‘Senet’ – The Ancient Egyptian Board Game of Death
People never change. Even ancient Egyptians played board games. Senet might not be the first board game ever. But it is the oldest we know about.
Here at BoLS, we like board games, both new and old. And some very old. Today, we are taking our definitive look into the game of Senet, which was played by the ancient Egyptians around 5000 years ago.
Little Bit Of History About Senet
The earliest confirmed painting of Senet dates back to the Third Dynasty, in the tomb of Hesy (2686 – 2613 BCE). However, an earlier painting showing a scene resembling Senet appears in Merknera’s tomb (3300 – 3700 BCE). Senet is also seen throughout the tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (2500 BCE). Even the famous Nefertari (1295–1255 BCE) was a fan.
Senet (which translates as ‘game of passing’) stuck around through the New Kingdom (1500 – 1077 BCE) where it became representative of the journey of the soul to the afterlife. Intact Senet boards were found throughout the Middle Kingdom, bearing markings of religious significance. The game is even referenced in Chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead!
for being in the following of Osiris, and being content with the food of Wennefer,
going out by day, taking any form desired to be taken,
playing the board-game senet, being in the pavilion, a living soul,
the Osiris among the revered before the great Ennead which is in the west, after he moors.Advertisement
Senet was undoubtedly very popular in its time. It made its way to neighboring areas and has been found in Arad (Isreal), Byblos (Lebanon), and Cyprus. Similar to being able to go anywhere and find people who know how to play Chess, that’s how Senet was in its time.
How to Play Senet
For Senet, we’re not entirely sure. Unfortunately, the exact rules of the game have been lost. Personally, I blame Julius Caesar for burning down the Library at Alexandria. But historical experts have some good insight into how these ancient games were played. Using context clues from similar games of the era, and the few artistic images, and artifacts found, we’re able to get a pretty good idea.
The Senet board is 3 rows of 10 squares (or Houses), which are numbered 1-10 on the top row, 11-20 on the middle row and 21-30 on the bottom row. Players set up their pawns alternating on squares 1 – 10. Then, players take alternating turns rolling Senet Sticks to move one of their pawns.
Senet Sticks are flat sticks painted black on one side and white on the other. Players toss the sticks and move based on the ‘roll’. Rules vary on how to move based on the roll. However, often range from 1 to 6 squares, occasionally taking another turn on certain combinations. Pawns must move through all 30 squares, zig-zagging on each row. But the objective remains the same throughout: Move all of your pawns off the board.
If one of your pawns ever landed on top of an opposing pawn, the opposing pawn moved back to where your pawn started its turn. However, if the opposing pawn is adjacent to another of their pawns, those houses are protected and can’t be attacked.
Additionally, houses 15, 26, 27, 28 and 29 were special. Again, rules vary but this is one set of rules regarding the special houses.
- House 15 (The House of Rebirth): When you reach this house, you must toss your sticks again. You cannot remove your piece until you toss your sticks and only one colored stick is facing upwards.
- House 26 (The House of Happiness): All of your pieces need to pass through this house to win. You must land on the house exactly. If you do not roll in such a way that you’ll move exactly on to that House you have to stay in place until your next turn.
- House 27 (The House of Water): If you land on the House of Water, you have to move straight back to the House of Rebirth.
- House 28 (The House of Three Truths): If you land on this house, you can throw your sticks again. If you have three color sides up, you can automatically remove this piece from the board.
- House 29 (The House of Re-Atoum): If you have landed here, throw your sticks again. If you have two colored sticks facing up, you can remove your piece from the board.
Overall, Senet seems very similar to Backgammon. Which is not surprising. Backgammon is just about as old. Excavations at Shahr-e Sukhteh in Iran have shown that a board game existed there around 3000 BCE.
However, Senet still likely wins the oldest game award for having pieces found as far back as 3100 BCE and the hieroglyphics resembling Senet in Merknera’s tomb.
Actually, in case you’re curious, here are the hieroglyphics for Senet.
Anyway, whether or not Senet is the oldest board game or not, one thing is for sure, board games have been around for about 5000 years and don’t seem to be going anywhere.