I always imagined that board games were a medieval invention. I thought that chess and checkers started the trend, setting it off on a course that runs clear through Monopoly and on to Catan. Playing cards have a distinctly medieval flare, with kings, queens, jokers… and jacks. (Though apparently they were first invented in medieval China, and only later came to resemble what we think of today as a standard card deck.) So it makes sense that board games would date from about the same time.
But they’re a whole lot older. Positively ancient. An article I stumbled across on LiveScience details an archaeological find that includes the remnants of a board game, dating to the second millennium B.C. Who would have thought people were playing board games 4,000 years ago? This one was found in a rock shelter in Azerbaijan. The board is a series of holes that were carved into the floor of the shelter, and was played by nomadic herders. Maybe when the rain forced them inside? Or at night, by firelight?
The game is called 58 holes. It looks a bit like a cribbage board, with two sets of 29 holes, and was played widely all over ancient Egypt for thousands of years. It’s also been more poetically named Hounds and Jackals after a version of the game that was found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat IV.
Pharaoh or sheep herder, it didn’t matter. Both still played the same game.
Others say the game is more similar to backgammon than cribbage, but no one truly knows. The rules of the game are lost along with its official name, if it ever had one. Perhaps both pharaoh and herder had different rules as well, though I like to think they didn’t… and that forms part of the appeal of board games.
Perhaps its’s not so surprising that board games are ancient. And no, I’m not thinking about what people did before cell phones and the internet, or even the printed book. I’m instead reminded of how often I played games when I traveled, and how much I enjoyed them with people with whom I did not share a common language, people who I never could never have interacted with all that much or all that deeply without the help of a common game. Connect 4 was super popular in Thailand. Backgammon in Jamaica. Chess in India. Board games each have a language all their own. All anyone needs to do is learn one set of rules.
You can still buy 58 Holes today, though it’s sold under the more appealing name of Hounds and Jackals. I wonder if it comes with a set of rules.