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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Ludi: the ancient Egyptian game of Senet

Updated: Feb 16

Senet is one of the oldest games in the world and may be the ancestor of modern backgammon. The oldest known representation of Senet is a tomb painting from the Mastaba of Hesy-re that dates from Egypt’s Third Dynasty (circa 2686 BC - 2613 BC). Scenes found in tombs dating to the Old Kingdom (2700 to 2200 BC) reveal that Senet was a game of position, strategy, and a bit of luck. More than 40 Senet gameboards have been found in various Egyptian tombs, including in that of Tutankhamun, some in very good condition with counters, sticks or knucklebones still intact. Senet was not only played in Egypt, but in other countries of the Levant and the Mediterranean, such as Israel, Lebanon, and Cyprus, where similar gameboards have been found.

Senet represents a journey through the underworld where all a player’s gaming pieces must make it off the board, into the afterlife, before their opponent’s. Although the original rules of the game are unknown, historians Timothy Kendall and R. C. Bell have made their own reconstructions of the game rules based on tomb drawings, fragments of inscriptions, and hieroglyphs on the gameboards themselves. These modern rules are based on snippets of evidence that spans more than a thousand years during which time gameplay most likely changed. It is doubtful, therefore, that the reconstructed rules reflect the exact course of ancient Egyptian gameplay, but Kendall’s and Bell’s rules have been adopted by sellers of modern Senet sets.

Gameplay: The Senet gameboard consists of a grid of 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten, onto which are placed two sets of counters (at least five of each), which move around the board following an ‘S’ shaped path. Movement is dictated by the throw of four painted or decorated tally sticks which can produce scores of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 depending on how they land. The number of blank faces uppermost indicates the number of squares that a player can move. If four marked faces are uppermost, then a move of five squares is permitted. A single piece must be moved on each turn. If this is not possible to move ay piece forward, then a piece must be moved backward to the count of the tally.

Each square may only be occupied by a single piece at any time. If a player lands on a square occupied by a solitary opponent’s piece, then the opponent’s piece is moved back to the square from which the moving piece came on that turn; the two pieces exchange places. If, however, a piece is adjacent to one or more pieces of the same colour, then it is protected, and the moving piece cannot land on that square. Thus, players may block each other’s progress.

As in backgammon, the objective is to bear all of one's gaming pieces off the board first, but there are special spaces on the board that affect gameplay:


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