10 oldest games in the world that’ll make you marvel at ancient civilisations

oldest games in the world
The oldest games in the world date back around 5,000 years. Source: AFP

Looking to step away from your screen? Or perhaps you want to take a walk down memory lane.

Either way, try playing some of the oldest games in the world — some of which you can still play today. 

Long before games like Scrabble, Catan or Monopoly became popular, those who lived in the ancient world also passed their time by playing board games. 

What’s more, games are a great way to destress. 

Though there has been a constant debate between the benefits and harmful effects of playing online games, they can actually reduce stress and improve mental health.

Gaming has also been a part of human civilization for over 5,000 years, dating back to the earliest societies. 

While the exact rules of these games are unknown, historians have managed to reconstruct them, allowing us to enjoy them today.

The best part? Ancient games provide insights into the cultures, values, and daily lives of people from the past. They are an essential part of a culture’s heritage. Preserving and understanding these games helps to maintain cultural identity and traditions, even as societies evolve.

Many ancient games were designed for people to bond, communicate, and develop relationships. 

Understanding how these games were played and their significance within communities provides insights into ancient social dynamics.

By studying and preserving these games, we can better understand our collective heritage and how people of the past engaged with the world around them. 

10 best oldest games in the world that will shock you

1. The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is one of the oldest games in the world. This board game originated around 4,600 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.

Around 177 BC, a Babylonian astronomer inscribed the instructions for the game onto a cuneiform tablet.

In this game, two participants compete to guide their pieces from one side of the board to the opposite.

Interestingly, the central squares of the board served a dual purpose, being employed not only for gameplay but also for fortune-telling.

These reconstructed rules have been utilized to develop contemporary versions of the game, some of which are available online on the British Museum’s Mesopotamia website.

To win, players raced their opponent to the opposite end of the board, moving pieces accordingly.

oldest games in the world

Mancala is among the oldest games in the world, with archaeological evidence reaching back perhaps as far as 6000 B.C.E. in Jordan. Source: AFP

2. Mancala

Mancala stands as an ancient pastime with a storied history across diverse cultures and global regions spanning centuries. The game exhibits numerous adaptations, its origins tracing to ancient Africa and the Middle East.

In the game of Mancala, players sit across from one another, positioned along the elongated side of the board. Commencing play involves distributing 24 stones to each player. Four stones are placed within each hole nearest the respective players — the game’s objective centres around determining which participant can amass the greatest number of stones.

Mancala is an ancient game that has been played for centuries across many cultures and regions worldwide. The game has many variations, and its history can be traced back to ancient Africa and the Middle East.

To play Mancala, each player sits opposite each other, facing the long side of the board. Set up by giving each player 24 stones. A player places four stones into each of the holes closest to them. The game aims to see which player can collect the most stones.

The exact origins of Mancala are difficult to pinpoint due to its widespread and the lack of written records. Different cultures have their versions of the game with varying rules and names, such as “Wari” in West Africa, “Kalah” in North America, “Bao” in East Africa, and “Congkak” in Malaysia.

oldest games in the world

The Senet game board of Tutankhamun rests on a stand with animal-shaped legs attached to sledge runners. Source: AFP

3. Senet

Originating around 3100 BC, Senet is one of the earliest documented board games.

The game entails a grid of 30 squares organized in three rows of 10. In a head-to-head contest, two players strive to advance all their game pieces to the board’s culmination. This advancement is dictated not by dice but by casting sticks or bones, determining the number of squares traversed in each cast.

With a history stretching back over 4600 years, Senet secured its status as the premier game during Ancient Egypt. However, its significance transcended mere entertainment for the Egyptians of antiquity, representing their personal pursuit of immortality in the afterlife.

oldest games in the world

Though one of the oldest games in the world, Mahjong is still played today worldwide. Source: AFP

4. Mahjong

Mahjong dates back several centuries. Though the exact origins are unclear, Mahjong is believed to first appear in China during the Qing Dynasty. Today, it has grown in popularity and is played worldwide. 

Mahjong is a tile-based game that involves strategy, skill, and also a little bit of luck. Mahjong is similar to the popular card game rummy. It is typically played by four players, although there are variations for different numbers of players.

The game involves:

  • Drawing and discarding tiles.
  • Forming specific combinations or patterns.
  • Trying to complete a winning hand.

The game aims to get all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair.

5. Mehen

Mehen is another board game from Ancient Egypt, and it is believed to be the earliest example of a multi-player board game.

Evidence of this game’s existence spans from the Predynastic Period to the end of the Old Kingdom. The discovery of Mehen was found within King Peribsen’s tomb, dating back to 2770 – 2650 BCE.

Mehen is a coiled serpent deity, safeguarding the sun god Ra during their nightly voyage through the underworld within his enormous coils.

The game pieces come in two forms: small spheres similar to marble and ivory pieces in the shapes of lions and lionesses. Mehen’s exact rules and gameplay are unknown, but historians believe up to six people could play the game.

oldest games in the world

Did you know chess was first discovered in India decades ago? Source: AFP

6. Chess

One of the oldest games in the world originated in India. Initially known as “Ashtapada,” it later transitioned to “Chaturanga” during the Gupta Empire’s reign.

This version incorporated “four divisions of the military”: infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry, which evolved into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook pieces.

Persians who encountered the game in ancient India named it “Shatranj.” Its popularity extended even to the British.

As with many early games, Chess rules evolved as they spread globally, culminating in the modern rules formulated around the 15th century in Europe.

oldest games in the world

Ludo is a simplification of the Indian game Pachisi invented at the end of the nineteenth century. Source: AFP

7. Ludo

Ludo, another ancient game with Indian origins, was formerly known as “Pachisi.”

In India, the board was often fashioned from cloth or jute. A depiction of Pachisi appears in the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra, underscoring its popularity in the Medieval Era.

Historical records also indicate this game’s presence in the caves of Ellora. The Mughal emperors, particularly Akbar, favoured Ludo.

The British then adapted the game, using cubic dice and a dice cup, and patented it as “Ludo” in 1896 in England.

oldest games in the world

The board game, today called Snakes and Ladders, originated in ancient India, where it was known by the name Moksha Patamu. Source: AFP

8. Snakes and Ladders

During ancient times in India, the game Snakes & Ladders was referred to as Moksha Patam, Mokshapat, and Parama Padam.

Crafted by the 13th-century saint Gyandev, this game of virtues and vices served as an educational tool within Hindu Dharma, imparting moral lessons to children.

Snakes depicted vices, while ladders symbolized virtues. While the game underwent alterations over time, its essence remained unchanged: if you do good deeds, you go to heaven, and if you do bad deeds, you will be reborn.

Similar to Ludo, “Snakes and Ladders” gained international popularity after being introduced by the British.

9. Ludus Latrunculorum

Ludus Latrunculorum was a strategic game designed for two players to assess their military prowess. Played on grids of varying sizes, the most extensive example featured a 17-by-18 square configuration.

The earliest recorded mention of Ludus Latrunculorum dates back to the first century BC when Roman writer Varro described its pieces crafted from coloured glass or precious stones.

10. Nine Men’s Morris

The game of Nine Men’s Morris is so old that no one knows for sure when and where exactly the game originated.

One of the earliest known board games was discovered engraved onto the roofing slabs of the Kurna temple in Egypt, estimated to be from around 1400 BCE.

Comparable to contemporary checkers, Nine Men’s Morris involved players moving their squad of nine “men,” each represented by distinct pieces across a gridded playfield. The formation of a “mill,” a row of three men, permitted a player to capture an adversary’s piece.

Nine Men’s Morris has surfaced in countries globally, including Greece, Norway, Ireland, France, Germany, and England. The game experienced particular popularity in medieval Europe, even earning mention in Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Nine Men’s Morris is still widely played today, and its rules have not changed much since they were first recorded.