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A brief history of board games

Whether early peoples understood it or not, humans have a psychological need to play. Sometimes that was through physical activities like running and climbing, but pretty early on, humans created games to be played with the mind. Made from stone, bones, and other handy materials, early games weren’t too far off the ones we play today. And while we eventually transitioned from stick-based games to those with dice, boards, and joysticks, the earliest games show that things haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Humans have always enjoyed trouncing their friends and family at game night.

History’s oldest board game

Person holding two dice in hand over wooden board game
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Senet, a creation of ancient Egyptians, takes its place in gaming history as one of the earliest known board games. Dating to at least 3100 BCE and featured prominently in Egyptian texts and hieroglyphs, Senet was played by people at all levels of society and had an ever-evolving set of rules determined by players.

The game board sat atop a rectangular box with etched spaces on top, where players moved pieces through a series of actions that resembled Egyptians’ beliefs in life after death. (Nicer game boards even included a savvy storage drawer underneath to stow pieces.) And while surviving versions of Senet — many with of which have intricate designs and colors, leading archaeologists to believe they were owned by wealthier players — show a variety of gameplay scenarios, historians have no idea what the exact rules were or how the game was played.

Other ancient board games

Board games weren’t popular with just Egyptians; other ancient cultures created their own games to pass the time. The Royal Game of Ur had Sumerian players in the Mesopotamian city of Ur roll a four-sided die with the hopes of moving all their game pieces to the end of the board first. Recovered game boards date the Royal Game of Ur to around 2600 BCE, and while some instructions for the two-player game exist, they’re incomplete, making it difficult for historians to understand all the rules and strategies.

Backgammon, which is still played today, is believed to be around 5,000 years old. Also known by its old-world name "Tables," backgammon was documented as a favored game of Roman emperors such as Claudius and Nero, and was mentioned in works by Chaucer and Shakespeare. In China, the game Wei-Chi (or "Go") was first played some 4,000 years ago. Go was considered an essential skill for Chinese gentlemen to master — not only is it still played today, but it has been modernized so that you can play online.

Modern classics

Board game with game night spelled out in game pieces
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When you think about classic board games to pull out on a quiet night in, those ancient amusements probably aren't at the top of your list. These days, modern classics like Monopoly, Scrabble, and Sorry are more likely found on the closet shelves of generations of families. But how did these 20th-century games become so popular? You can thank the Great Depression.

Games such as The Landlord’s Game (Monopoly’s earliest rendition, created by Elizabeth Magie at the turn of the century) had been around for decades, but the combination of time, indoor lighting, and limited funds in the 1930s generated new interest in board gaming. During a time when many were out of work, families looked for inexpensive ways to pass the time together. Tabletop games began to flourish in the U.S. during the '30s, and manufacturers such as Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley responded by creating a slew of games.

Sorry, which was created and trademarked mere months before the stock market crash of 1929, thrived during the Depression (though, Sorry also wasn’t an original idea — it was based on Parcheesi, which was first introduced in 1867). And Monopoly, a retooled version of Magie’s patented game, was popularized by Charles Darrow, a businessman who sold his version to Parker Brothers in 1935. Scrabble creator Alfred Mosher Butts turned to wordplay after losing his job as an architect in 1933; he first called his crossword puzzle game Criss Cross Words, but it didn’t begin to earn mass popularity until the 1950s, when the president of Macy's department stores began stocking Scrabble after he discovered it on vacation.

The booming board game business

Of course, the advent of computer technology brought its own crop of video and online games. But if you thought that video games would mean the end of traditional board games, think again. Unplugged gaming still has a fanbase, and the number of published games has actually been on the rise since 2000. In 2015, an astounding 3,429 new games were published.

But though countless board games have entered the market, the best-selling games of all time have been around for centuries — chess, checkers, and backgammon. Perhaps it’s proof that no matter how much people crave new ideas and entertainment, there's nothing quite as comforting as a classic "checkmate!" or "king me!" when you need a little friendly competition.