Sunrise, Sun Senet: The World’s Oldest Game

by Corey Whelen
24 April 2020

With the current fervor of the industry, it’s strange to think that hobby board games were virtually non-existent 25 years ago. It took the ingenuity of a young Klaus Teuber to bring the brilliance of Euro-games mainstream with the iconic Settlers of Catan, a game that would become a worldwide sensation shortly after its debut in 1995. The hobby has exploded since, with thousands of games, millions of gamers, and new designers cutting their teeth on Kickstarter everyday.

But in the era BC (Before Catan), gaming was a creative wasteland. What little innovation there was came from the Parker Brothers, or the Milton Bradley, powerhouses that, somewhat ironically, held a monopoly on the industry. For decades, players would pick up new versions of the same classics, legendary games like Clue, Uno, and, of course, Monopoly. Once fresh and fascinating, many of these games boiled down to simple mechanics that everyone understood instantly. Roll dice, move your piece, wait your turn. Then, buy a new copy of the game because it had dogs or the Muppets on it. And that was board games for most of the 1900’s.

If we take it back a little further, we see some amazing diversity and creativity as cultures all over the world invented games like poker, mancala, backgammon, and mah-jong. Totally unique and creative games with almost nothing in common except for the simplicity of their pieces and the accessibility of their design. People made games from what they could back then, and many were playable with coloured rocks, a few tiles, or a deck of cards.

But if all cultures create games, and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, then surely there must be an original? A predecessor, a progenitor, a proto game upon which all others are based?

Photo by Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund - Brooklyn Museum.

Meet the ancient Egyptian game of Senet, the oldest game archeologists have uncovered to date. Senet is a classy little number that wouldn’t look out of place next to a mancala or backgammon board. It was so popular that King Tut was buried with four Senet boards, and it’s easy to see why. Senet was a complete, portable package with pawns and tokens that were flipped like die, and they were carried in the ceramic box that was also the playing surface.

While the true rules of Senet have been lost to time, modern game scholars have come up with a pretty good guess based on references to the games in Egyptian writings. The result is something like a two-player version of Sorry. Two players have five pawns each, and they win by moving their pawns off the board before their opponent. They can “attack” their opponent’s pawns by landing in the same space and trading places with them. On your turn, you throw four tokens that serve as a fascinating alternative to dice, and work much the same way. They have two faces, white and black, and you can move one pawn a space for every white face that comes up. You get to move and throw again if you get certain rolls- one white face, for example, or all white. The best throw is four black faces, which actually nets you six moves and an additional throw.

There is actually a WikiHow article on how to play a 5000-year-old boardgame. I can’t tell you how much this pleases me.

If you can’t move a pawn forward, you move it backwards, and if you can’t do that, you lose your turn. Much like Parcheesi, you can’t take a piece off the board until all your pieces have cleared the first row, and much like Candyland there are a few spaces on the board that are specifically marked with hieroglyphics. These spaces do different things when you land on them, like protecting you from an attack, or moving you backwards, à la Snakes and Ladders. The game is relatively simple otherwise;it’s a race between players. The strategy comes from choosing which of your pieces to move when, trying to get your pieces ahead of your opponents, and minimizing the opportunity to get bumped backwards by them. You can stack two of your pieces next to each other to block attacks, and three pieces together are completely impassable, although these strategies are liable to cost you unless you already have the lead.

That’s it, that’s all there is to the world’s oldest game, and honestly? I wouldn’t bat an eye if it came out today. The rules are indistinguishable from a lot of abstract strategy games, it looks amazing on a coffee table, and there are even digital versions that have fully brought this game into the 21st Century. While maybe not as polished as other two-player strategy games like Onitama or Kahuna, I think the family resemblance is apparent. Senet is a beautiful game and still engaging enough to kill an afternoon over 5000 years later.