Senet is an ancient Egyptian board game believed to be the oldest known board game. It consists of a grid made up of three rows of 10 squares, with some marked with special symbols. The rules are unknown, but players moved checkers around the board, determining the number of spaces they moved with a throw of a knucklebone or stick. Senet sets were often buried in tombs for use in the afterlife, and some are on display in museums.
Senet is a very popular board game in ancient Egypt. It is believed to be the oldest known board game and, as such, would have been the forerunner of several other similar games played throughout Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, the senet seemed to acquire religious significance; as the game spread to other regions, however, it was played solely for amusement.
The oldest senet sets date from around 3500 BC, and some boards have been discovered in remarkably good condition. The board itself consists of a grid made up of three rows of 10 squares, some of which are marked with special symbols. Artifacts found with senet sets, along with paintings depicting the games in play, suggest that players moved a series of checkers around the board, determining the number of spaces they moved with a throw of a knucklebone or stick.
The rules of senet are not known, although several theories have been put forward as to how the game was played. It is assumed that landing on squares with special symbols probably had some consequence, and that the players were probably racing each other to get off the board, as the name of the game comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “pass game”. The number of pawns appears to have fluctuated, as archaeologists have found five to 10 pawns per player at various sites across Egypt.
Since senet is largely a game of chance, based on lucky knuckle throws, the Egyptians believed that particularly well-behaved players were favored by the gods. Over time, the board came to be used as a metaphor for traveling through the land of the dead, with the Egyptians believing that some people would be guided by the gods, while others would struggle. Senet sets were often buried in Egyptian tombs, in the theory that the board would be useful in the afterlife.
Many senet sets are on display in museums, and some are quite beautiful, with inlaid stones and precious metals, ornate carvings, and elegant drawers under the board for storing the pieces. Several game manufacturers have also produced sets of senets for people who wish to play at home. Such sets typically come with different versions of the assumed rules for people to play with.