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The Game of Senet

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Senet is an ancient Egyptian game, and probably one of the oldest games in the world. The exact rules are not known, because unfortunately no records were made on stone or papyrus (the game must have been so popular that the rules were passed on by word-of-mouth), although there has been plenty of speculation about how it was played. Using the boards, pieces, and pictures of ancient Egyptians playing Senet, people have tried to work out how to play the game. RC Bell and Timothy Kendall's versions are well-known and sensible, but anyone is invited to try making up his or her own version of the rules. It is known, however, that the main aim of each player is to be the first to pass into the afterlife, by getting all their pieces off the board. This was done by moving around the board, avoiding hazards and collecting blessings.

Senet boards and pieces, around 40-50 in all, have been found in many tombs, and other archaeological sites. Senet boards were probably placed in tombs so that the deceased could play in the afterlife. Four were found in good condition in the tomb of Tutankhamun; they were all rich and fine, one even made of ivory and ebony with drawers for the pieces.

Peasants played Senet too, but obviously their boards were not as fine as those of Tutankhamun. Their's would probably just have been drawn in the dirt with a stick, and counters would have been small rocks.

Senet may have been the foundation of our modern game backgammon. The game board is made up of 30 squares - three rows of ten - numbered from left to right, top to bottom:


Five of these squares, 26-30, had little symbols on them. Some of the symbols were helpful, but others a hindrance in this game. The middle square, number 15, was called the 'Square of Rebirth', and could have been the starting square.

The pieces were pawns. Some paintings show each player with seven pawns, others show five, and some paintings depict players with as many as ten pawns each!

Nobody is certain what determined the movement of the pawns, but it probably has something to do with throwing. Some drawings show players throwing four two-sided sticks, but some experts think knucklebones were used.

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