terminology). In the 1200s, Chess supplanted the Viking tafl games as the most popular strategy game in Europe and the Middle East, and probably remains so today.

To summarize:
(1) In 500 B.C. in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, you were one of the ‘Cool Kids’ if you knew how to play Petteia;

(2) in 100 B.C. in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, you were one of the ‘Cool Kids’ if you knew how to play Ludus Latrunculorum;

(3) in 600 A.D. in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, you were one of the ‘Cool Kids’ if you knew how to play one of the Tafl family of games;

(4) in 1250 A.D. in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, you were one of the ‘Cool Kids’ if you knew how to play Chess.

The game of Checkers (in Europe called "Draughts") - and it's numerous variants, such as 'Fox and Geese' and 'Alquerque' - has also been a strong competitor as the most popular strategy game of Europe and the Middle East, at least since the heyday of the Vikings (and before?).

RACING GAMES

The Indian sub-continent (and soon the Middle East) was the home of 'Pachisi', which became known by a variety of names and variations in the West: parcheesi, ludo, Aggravation and Sorry!(c). Mancala, backgammon, halma and Chinese checkers are other European and Middle Eastern variations of table-top racing games. The hundreds of variations and the long history of racing games - which date back to Mesopotamia 'Royal Game of Ur' of 3,000 B.C. (and probably many centuries before that) - renders it impossible to cover most of the racing games in this short history.

EDUCATIONAL GAMES

SenetIn the category of teaching games is the oldest known board game in history, the ancient Egyptian game of 'Senet'. Senet is known to have been played around 3,500 B.C. (and probably well before that) and it combined a game of religious education and a racing game. It may have been a very interesting game for those long-ago believers in ancient Egyptian religion and multiple gods, but modern players generally find Senet to be a slow and rather dull racing board game.

In common with racing games, there have been hundreds of board games that have been modified for religious and secular education, for both children and adults. For a well-known example, 'Moksha Patam' is an ancient Indian game that was originally designed to educate children in the basic tenets of the Hindu religion and morality. Then, it was borrowed and adapted by the British in 1892, under the name 'Snakes and Ladders', to be an enjoyable children's game that also provided a secular education in Victorian British morality. Finally, it was adopted and modified (in 1943) in the United States as today's popular game, 'Chutes and Ladders', which is popular as children's recreation (with just a bit of secular morality thrown in). Just as with racing board games, the number of education-oriented games is too extensive to try to cover in this brief history of board games.

This has been a brief history of European and Middle Eastern board games and is not meant to be a comprehensive study of the subject. Jeffrey Duff is the founder and developer of ForeverFamilyGames Company of Fennimore, WI USA.
Jeffrey Duff can be contacted directly at: ForeverFamilyGames@gmail.com
His games can be purchased at: www.etsy.com/shop/ForeverFamilyGames