The Curious World of Ancient Board Games

A few weeks ago, we delved into the surprisingly deep history behind games still commonly played today, like Go, chess, and various dice games. But we barely scratched the surface when it comes to ancient gaming. There are numerous games that fell out of favor centuries ago, only to be resurrected in the modern day by game enthusiasts and historians.

In today’s blog post, I’d like to dust off a few of these ancient games and briefly discuss what we know about them. It’s game history time!

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

A popular Viking game whose heyday was between the fourth and twelfth centuries, Hnefatafl was a popular game throughout Scandinavia. This mouthful of a game — sometimes called Viking chess by modern game fans — was so ubiquitous back then that it was mentioned in several of the Norse Sagas.

Amazingly, although game pieces and fragments of game boards have been recovered, no one is entirely sure how the game is played, so rules have been reconstructed based on a similar game called Tablut.

Translated as “board game of the fist,” Hnefatafl is part of a family of games called Tafl games, all of which take place on a checkerboard-style play space with an uneven number of game pieces.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Unlike Hnefatafl, the Royal Game of Ur has survived the centuries pretty much unscathed, thanks to a copy of the rules recorded on a Babylonian tablet. Played in the Middle East centuries ago — in places like Syria and Iran — the Royal Game of Ur was clearly popular, as evidence of the game has been found as far away from the Middle East as Crete and Sri Lanka.

The game and its trappings penetrated deep into Middle Eastern society. An Ur game board was carved like graffiti into a wall in the palace of Sargon II (dating back to the 700s BC). The Babylonian tablet indicates that certain game spaces were believed to be good omens, and could be interpreted as messages from the beyond.

The game was eventually either supplanted by backgammon or evolved into a version of backgammon, depending upon different historical accounts.

[Image courtesy of Chess Variants.com.]

Tori Shogi dates back to 1799 in Japan. Also known as Bird chess — thanks to game tiles named after phoenixes, cranes, and swallows — Shogi is played on a board seven squares wide and seven squares deep.

Unlike many chess variants, Tori Shogi allows for captured pieces to return to play, a nice twist that deepens the familiar gameplay style.

[Image courtesy of Bodleian Libraries.]

But chess and backgammon aren’t the only games with centuries-old precursors. The geographical game Ticket to Ride also has an aged forebearer in Binko’s Registered Railway Game, which was built around a map of the United Kingdom.

An educational game about placing trains on the map and determining how far they travel, this game has survived the decades relatively unscathed by time.


Those are just four examples of games that were either lost and then rediscovered, or games that fell out of favor, only to be resurrected by curious modern players.

And once again, these games are just the tip of the iceberg. There are centuries-old versions of The Game of Life, Parcheesi, a dating game, checkers, and more when you start digging!

As you can see, games have been a part of human civilization dating back millennia. We were always meant to play puzzles and games, it seems.


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At least there’s no giant boulder chasing you…

[Is this the way out or a costly dead end?]

We’ve tackled all sorts of brain teasers in the past. From the Brooklyn Nine-Nine desert island seesaw to several hat puzzles, from Cheryl’s birthday logic puzzle to a diabolical light switch puzzle, we have conquered all challengers thus far!

But never before have we confronted a puzzle with as much backstory as today’s contender. Ladies and gentlemen and PuzzleNationers of all sorts, today we battle the Temple Tunnel puzzle.

Imagine that you’re a professor leading a group of eight grad students on an expedition into a booby-trap-filled temple.

[No, not THAT professor.]

After two of the students bump into an altar, they activate a trap, sending everyone scrambling for the exits before the temple collapses all around you.

The group finds itself in a room with five tunnels and an hourglass detailing how much time you have to escape. One of them leads back to the altar and the other four are possible routes of escape. Unfortunately, you can’t remember which one it is!

All you remember is that it took approximately twenty minutes to get here from the exit. How do you determine which tunnel is the correct one, and get everyone to safety?

Oh wait, there’s one more little complication. That altar the students bumped into? It released the vengeful spirits of the temple’s king and queen, which have possessed two of your students. So you can’t trust what they say.

So how do you figure out which tunnel is the right one without being deceived by your two compromised students?

[Image courtesy of XKCD.com.]

*deep breath* Wow, that’s quite a setup! So let’s summarize:

  • You have an hour to escape, and four corridors to explore.
  • Each corridor will require 40 minutes to explore: 20 minutes to determine if it’s the exit, and 20 minutes back to report your findings.
  • Whatever groupings you break the team up into, you have two possible liars among them, and no way to determine which ones are the liars before sending them down a tunnel.

For a wonderful animated version of this puzzle, as well as its solution, check out the YouTube video below from TED-Ed:

Now, while the solution itself is quite clever, I can’t help but ask certain questions:

It says that the possessed students can’t harm the others, but can they mislead them with actions as well as words?

I’ve seen several proposed solutions that included not only sending groups down the tunnels, but instructing one or more of them to leave the temple immediately if they find the exit (meaning that not seeing them return would confirm they’d found the exit). But if the liars can simply stay at the dead end, that would be a false confirmation of finding the exit.

The video is ambiguous about this, because it says the spirits will lead them to their doom, but then it also says that the curse only affects their communication.

How does the group know you’re not one of the liars?

The solution is entirely dependent upon you being able to explore a tunnel alone, because that determines the groupings for the other three tunnels. If you have to take someone with you (either an honest student or a liar), that affects your ability to draw proper conclusions from the other groupings. And even if you find the exit, the student with you could lie about it, and there’s no way to prove the truth to the group definitively.

Why not just ask each student individually a question the ancient king or queen wouldn’t know the answer to?

Presumably the spirits of ancient royalty wouldn’t know about the latest episode of NCIS or which version of Windows we’re up to.

In any case, this was a delightful mind-bender, one that has stumped many an intrepid solver. How did you do? Tell us in the comments below!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!