Ludi: the ancient Egyptian game of Aseb
Aseb is the Egyptian version of the ancient Middle Eastern game called ‘The Game of 20 Squares’. Aseb is related to the ‘Royal Game of Ur’ in its more archaic forms, and probably arrived in Egypt from ancient Sumer, during the 17th Dynasty. Outside Egypt, versions of Aseb have also been found in Sudan, Crete, and even in India.
It is a race game, in the same category as Senet and the ‘Royal Game of Ur’, but with a much shorter playing duration being somewhat quicker and simpler. Aseb is mostly a game of chance with little strategy involved.
Involving two players, the game includes a board divided into 20 squares arranged into three rows of four columns, plus a line of eight squares. Five cone-like pieces, five round spindle pieces, and four two-sided tally sticks are included in the game. The latter serve as dice with one of the stick’s sides being rounded.
In some versions of Aseb, either a single four-sided knucklebone, a single four-sided stick, or a single four-sided conical die is used instead of the tally sticks. This slightly changes the game, because such dice offer an equal probability of scoring any of the dice values whereas tally sticks do not.
Gameplay: The game starts with all the pieces located off the board, on the long fields adjacent to the line squares. All four throwing sticks are cast just once in a single turn; additional throws are not allowed. The score is determined as follows:
• If one tally stick lands on its flat side and the other three land on their round side, then the score is 1.
• If two tally sticks land on their flat side and the other two landed on their round side, then the score is 2.
• If three tally sticks land on their flat side and the fourth one lands on its round side, then the score is 3.
• If all four tally sticks land on their flat sides, then the maximum score of 4 is achieved.
• If all four tally sticks land on their rounded sides, the score does not count and the player needs to throw the sticks again.
To determine which player starts the game, both players throw the tally sticks and whoever scores 1 moves first. That player throws the tally sticks again to determine how many squares to move, either one to four. With each throw of the sticks, players can either add a piece to the board or move a piece which is already on the board.
Players begin by moving pieces into squares 1 to 4 and 17 to 20, depending on their initial tally stick score. Squares can be occupied by only one piece at any time. Subsequently, they can choose to move any of their pieces during a turn, providing the move is allowed. Gaming pieces can only move forward.
A player’s pieces are not allowed to pass their own pieces. So, if a player’s piece is blocking the path of the next, the following piece must stop on a preceding empty square, even if the tally score would have placed it further down the path.
If a player’s piece lands on a square occupied by an opponent’s piece, then the opponent’s piece is removed from the board and must start from the beginning. There are no safe squares in Aseb from where a piece cannot be removed from the board, except for the first four squares of each player’s path on the short rows (1 to 4 and 17 to 20) where the opponent’s pieces cannot enter the board.
If a player cannot make a move because all available squares are occupied, then they skip a turn.
There are five marked squares known as ‘Houses’ (numbers 4, 5, 9, 13 and 20 as labelled above). If a player lands on any of them, they get a second turn.
A player must throw the exact number needed for a given piece to move off the board. For example, if a player’s piece is on either squares 5, 6, 7 or 8, then they must score 1, 2, 3 or 4 respectively to exit the board. If the player’s score is different and they cannot make any other moves or move off the board, they skip a turn. The player who moves all of their five pieces off the board wins the game.