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7 Games That Were Popular in Many Ancient Civilizations

 Life is all about having fun. Now Netflix and binge-watching may be the most popular "fun" thing to do, but nothing livens up a family night like a good and fiery game of Monopoly. Board games offer the perfect blend of concentration, low stakes, and socializing, designed to get everyone excited. But, it does make one wonder: how did ancient civilizations enjoy themselves, long before the days of Clue and Battleship? They had games of their own, of course. 

From the Ancient Romans to the Ancient Mesopotamians, every culture had their own favorite game that kept people entertained prior to the creation of online Scrabble. Sculpted from stone and carved in wood, historians have spent decades unearthing and studying these centuries-old games. Here are 7 fascinatingly fun games that existed thousands of years ago. 

1. Patolli 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Illustration of Mezotuma watching his nobles play Patolli

(Mezotuma watching his nobles play Patolli, By Berkeley, Wikimedia Commons)  

Patolli, also known as patole, is a game of strategy and luck that was popular among Meso-American cultures like the Aztecs and the Zapotecs. Even the Mayans are believed to have had a version of this game, widely considered to be one of the oldest games in the Americas. Historians say that the Aztec ruler Mezotuma enjoyed watching his nobles play this game in court. 

Each player has 6 markers in this strategy game and must race to send their markers to the final square of the 52-square board. Their movements are decided by 5-6 drilled black beans that were previously used as dice. This game was largely a gambling game, and among the Aztecs, scientists know that the stakes were often incredibly high, with players betting not only items and currency but even their own lives.

2. Go 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Game board of Go with a game in progress

(By Goban1, Wikimedia Commons)  

Much like chess, this game is all about strategy and has been around for over 2,500 years. It is believed to be one of the oldest continually played games in the world. The game was first invented in China, called Weiqi in Mandarin, and the name translates to "encirclement board game" or "board game of surrounding". This is because the aim of the game is to create formations on the 19x19 grid board that surround the other player’s game pieces. 

The game makes use of small circular pieces called stones. The stones are of two different colors, one for each player, and must be placed on various parts of the board around each other. The goal of the game is to take up the largest area of the board. As the game continues, the formations made with the stones can become more complex and result in stones being reduced, lost, or captured. 

3. The Royal Game of Ur 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Blue board for the Royal Game of Ur

(By BabelStone, Wikimedia Commons)  

An archeological excavation of an ancient Mesopotamian city in the Royal Cemetery of Ur carried out in the early 20th century led to the discovery of a 4,500-year-old game. Also known as the Game of Ur and the Game of 20 Squares, this strategy game was a race to the finish line. Though it was especially popular in the Middle East, traces of this game have also been found in other parts of the world like Sri Lanka and Crete. 

Most of the boards unearthed during the excavation revealed stunning floral and geometric designs carved into painted wooden boards, undoubtedly contributing to its early high demand. During the height of its popularity, this Sumerian game was granted a status of spiritual significance, with various aspects of the game believed to be indicative of the player's actual future. It was just before the Middle Ages that the fame of this game began to wane, and its place in the spotlight was replaced by one of the backgammon's early predecessors.

4. Ludus Latrunculorum 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Board for Latruncili, Ludus Latrunculorum, with few pieces on it

(By Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons)  

This two-player strategy game bears a striking resemblance to chess and has been played by numerous ancient cultures. It is also known as latrunculi, or simply latrones, which translates to “the game of brigands" (highway robbers/mercenaries). It is believed to have been derived from an older Greek game, before being adopted by the Ancient Egyptians and Romans. 

The Romans were known for playing latrunculi as a tactical military game. To play this game, players would strategically move pieces along the 17x18 grid board and stop your opponent from doing the same. The game required players to scope out vulnerabilities for trapping and capturing the opponent’s pieces along the way, making it a great game for tacticians to play.   

5. Mancala 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Mancala board with small stones as game pieces 


Mancala is another ancient game that continues to be played even today. The name of the game is derived from the Arabic word “naqala” which means “to move”, though this word has been used to describe numerous other games in the Middle East. This fun game follows a theme of the strategic sowing of seeds.

The game is played on a board with 2-4 rows of depressions or pits on the board, which are called houses, and 2-4 large depressions called stores. Depending on the length and number of rows (essentially, the number of houses on the board), anywhere between 100-400 small playing pieces (which can be cowry shells, beans, or half marbles) called seeds, may be used. 

The seeds are split and scattered among all the houses. Players strategically move seeds across the board into houses, with the goal being to sow as many seeds in your store as possible.  

6. Tafl 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Tafl Board with game pieces set up 

(By Matěj Baťha, Wikimedia Commons)  

While different variations of tafl games, usually called hnefatafl games, are still played in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and other European nations today, the first version of this game was created and played by Ancient Celtic and Nordic civilizations. This game of strategy and quick thinking is believed to have been developed from the tactical game played by members of the Roman Empire, Ludus latrunculorum. 

To play the game, a group of game pieces representing the king and his defenders is placed on the center of the board. A group of taflmen, a group of game pieces representing the attackers, must battle the king and his defenders and stop the king from reaching refuge in the corner squares of the grid board. The rules of this game are have been lost in the 13th century, and modern versions are based on the rules created in the 19th century. 

7. Senet 

Oldest games played by ancient civilizations from around the world, Blue board box for ancient Egyptian game Senet

(By Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Wikimedia Commons)  

The first appearance of this game in history dates back to the year 2,620 BC, making it one of the oldest games in the world. Numerous paintings found on various ancient Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 3,100 BC depict people playing this board game. Senet was also a popular game in the neighboring countries, like Byblos, Arad, and Cyprus, with more boards having been uncovered in archeological sites in Cyprus than in Egypt. 

The grid board for this game contains 3 rows of 10 squares each and makes use of several pieces, which include 2 sets of at least 5 pawns each. Research into the process of gameplay shows that it was likely a game of strategy, position, and luck. However, the actual rules of the game played by these ancient cultures remain a subject of much debate and conjecture.   

Be sure to share this with other board game fans and history buffs!

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