By Janet Spencer

Some of the oldest games in history are chess (from India), Mancala (from Ghana), backgammon (from Mesopotamia), and Pachesi (India). Come along with Tidbits as we play games!


The world’s oldest playable board game where the rules are known is the Royal Game of Ur. It was created in what is now Iraq around 2500 BC. Game boards have been discovered all over the Middle East, Crete, and Sri Lanka. The most famous one was found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in ancient Iraq, from which the game gets its name. The game was likely called simply “the game of 20 squares” back then. Even King Tut’s senet board (see next page) had this game etched into the other side. We know the rules of the game because a curator at the British Museum translated a cuneiform tablet written in Mesopotamia in 177 BC which explained the rules. Modern versions are available.

• The game called Gioco dell’Oca, meaning Game of the Goose, was the first board game that was produced commercially. When Philip II of Spain received a copy as a gift from Duke Francesco de Medici sometime in the late 1500s, it became all the rage. Copies of the game dating between 1774 and the late 1800s include the rules in French, German and Italian.

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When King Tut’s tomb was excavated in 1923, archaeologists found four board games among the treasures. One of them was recognized by the researchers because identical games had been found in other tombs and among other ruins.

• The game board had 30 squares. Hieroglyphs appeared on some of the squares, though which squares varied from game to game. Game pieces were variously cones or spools or figurines. Researchers knew that the game was called “senet” which means “passing” but the rules of the game eluded them.       

• The oldest set dates to about 3000 BC, the time Ancient Egypt was founded. Other excavations elsewhere showed that the same game was being played by Alexander the Great nearly 3,000 years later. Hieroglyphs of various ages depict the game being played, and ancient graffiti boasted about winning the game. Game boards were scratched into the floors of temples, carved in ancient wooden loading docks on the Nile, and written about on a papyrus scroll. Artwork on the walls of Nefertari’s tomb showed her playing the game against an invisible opponent. The game is mentioned in the Book of the Dead, which was written around the year 1250 BC.   

• Use of the game seems to have tapered off after the fall of Rome. The rules were lost to history. So perplexed were archaeologists about this enigmatic game that in 1946, researchers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called in George Parker, founder of Parker Brothers game company, and asked him what he thought the rules of the game were. Parker invented his own set of rules, though it was all conjecture. Parker Brothers released a modern version of the game which enjoyed moderate success and is still available today.


Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Pompeii were amused to find a series of paintings on a wall that depicted two men playing a game of backgammon in a tavern, then getting into an argument over the game, then being kicked out by the innkeeper.

• One of the earliest commercially produced modern board games came out in England in 1800.    It was called Mansion of Happiness, with the “mansion” being heaven, and players racing through the tribulations of Life in order to get there. In 1860 Milton Bradley reworked it and released it as The Checkered Game of Life. Today, it’s now known simply as The Game of Life.

• The rules for backgammon were defined in the year 1743 by Edmond Hoyle, who published the rules of many games in a book originally entitled “Mr. Hoyle’s Treatises of Whist, Quadrille, Piquet, Chess and Back-Gammon.” It has now named simply “Hoyle’s Rules of Games.”    It led to a common phrase, “according to Hoyle.”

• Board games increased in popularity in the early 1900s, when mass-production techniques allowed them to be made cheaply on a commercial scale, and transportation systems distributed them easily to stores across the country.


Trivial Pursuit was the blockbuster sensation of the 1980s, selling 20 million copies in 1984, a year when top-selling Monopoly sold only 3 million copies. By 1986, one out of every four American homes owned a copy.   

• Milton Bradley once published a game called The Sinking of the Titanic, which caused such outrage that the name was changed to Abandon Ship a year later.

• To prevent Boggle players from using a certain swear word, the letters F and K only appear once on the same cube. (cont)


The prisoner on the jail space in Monopoly has a name: Jake the Jailbird.

• The “patient” in Operation is named “Cavity Sam.” For the game’s 40th anniversary in 2003, Americans were asked to vote for a new ailment for Cavity Sam: either a growling stomach, tennis elbow, or brain freeze. The winner was brain freeze, and players must now remove an ice cream cone from Cavity Sam’s brain.

• Back in the early ’80s, a young waiter in Seattle, whenever he had downtime between diners, would choose a word from the dictionary at random and draw it for others to guess. The result was Pictionary.

• While traditional Scrabble sets come with wooden tiles with grooved letters, these tiles aren’t used in high-level tournaments. That’s because players have been caught “brailling” while choosing tiles by feeling for the smooth tiles that are the valuable blanks.


“Snakes & Lattes” is a chain of board game cafes that opened in Toronto in 2010. Patrons pay a small fee to play board games with others while drinking coffee. The business was so popular that they opened a corollary store called Snakes and Lagers, and then expanded into Chicago and Arizona. Similar stores have opened worldwide, including a chain of 130 storefronts in Seoul, South Korea, where they rent out a selection of over 1,000 board games by the hour, while also renting out the tables by the hour, and also selling refreshments on the side.


The phrase “back to square one” was inspired by Chutes and Ladders, also called Snakes and Ladders.

• The word “backgammon” comes from the words “back” and “game.”