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A brief history of board games

Despite spending most of their days trying to survive and thrive, early people across the globe needed something actually fun to do with their spare time … much like people today. Made from stone, bones, and other handy materials, early games weren’t too far off the ones we play today. And while humans eventually transitioned from stick-based games to those with dice, and later boards, the earliest games show that humans haven’t changed all that much in a quest for good-intentioned victory over family and friends.

History’s oldest board game

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 all levels of Egyptian society with an ever-evolving set of house 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 storage drawer to stow pieces after the otherworldly game was finished.) And while surviving versions of Senet — many with 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 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, still played today, is believed to be around 5,000 years old. Also known by its old-world name, “tables,” it’s been documented as a favored game of Roman Emperor Nero, and mentioned in works by Chaucer and Shakespeare. And beginning around 4,000 years ago, winners of the game Go (also called Wei-chi) triumphed by surrounding their competitor’s game pieces and removing them from the board. Go is still played today, and has become modernized with online matches.

Modern classics

When you think about classic board games, you probably aren’t naming those early civilization amusements. Modern gamers of all skill levels are likely to name off Monopoly, Scrabble, and Sorry as popular classics played by 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) existed nearly 30 years before the Great Depression, but the 1930s’ combination of time, indoor lighting, and limited funds 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 1930s, with manufacturers such as Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley creating a slew of games.

Sorry, created and trademarked months before the stock market crash of 1929, thrived during the Depression (though the game isn’t an original idea — it’s 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 during the 1930s. Scrabble creator Alfred Mosher Butts turned to board game inventing after losing his job as an architect, though his hard work — originally called Criss Cross Words — didn’t gain popularity until the 1950s, when it was sold to Hasbro.

Booming board game business

If you thought that video games would mean the end of board games, think again. A resurgence in unplugged gaming has led more people to seek out a growing number of new board games. The number of published games has been on the rise since 2000, with more than 3,400 games published in 2015.

And while countless board games have sought their way to the top of best-selling games lists, the top seller most years is often a return to basics — chess, checkers, or backgammon. It’s proof that older games, while often less flashy and perhaps a little dated, have a way of outlasting the competition.

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