Not Just Fun and Games: What Board Games Can Tell Us About Ancient Societies

On the 26th of September, 1983, gaming company Atari dumped loads of unsold and/or defective surplus stock in a landfill near Alamogordo, New Mexico, after “grinding it to mulch and sealing it into a concrete tomb” (as one of the commenters on this article put it). This included thousands of copies of their apparent epic fail of a game E.T. (based on the film), their version of Pac-Man that you could play at home instead of at an arcade (whose novelty soon wore off), and, allegedly, prototypes for a “Mindlink controller” (a headband which would have allowed gamers to play WITH THEIR MIND by reading their “myoneural signal voltage to muscles in the users [sic] forehead (or elsewhere) and interpret[ing] them into commands onscreen”–is it just me or does that “elsewhere” sound a bit weird?). Canada-based filmig company Fuel Industries has recently been granted a permit to excavate the site, presumably with the plan of making a documentary in time for the event’s 30th anniversary.

This news got me thinking about games in the past, and whether we know much about them. I’m not thinking so much large-scale, public, heavily ritualised games like the Mesoamerican ballgame, or the chunkey beloved of ancient Mississippians–rather, I’m thinking more the sort of games you play in small groups, if not by yourself, like video games, or board games.

It turns out that we do have information on a lot of ancient board games. This both from textual sources (including an Icelandic saga in which a Viking board games-enthusiast by the name of Thorbjorn Angle strangles his mother for stabbing him in the face with a game piece, after suggesting that his pastime was a frivolous one) and material ones (such as little game pieces and a big chunky stone board from the Harappan site of Mohenjo Daro, India).

Bao players in Zanzibar. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Bao players in Zanzibar. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Finding out about these sorts of small-group/private games is important because they help us reconstruct the everyday lives of ordinary people, or imagine the leisure moments enjoyed by military leaders, political administrators, priests, and tribute collectors.

But games might also reveal something about the social and political organisation of past communities. One of my favourite passages from McIntosh’s (1999) seminal article on alternative forms of socio-political complexity in Sub-Saharan Africa is the bit in which she suggests that the difference between European and African notions of power is reflected in differences between chess and the family of traditional African board games known as mancala. Specifically, in chess, a hierarchically-organised set of pieces aims to capture the king of another hierarchically-organised set of pieces, with the implication that, once this happen, the winner will rule over the loser’s territory. Conversely, in mancala games, such as Bao, each piece in a set has the same value as every other piece, and the aim of the game is not to conquer territory, but convert your rival’s pieces into your own. In other words, chess reflects notions of power that coincide with being atop a set hierarchy, and ruling over a particular territory, while mancala games reflect a system in which power is about influecing people, not controllig land, and society is not rigidly hierarchical, but more fluidly organised.

Not entirely relevant to this post, but I had just had to include a photo of the Lewis Chessmen's equivalent of a rook: the berseker, a bearskin Icelandic warrior so wild, he is chewing on his own shield. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Not entirely relevant to this post, but I had just had to include a photo of the Lewis Chessmen’s equivalent of a rook: the berseker, a bearskin Icelandic warrior so wild, he is chewing on his own shield. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Some of the "Lewis Chessmen". The piece furthest to the right, in the second row from the top, is a pawn. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Some of the “Lewis Chessmen”. The piece furthest to the right, in the second row from the top, is a pawn. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Different versions of chess itself can also reflect cultural traits that are particular to the different places in which the game is played. For example, McGregor observes that, among the Lewis Chessmen (a group of 78 12th century chess pieces found on the Isle of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland), while all the hierarchically important pieces are wonderfully anthropomorphic, pawns are completely featureless small ivory slabs, which tells us something about how insignificant foot-soldiers, and by extension peasants generally, were in that cultural context. Weirdly, pawns are also surprisingly few, compared to other types of pieces. Similarly, documentary sources say that, in the Middle Ages, the queen could only move one space at a time, which may reflect Medieval misogyny.

What about Mesoamerican board games? A quick search reveals that patolli was possibly the most popular board game in the region for several centuries–one of those things, along with human sacrifice, the 260-day calendar, and a Rain God, that most Mesoamerican cultures seem to have shared. This we know from Spanish accounts, the depictions of patolli boards in native manuscripts, and patolli-like “boards” carved on stone floors at a number of sites.

Here’s how it worked:

  •  the board is cross-shaped, and divided into squares
  • there are two players, each one with six pieces
  • each one of your pieces needs to race around the board faster than your opponent’s
  • you move a piece across a certain number of squares depending on the score you get when you throw specially marked black beans
  • some squares have special properties: for example, the ones at the centre give you the power of pushing your opponent’s pieces off the board
  • you win a round when you manage to get all the pieces to do a full circuit of the board, and exit it
  • there is always a prize: each player will have bet a number of items at the start of the game, and the entirety of the loser’s “treasure” go to the winner.
English: patolli Game

A patolli game presided by its patron deity, Macuilxochitl. From the Codex Magliabechiano. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The game seems to be associated with Mesoamerican notions of time and space–the board is divided into four sections, and the number of squares is often 52. At the same time, Verbeeck (1998) suggests that, though the game may have originally been used mostly for divination, it progressively became more and more about gambling, as suggested by Spanish sources describing Aztec games. However, it’s entirely possible that the heavy emphasis on gambling that we find in Spanish descriptions of the game may have been exaggeration on the part of the colonisers.

A sample of different patolli boards: from top to bottom, left to right, Aztec

A sample of different patolli boards: from top to bottom, left to right, Aztec, El Tajin, Maya, Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, Aztec. As you can see, there is a lot of variation (Veerbeck 1998: 84).

However, digging a bit deeper reveals that, in fact, there is a lot of variation in the patolli boards that have been found at different sites–to the point that one starts doubting whether this game was indeed popular cross-culturally, or if archaeologists are simply interpreting anything vaguely boardgame-like they find as patolli, even when it actually wasn’t, simply because it’s the Mesoamerican boardgame we know most about. Verbeeck suggests that, like mancala, perhaps patolli was a family of similar games, rather than only one game. An idea I’ve had is that a study of the differences and similarities between the patolli boards found in different cultural contexts may tell us something about the relationships between different cultures–things like who borrowed what from where. And for cultures that were broadly contemporary (for example, Aztecs, Mixtecs and Zapotecs) differences and similarities may give us a richer idea of diplomatic relationships between them. I wonder–could be that, like table tennis in 1970s US-China relations, patolli was used in Mesoamerican diplomacy? I don’t know, I haven’t carried out this study, but it would be an interesting thing to look into.

References (beyond the ones already linked in the text):

McIntosh, S. K. 1999 Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

and for those who read Spanish, this article, though old, seems to have a lot of information on patolli:

Swezey, W. and B. Bittman. 1983. El rectángulo de cintas y el patolli: nueva evidencia de la antigúedad, distribución, variedad y formas de practicar este juego precolombino. Mesoamerica: revista del Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica 6:373-417.

  1. Great Article on the History behind board games and why we play them the way we do. I wonder how this would translate into more modern euro strategy games?

    • Thank you! I deliberately avoided the question of modern games because there’s just so many of them, and they all seem to be so different, that it would be difficult to single out one or a few as more reflective of modern society than others–although perhaps the very fact that there are so many popular games, and that they are all so different, is indicative of something by itself. BUT usually when you go looking for the origins of individual modern board games, you’ll find that they clearly reflect something of that era. Risk, for example, was invented in the late fifties, at the beginning of the Cold War period–which can’t be a coincidence. I guess it would be interesting to see how the waxing and waning in the popularity of different games coincides with shifting cultural/social/political/economic context–so, in the case of Risk, for example, if it became less popular after the fall of the USSR, or something like that. Is things like Risk what you mean when you say euro strategy games? or is it more stuff like Settlers of Catan? If you’re thinking more along the lines of Catan, this article ( suggests that its non-violence reflects post-WWII German “soul searching”–however, I’m not sure what it means that it’s become so popular in so many other places and times…

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