Feats of strategy & the evolution of fun

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


I'm working on a short fiction piece involving cheating at a big sporting event, but I want the game to be something unique and fun ā€” I really do think that quidditch added a lot to the worldbuilding of Harry Potter, for example. To that end, I went and explored what sorts of common themes exist in games throughout cultures.

Quick Facts

  • Material design of ancient board game ranges from elaborate jeweled boxes to scraps of leather moved across sketches in the dirt.
  • The ancient Egyptian game Mehen was played by ~6 people on a circular board that resembles a coiled snake.
  • Hounds & Jackals (aka 58 Holes) was popular for about 2,000 in ancient Mesopotamia and resembles nothing so much as cribbage; it's a "race" game involving dice rolls.
  • The Chinese "version" of chess (Xiangqi) is played on the points of intersecting lines, instead of squares. The oldest variants I'm aware of were played in Persian and India around the 7th century.
  • Early Roman prohibitions against gambling came out of the pagan tradition; Christianity was very slow to develop anti-gambling dogma.

The Death of Games

Senet, which is played on a 3x10 grid of squares, is an ancient Egyptian board game played by Tutankhamun and Nefertari. It started out as a secular game, but developed ritual significance as a metaphor for the afterlife. It was popular until the rise of Christianity.

Replacement Games

Between 400 & 1100 CE, strategy games collectively known as Tafl were popular in Nordic countries. Game boards look a lot like hopscotch grids etched into a hunk of concrete, to be honest. It was popular until the spread of Chess.

Gambling Lives

The Mesoamerican game of Patolli was played with remarkably high stakes; players sometimes wagered their freedom & their lives. The "board" was usually a mat (but could be sketched into the dirt); there were 70 spaces for pieces. Apparently, the government tried to discourage people from playing.

Gambling Laws

Rome, by contrast, considered sports betting ā€” betting on the outcome of chariot races or contests of strength ā€” to be pretty much fine, a simple matter between friends ā€” or a way to encourage excellence in the soldering class. It was dicing games that led to a whole cottage industry. Laws against them were passed during the late Republic period, right around the time several other sumptuary laws were being passed. Justinian later codified more, to help curb corruption.

šŸ“— ICYMI: If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy the edition on puberty rites & pancakes: a brief history of racing.

šŸ’š If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more research deep dives into obscure history and science.

šŸŽ² Do you have a favorite story about the relationship between gambling, dice & gaming? Please reach out ā€” I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.


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