Time Pieces History Project Item 65: The Board Game

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the board game.

The Board Game – Introduction to Item 65

The UK version of the board game MonopolyI love a good board game. We used to get a couple of new ones every Christmas, a tradition my dad still observes whenever he sees something he thinks we’ll enjoy. There’s nothing better than sitting around the table, trying to put each other off and laughing like drains. We often play creative games like Absolute Balderdash, where you have to trick the other players, so we spend more time working out who’s made up which answer than actually trying to guess the right one.

My older cousins used to visit my grandparents’ house every weekend, and we used to spend a lot of time playing games which belonged to our parents. We liked to play Colditz – where you’re a WW2 POW and have to escape the camp – but it took ages. None of us ever wanted to be the Nazis, either, so Grandma always had to be the baddies.

We played Go for Broke, which is notable for being the only game my brother has never won, despite 20+ years of playing, and the frankly weird Masterpiece, where you had to persuade people to buy fraudulent works of art. I wasn’t very good at that, as I couldn’t read big numbers.

My brother also went through an obsession with Monopoly, and we played it every night for six months, returning to it after dinner each evening. The whole family is competitive, so playing a board game with us can get a bit cutthroat. It’s always fun, though, so if you have a good game, let me know! 

The History of The Board Game

5,000 years ago, our prehistoric ancestors invented dice games – 49 carved and painted stones have been found in southeast Turkey, at the Başur Höyük burial mound, suggesting that games predate language. They weren’t strictly dice as we know them today, but served a similar purpose. The Mesopotamians made theirs from turtle shells, wood and knuckle bones, and they were often stick-shaped.

In Ur in Iraq, dice, along with a board and counters, were found that have been dated to around 3,000 BC. By the time of the Romans, many dice were six-sided, and made from a range of materials. The Egyptian game Senet featured sticks and a board divided into squares.

They also had a game which Egyptologist Howard Carter nicknamed ‘hounds and jackals.’ Featuring a board with 58 An ivory game board on legs. It is filled with little holes for dog and jackal-headed pegs to move aroundholes and sticks with hound and jackal heads, each player attempts to move all their sticks along the board first.

While board games were originally played by royalty in Egypt, the lower orders also adopted them, although theirs had a religious element. Mehen, which is thought to have originated in 3,000 BC, is based on the legend of the sun god Re who was wrapped in the coils of the snake-deity Mehen. It’s thought that the players had to throw stick-dice and move their marbles along the coils of the snake. A lion piece was added halfway through to eat (remove) marbles and hamper the opponent.

Backgammon is thought to have begun in Roman times, and there is evidence that it was enjoyed in the Middle Ages too. The Vikings played ‘hnefatafl’ (king’s table) where players had to protect the king from their opponent. Variations of backgammon, chess, dominoes and draughts continued to be played across the world and through the centuries.

Things changed somewhat when John Jefferys invented A Journey Through Europe in 1759, a game which is still available today. There was an educational element to it, as players learned about geography as they moved around the board. The number of moves was indicated by a multi-sided top called a teetotum.

During the 17th and 18th centuries Americans had very little time to play games, although they did occasionally play draughts or cards. In New England, games were not encouraged, particularly those with dice, as the Puritans and Pilgrims regarded them as the work of the devil. On Christmas Day 1622, a group of non-Puritans playing in the streets had their equipment confiscated and sent home by the local governor (these were adults, not children).

Most games around this time were based on Christian teachings and morality, such as ‘The Game of Pope and Pagan’. As the country became more affluent and capitalist-led in the 19th century, games began to reflect that.‘The Game of the District Messenger Boy’, published in 1886, showed that anyone could climb the ladder, and ‘The Checkered Game of Life’, which appeared in 1860, was about marrying well and being successful.

‘Monopoly’, famously created on an oilcloth at Charles Darrow’s kitchen table in 1935, is the ultimate capitalist game, and Darrow became a millionaire. Ironically, he was inspired by ‘The Landlord’s Game’, invented by Lizzie Magie in 1903, who was opposed to monopolism.

The Royal Game of Ur

The oldest board game in the world, and which is still played today, is the ‘Royal Game of Ur.’ Boards dating back to 2,600 – 2,400 BC have been discovered. The Mesopotamians played it, as did people in early antiquity across the Middle East. Evidence of the game has been found as far away as Sri Lanka and Crete, although its popularity seems to have waned by late antiquity.

A game for two players, pieces have to be moved around a board in the shape of a figure of eight. Stick-dice indicated how many moves each person could make, and it’s thought that players each had half of the board. The rules are lost, because the first modern discovery of ‘The Game of Ur’ wasn’t until 1927, when Sir Leonard Woolley found a complete set while excavating the royal tombs at Ur, Iraq. He gave the game its name.

An example of the Royal Game of Ur, with a series of box-shaped spacesIt’s thought that what happened in the game could be interpreted as foretelling the players’ futures, and they were being sent messages from gods and supernatural beings. The reason for its decline is not clear, but it may have been replaced by an early form of backgammon.

Sir Leonard found five of these sets, with one on display in the British Museum. This example features a board with three rows of four squares connected to three rows of two squares. Another version found has fortune-telling messages carved into some of the boxes, and similar sets were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which had little boxes to store the pieces and the ‘senet’ board on the other side.


I can’t play chess and have never even attempted it. All the men in my immediate family can and do play it, but I think its appeal is lost on me. I do like all the variations on the boards and the pieces, though, and I’ve seen some amazing ones, including marble sets in Agra, India.

Like other games, chess dates back about 1,500 years ago, with the earliest version being played around the 6th

Close up of pieces on a chess boards

Pic © Steve Buissinne via Pixabay

century AD in India and then to Persia. The game was introduced to the Muslim world when Persia was conquered by the Arabs. In Europe, chess as we know it today began in the 15th century. The firs World Chess Championship took place in 1886.

The early Indian game, ‘chaturanga’ (four divisions of the military), was played on a chequered board but with the

pieces in different places. Each division was represented by a playing piece, a version of which we still use today: infantry (the pawn), cavalry (the knight), elephantry (the bishop) and chariotry (the rook). Elephants were essential to ancient warfare, but it’s not clear why the division was represented by bishops, as they were usually ridden by kings and warriors.

Variations around the world have been used to teach military strategy, mathematics and astronomy, and at one point dice were used to decide which player would start the game. Generally, the purpose of the game was to weaken and defeat the king. Some time in the 16th century, the queen and bishop took on more significance.


Medium: The Full History of Board Games
Cyningstan: The Royal Game of Ur
Chess: The History of Chess



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