Senet and Other Games

Minor Arts in the Reigns of Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III. 12.182.72a, b. (wooden block and green pieces) Game Pieces. Dynasty 18 (1550-1295 B.C.). Faience. Also listed as: Draft Board with Funerary Prayers for the Overseer of Works Taja and His Family. Early to mid-Dynasty 18 (ca. 1450-1350 B.C.). Wood, probably persea tree. 19.2.19-.27a,b (stick pieces) Game Throw Sticks, Fox Heads on One End, Finger Tips on the Other. Dynasty 18 (ca. 1580-1295 B.C.). Tinted Ivory. All from Rogers Fund, 1912. Photo taken in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 2024, by author.

Senet (aka the game of passing through) may not be the very oldest of board games, but it was deeply popular in Egypt from the third millennia B.C.E. through to the Roman period. Although the above exhibit does not say which game(s) the box and pieces represent, other sources indicate that Senet and a game called Game of Twenty Squares (aka Game of Twenty) used different sides of the same box (much like chess and checkers use the same board). This picture shows the Twenty Squares side. This particular box is known as The Game Box of Taia.

With some similarity to modern versions of both backgammon and (to a lesser degree) chess, Senet uses a block with 30 squares and 5 or more pawns for each of the two players.

Senet gaming board inscribed for Amenhotep III with separate sliding drawer, ca. 1390–1353 BCE. Faience, glazed, 23⁄16 × 31⁄16 × 81⁄4 in. (5.5 × 7.7 × 21 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 49.56a-b. Brooklyn Museum.

The Game of Twenty or Game of Twenty Squares is another ancient tables game similar to the Royal Game of Ur. Egyptian gaming boxes often have a board for this game on the opposite side to that for the better-known game of senet. It dates roughly to the period from 1500 BC to 300 BC and is known to have been played in the region that includes Babylon, Mesopotamia and Persia, as well as Egypt. The board comprises two distinct sections; a quadrant of 3 × 4 squares, like that in the Ur game, and a row or ‘arm’ of 8 squares projecting from the central row of the quadrant. It has five rosettes. The rules are not precisely known but it appears likely that players entered all their 5 pieces onto the arm and aimed to bear them off from the sides of the quadrant, perhaps having contested the arm by hitting opposing pieces off.

Royal Game of Ur. Wikipedia.

Now what about the sticks? These were apparently an ancient form of gaming dice or counters. The ones at The Met have a fox head on one side and a fingertip on the other.

Throw sticks like this one were used as counters, like dice, to determine the moves of board games such as senet and twenty squares. The throw sticks 19.2.19-27a, b are usually displayed with the game box of Taia. Throw Stick, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, second half, ca. 1400–1295 B.C. From Egypt; Probably from Upper Egypt, Thebes. Hippopotamus ivory (tinted). Dimensions: L. 8.3 × W. 1.4 × Th. 0.7 cm (3 1/4 × 9/16 × 1/4 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Although we don’t know the exact rules for Senet, both the Otago Museum and the Ram Museum have made some educated guesses as they describe how to prepare to play then dive in. You need the following items:

  • A board with 30 squares (3 by 10). Can be made of any material. Each square should be around 3 cm, though the exact size doesn’t matter.
  • Two sets of five pieces (counters) to fit in the squares. Each set should be separate colors or shapes as each player has a set.
  • Six throwing sticks (or maybe five). They should each be flat enough such that they land either face up or face down. Mark them such that you know which side is up or down. When you throw them, you’ll use the number of sticks that end up face up.

To play, place the board horizontally. Use all 10 game pieces in the squares on the top row, alternating. Your goal is to move your pieces across to the right, down one row, across to the left, down one row, then across to the right and off the board. You can move one piece of your choice forward the number of boxes as indicated by your throwing sticks. You can only land on a blank square or a square with your opponent’s piece (which then goes back to the beginning). There are a few more complex rules as well. First person to move all their pieces off the board wins.

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