Ancient Irish mythology goes that Lugh, a member of the supernatural race the Tuatha Dé Danann, invented Fidchell forever cementing it as a game of royalty. Many tales feature Cú Chulainn, Lugh’s son, playing the game. There are no recorded rules for fidchell beyond a few snippets here and there, leaving scholars to recreate potential versions of the game from inference to descriptions from the myth. The original thing may have been one of the tafl games common in nordic cultures (asymmetric games of strategy), but without more archaeological evidence it’s difficult to say. There are a number of possible variations of the game that have been cooked up by game enthusiasts and Celtic historians, however, some hinging on possible connections to the Roman game Ludus latrunculorum, and many of these are a real blast to play.
Go is possibly the oldest game to have seen continuous play, from over 2500 years ago all the way through to the modern age in a consistent form. But legends place the game much older than the 6th century BCE, suggesting that it was actually the mythic Chinese emperor Yao who was responsible for the game, having a counselor design it for his son sometime in the ballpark of 2300 BCE). Regardless of its starting era, it remains one of the oldest games in the world, and thanks to heavy efforts by pro-Go associations in the 20th century its reach has spread beyond Asia and become embedded in the West. It’s remarkable for being a game that features simple rules but a remarkably complex strategy, and it has been called the world’s most complex board game. Indeed, it was only in 2015 that computers could begin surpassing human opponents in the game, due to the innate difficulty of teaching older AI systems how to adapt to the complexity of the possible variations in the game.
Mancala is actually a family of strategy games rather than a single game, and various forms of the game date back to the 7th century BCE (though some versions might trace back even farther, all the way to that gaming capital of the ancient world: Egypt). An incredibly popular game all throughout the known world, with remains of mancala boards found in Roman bathhouses in modern Israel, as well as throughout Eritrea and Ethiopia. Later sets were found from Bosnia (where a variation is stilled played) to Germany, where tables for the game were found in Weikersheim Castle.
Chatrang was the name for the earliest form of chess, a precursor to the worldwide phenomena we all know today. In the 6th century CE, the game made its way out of India and into the Mediterranean where it was quickly adopted by players throughout Persia. The oldest known manual of chess is Arabic in origin, dating to the mid-9th century, and the game spread further along the Silk Road, along which numerous chess relics have been discovered. It is from the Persian phrase “the king is dead” (shāh māt) that the English word checkmate derives.
The modern rules for chess were not developed until the 15th century, however, when various rules of the game were solidified (such as the replacement of an older “vizier” piece, or King’s adviser” with a far more powerful “mad queen”).
Over five thousand years ago a game in the Middle East became so popular that everyone played it, from kings to commoners, in places as far from Mesopotamia as Crete in Greece and Sri Lanka in South Asia. The game even took on powerful spiritual components, with the way a game played out offering portents of the player’s life. Eventually, The Game of Ur was replaced by backgammon in most of the world, but a tiny Jewish population in the city of Kochi, India, kept a version of it alive all the way until 1950 when emigrations to Israel began.
This is actually one game out of an entire family of games that were popular in ancient Nordic and Celtic cultures. In Old Norse, “tafl” (pronounced tavl) literally just means board or table. Hnefatafl probably comes from combing tafl with “hnefi” (which means fist), referring to the main “king” piece on the board. Other etymological breakdowns point to this meaning due to the widespread references to Hnefatafl as “King’s Table”. The game’s rules were recorded in the 1700s by explorers visiting the Sámi people who still played a variant. Modern game experts have been able to recreate playable rule-sets using these notes.
Draughts (known as checkers in the United States) is a game with ancient roots, mentioned by both Plato and Homer as having come from ancient Egypt. Today, you can even visit the British Museum and find examples of these ancient boards which were found in burial chambers, including that of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. Throughout history, the game was favored by many, from the Trojans to the Romans, to versions played in Arabic countries. Some of the rules that we think of as basic staples of the game were added much later, however, like the rule of “crowning the king” which was introduced in the mid-1200s, and the game reached its modern rules in the mid-1500s when the rule that forces players to take any move available to them came into play.
Senet was played in Egypt at least as far back as 3100 BCE, making it another game with roots over five thousand years old. Though the original rules have been lost to the sands of time (quite literally in this case), modern game experts and academic researchers have pieced together several different likely versions based on the evidence at hand. Moreover, Alexander de Voogt of the American Museum of Natural History has made the point that since games change over time anyway, the process of rediscovering rules for ancient games really is a legitimate part of humanity’s relationship to gaming.
Senet was played widely outside of Egypt as well, making it as far afield as Cyprus, likely acquired through Egypt’s far-reaching trade.
Dating back to the Roman Empire, the name is a corrupted form of the Latin words “merellus” and “miles” which stand for “game piece” and “soldier”, respectively. For at least 2000 years old it’s maintained itself well, being played consistently through to the present day (sometimes under the name “cowboy checkers” in the United States). Nine Men's Morris has the distinction of being a game where the outcome will always result in a tie if both players play perfectly. This type of game, known as a “solved game” already has an optimal strategy built-in, so it’s up to the players to play that strategy without mistakes.
Appearing in the late 1400s and gaining popularity in the late 1500s, this was considered a popular favorite family game throughout Europe and provided a template for many of the “racing” board games designed for commercial production in the 20th century. The premise is simple: players take turns by rolling dice and moving a number of slots around the board, whilst hoping to avoid landing on the Inn, the Bridge, or Death. The game’s popularity saw it rise into many elements of popular culture, including novels such as Jules Verne’s The Will of an Eccentric where William J. Hypperbone, an eccentric millionaire, devises a game where people race around the United States in the same manner as the Game of the Goose.
Though the English-speaking world knows this best as Fox and Geese (or Fox and Hounds, depending on the variation), this game has its roots in old Norse culture and can be found mentioned in the Icelandic Grettis saga by the name Halatafl. It became a favorite of English royalty, however, with both Edward IV of England and Queen Victoria playing variations of the game.
All variations of Fox and Geese are asymmetric in design, with one player trying to capture the other player’s piece without becoming trapped by them. In the case of Fox and Geese, it’s a fox trying to eat the geese before the geese can hem it in. In the Fox and Hounds variant, the fox is on the run, trying to simply evade the perusing hounds.
Originating in Egypt some four thousand years ago, Hounds and Jackals (or “shen” as it is sometimes referred to, due to the hieroglyphs inscribed on some of the recovered boards), became an immensely popular game that managed to spread throughout Mesopotamia and Caucasus, all the way up into the areas bordering modern-day Eastern Europe and Asia.
The game is played with small sticks that feature either jackal or dog heads and players race toward the end, trying to get all their pieces there before the other.
The earliest historical records of backgammon trace it to Mesopotamia (Iraq) some five thousand years ago, where this game of combined luck and strategy clearly made it one of the most popular games in history. The objective is for players to remove all their pieces from the game board before their opponent, with a number of short matches in a row usually determining the ultimate winner. The game remains extremely popular in the Middle East and is commonly known as “tawle” which translates as “table.”
Known variously as “the game of soldiers,” or “the game of brigands,” Ludus latrunculorum was one of the most popular games throughout the Roman Empire. A game of tactics, it is believed to be a variant of even older Greek games, and it likely also had an impact on the later development of chess. There are a number of different rule reconstructions available from throughout the 20th century, offering players with a number of options for playing this beloved ancient game of war.
Known as “The Philosopher’s Game”, this is a highly complex mathematical board game that dates back to at least the eleventh century CE and is possibly older. Similarities between it and chess are evident, but with an extremely complicated addition of different capture methods based upon the numbers that are inscribed on the various pieces. By the 13th century, it had spread from being a tool for instruction within monasteries to a game of leisure, one recommended by philosophers and scholars and highlighted in fiction at the time such as Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. The rules were extremely well-documented in various languages and it can be found and enjoyed today from many specialty gaming stores.
Another immensely popular game in the ancient Roman Empire, Ludus Duodecim Scripta, though in this case there are few surviving elements of the original rules. The name translates as the “game of twelve markings” which refers to the rows of marks found on surviving boards. Modern interpretations of the game have been created, however, providing a racing game design that fits the ancient board.
An ancestor of chess, Chaturanga is an Indian strategy game with roots back at least as far as the two thousand BCE. Known to be played extensively during the 6th century, it was brought to Europe in the 7th century as chess. Many of the rules are similar or identical to modern chess, such as the goal being to checkmate the king (Raja), but other pieces exist which further complicate play, such as the elephant (Gaja) who has a number of different possible moves. This is a fun one for chess enthusiasts who want to try a different twist on the game they think they know.
Originating in Nepal, this two-person strategy game is asymmetric in design and is reminiscent of the Fox and Geese game found throughout Europe. One player controls the tigers and the other controls the goats, with the latter trying to block the former’s movements in order to keep their pieces from getting eaten. An immensely popular game in rural areas, it spread through southern India as well though with a different playing board.
The Irish version of Halatafl, this is an asymmetric board game with one player controlling a larger “army” than the other. The rules for this version mostly come from two ancient poems, showing that it was played with five “men” or pieces against eight, but that one of the five was a chief or “Branán”. The game’s name itself, brandubh, means “black raven.”
Another of the Tafl games, this Welsh variety is known from an account of the game by the poet Robert ap Ifan, but at one point in the early Middle Ages, it was an extremely popular game in Wales. Though later supplanted by chess, it did become popular once again in the 20th and 21st centuries as scholars returned to the limited source material to get a better picture of how the game might be played. In the Welsh tales The Mabinogion, the game called gwyddbwyll is the likely ancestor of tawlbwrdd.
A famous game of deep strategy from Madagascar, this game has a mythic history. Legend says that King Ralambo, who ruled Madagascar in the 16th century, received advice from his court astrologer that he should engage a special ploy in order to choose his successor from among his sons. He would wait until his sons were all away and then feign an illness; whichever son endeavored to return the fastest would be the one to take the crown. The King’s eldest son was engaged in a particularly difficult game of Fanorona when the messenger reached him, leading to the younger son becoming crowned.
Played by the Zuni Native American Indians, this game was first described to a larger audience in the early 1900s. It is a two-player game of strategy believed to have originated from games of Draughts and Alquerque introduced by the Spanish, though no definitive proof of such exists beyond the similarities of play. Regardless, Kolowis Awithlaknannai is a unique variation, with an elongated playing board and the ultimate goal of capturing all the opponent's pieces.
One of the oldest games known to exist on the American continent, Patolli was so popular in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures that it permeated every social stratum, found among the leaders and the peasants alike. The earliest evidence of its play dates back to 200 BCE with the Teotihuacanos people but was also found throughout both Aztec and Mayan cultures as well. Despite similarities to the East Indian game of pachisi, it is likely that this was a completely independent invention, unique to the continent.
The first mention of Xiangqi occurs during the Warring States period, but the first expanded description of the game is from the 6th century CE from a book written by Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou. The game is designed for two players and concentrates on strategy, representing a battle occurring between two armies, where the goal is to capture the opponent's leader. A unique element of the game is that there are areas of the board that restrict the movement of certain pieces while enhancing that of others (the river and the palace). Pieces are also placed at the intersections of the lines on the board rather than within the squares, reminiscent of Go.
Likely originating in China, this Japanese game is nearly identical to backgammon. Due to its high reliance on luck, Sugoroku became a common gambling game and was outlawed several times, though what ultimately killed the game off from regular play was the introduction of an even faster and easier to play gambling game called Chō-han.
This game hails back to the realm of myth itself, being described in the ancient text Mahabharata (though there is some disagreement among scholars as to whether this is the same game). Versions of pachisi have spread around the world, from Syria to Morocco, with modern versions including games like Sorry!. It may have even been an ancestor of the Korean game Yunnori, which is played during Korean New Year.
A North African racing game, Hyena chase is built around a spiral track that players move their pieces around. The game is traditionally played without a board, with the track being simply marked in the ground. Each player tries to get their piece, representing a mother, to the innermost circle of the spiral and back again without getting eaten by the hyena. This game is likely related to Mehen, an ancient Egyptian racing game.
Bearing the same name as the ancient Indonesian city, Surakarta is a two-person strategy game also known as “permainan” and “dam-daman”. The game’s object is to capture all of the opponent's pieces or, if that’s not possible, to have more pieces remaining in play than your opponent. It features a unique method of capturing pieces by traversing a colored circuit on the board and then landing on an enemy piece.
Former Events in Wulin by the Chinese author Zhou Mi is the earliest known mention of Dominoes, though the modern version we play today emerged in Italy in the 1700s. It is possible that the games evolved separately, but links between the game’s origins in Italy and Italian missionaries traveling back from China have also been raised. From Italy, the game spread with great rapidity throughout Europe and it emerged in the United States around the middle of the 1800s.
There is a huge range of possible games playable with dominoes, some involving just the tiles themselves while others incorporate the tiles into card games.
Emerging in China sometime between 200 and 300 CE, T'shu-p'u is a relative of Pachisi featuring very similar rules. Players divide into teams and try to move their pieces from the starting location around the cross-shaped playing board. Players can try to knock other players’ pieces out of the race which forces them back to the starting location. Being a fundamentally team-focused game, it’s the first team (as a whole) that makes it to the end that wins.