Senet – The Oldest Boardgame

What is it?

Senet is an Ancient Egyptian Board game. It dates back as far as 3100 BCE. While it must have changed over the years, it is clearly recognisable in many tombs from ancient times. It is played on a board 30 squares by two players, each having a set number of tokens to move. While the ancient rules are not known, enough has been discovered for historians to make best guesses as to how it might have been played.

History of Senet

The earliest solid example we have of Senet is from the tomb of Mastaba of Hesy-Re, where reliefs picturing Senet and other games such a Mehen were discovered. These reliefs are dated to 2620 BCE, but there are fragmentary boards that could be Senet, dated as far back as 3100 BCE. The game remained a mainstay in Egypt throughout its history, until finally fading after the Roman period. 

While it seems to have started out more as a simple board game, by the time of the New Kingdom, Senet was seen as a representation of the journey of ka (spirit, spark, soul) to the afterlife. Some religious iconography appears on Senet boards throughout the later period, and it is mentioned in religious texts, including a chapter from the Book of the Dead. 

Its use wasn’t restricted to Egypt either. Likely through trade, it came to be used in other regions. Evidence of the game has been found in places such as modern day Lebanon and Israel. Representations vary by time and place, but as with any game, the details will likely have changed over time and by the different cultures. More than 40 examples of Senet boards and pieces have been recovered, some examples of which you can see in these images:

Various rulers and important people have been pictured in hieroglyphics playing the game. The example below is of Queen Nefertari, and dates from around 1255-1295 BCE.

Here is how Senet is represented in hieroglyphics text:

It is hypothesised that as the game was changed and adapted over time, it may have been an ancient predecessor for the modern game of Backgammon.

The Rules

Gameplay wise only a certain amount is known for sure. One thing people seem to agree on is that it’s a race game, akin to snake and ladders. The most common version of the game is played on a game board of 30 squares in a grid, arranged in three rows of ten. There are two sets of pawns, of which there are 5 each (7 at different periods in history). Several of the tiles on the game board have symbols on them, which are likely significant to gameplay in some way. The pieces were likely moved after throwing 4 sticks with a single coloured side, the result depending on how they landed. Later, knuckle bones may have been used instead of the sticks. Example diagram of a board:

While the rules of the ancient game are largely unknown, historians Timothy Kendall and R.C. Bell have reconstructed their own sets of rules based on snippets of discovered text spanning over 1000 years. It is unlikely these are the exact rules used by Ancient Egyptians, and those rules themselves likely changed over time, however they are sufficient to play an entertaining game in the modern era. 

Senet Today

While the game did fade away after the Roman period of Egypts history, it’s rediscovery has given it a new lease of life. Using various new versions of the rules, people around the world still play it today. There are boards available to purchase or you can just make you’re own. There are even a few online Senet games available if you want to test you’re skill.

I for one will be continuing to play Senet. I’m currently using Kendall’s rules, with some added tweaks. After a bit more play testing, I may post the my experiences and rule set on here in case anyone is interested. Everyone I’ve introduced the game too so far has seemed to enjoy it. It may be the oldest board game in the world, but that hasn’t diminished it’s appeal.