What may have begun as a visual way to mark each of the 30 days in the Egyptian month evolved into an entertaining game and then into one with serious cultural and religious significance. Senet is believed to be the first tabletop game to exist in history.
Senet, the first table top game to exist
The earliest Senet boards that we have evidence of date as far back as 3500 B.C. and were rectangular slabs of wood, limestone or faience (ceramic earthenware made from ground quartz and coated with a brightly colored glaze) that were carved with squares and symbols. By 1500 B.C., Senet games were increasingly self-contained. Many featured a board carved into or attached to the top of a rectangular box with pullout storage for the game pieces
The game of Senet is featured on hieroglyphs and multiple tombs in Egypt such as the tomb of Merknera and Hesy, and eventually became a talisman for the journey of the dead. Because the game relies heavily on luck it was thought that the winner was under the protection of the gods and it name came to mean ‘the game of passing.’ Senet boards were often placed in the grave to help the deceased through the afterlife.
Senet game boards followed a format often repeated in ancient Egyptian edifices: three rows of 10 squares each. The game included five or seven distinctive game pieces for each player, depending on the era in which it was played. The pieces were shaped like cones or spools and were known as “ab,” the Egyptian word for dancer, because they danced along the board.
Four sticks cut from tree branches were used as dice; they had a rounded side and a flat side. Here’s a movement guide:
- One stick with flat side up = one spaces
- Two sticks with flat sides up = two spaces
- Three sticks with flat sides up = three spaces
- Four sticks with flat sides up = four spaces
- Four sticks with flat sides down = six spaces
Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum: SET OF THIRTEEN GAMING PIECES, CA. 1390-1353 B.C.E. FAIENCE, GLAZED, GREATEST DIMENSIONS FOR REEL-SHAPED PIECES: 1/2 X DIAM. 13/16 IN. (1.3 X 2 CM). CHARLES EDWIN WILBOUR FUND, 49.57.1-.13. CREATIVE COMMONS-BY-NC.
Although records of Senet’s original rules have never been recovered, much of the game’s play has been reconstructed based on unearthed sets, images wrought on tomb walls, and the study of Egyptian culture and religion. According to a version of the rules researched and developed by archeologist Timothy Kendall, players begin the game by placing their pieces in alternating spaces to fill the first 14 squares on the board. Thus, the 15th square is Start.
To determine which player goes first, they take turns casting the sticks. The first to throw a one (one stick that lands with the flat side up and three that land flat-side down) makes the first move. And the second move as well: Each time a player throws a one, four or six, she goes again.
The game pieces move in an S-shaped path, reversing direction with each row, and progressing from the square each starts on to square 30. Contestants try to move ahead of their opponents and force them backward using blocking techniques — more about that on the next page. The winner is the first to move her game pieces to the final row and then off the boar
- Lara Croft plays Senet in the video game “Tomb Raider 4: The Last Revelation.”
- In TV shoow “Lost,” the Man in Black plays the game with Jacob. “Lost: the Complete Collection” was sold with a Senet game.
- A Senet digital version exists in an app for iPhone or Android.
Play a Senet Replica now
The website http://paper-replika.com/ has come up with a pdf download, available below, which allows you to reconstruct and play senet.