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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The (Increasingly Lengthy) History of Games

Being a student of history means constantly discovering amazing new things about our world, our culture, and ourselves. There are so many unexpected twists and turns, synchronicities, coincidences, and flat-out mind-blowing facts waiting to be uncovered.

And when you’re a student of history with an interest in puzzles and games, it means you get to discover just how long humans have been dabbling in baffling brain teasers and friendly competition.

Board games, for instance, have been around a long time, longer than most people realize. There is evidence that Go has been played in China for more than 5,500 years!

And many other games also have shockingly long lineages. Chess can be traced back to the seventh century in India. Game boards have been found in king’s courts, university halls, and even former houses used by the Knights Templar, as pictured above.

We’ve previously explored that Viking gravesites from the ninth century reveal that board games were not just a pastime for the Vikings, but that their win-loss records were important enough to be recorded for posterity!

Check this out. It’s an ancient Greek painting on a vase, dating back to 530 BCE. This piece is an example of the black figure technique where images painted on clay turned black when the clay was fired. It depicts the two mightiest warriors of the Trojan War, Achilles and Ajax, playing a board game to keep themselves busy during the siege of Troy.

It’s unclear what game they’re playing, though many historians believe the warriors are rolling dice in the image. That would make sense, since astragali (the knuckle-bones of goats and sheep) were used in ancient Greek gambling games.

Dice have an equally ancient history. The Egyptian game of Senet, which was played with dice, dates back over 5,000 years.

Dice games have been uncovered in Mesopotamian tombs (some as far back as the twenty-fourth century BC), and a Vedic Sanskrit text known as the Rigveda, which dates back to India in 1500 BC, also mentions dice.

Tile games have a similarly deep history.

Chinese Dominoes can be traced back to writings of the Song Dynasty, nearly a thousand years ago. Dominoes as we know them first appeared in Italy during the 1800s, and some historians theorize they were brought to Europe from China by traveling missionaries.

Another tile game, Mahjong, has been around for centuries, but there are several different origin stories for the game, one tracing back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), another to the days of Confucius (500 BC).

Perhaps at some point, I’ll try to put together a historical timeline of gaming (similar to the crossword timeline I created around the 100th anniversary of the crossword).

In the meantime, I’ll settle for being utterly fascinated with just how long humans have been socializing, relaxing, and competing through the medium of games.


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Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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The Countess Who Revolutionized European Spycraft

[Image courtesy of Derek Bruff.org.]

The history of codebreaking is a fascinating subject not only for the mythic figures and their brain-melting accomplishments, but also for the unsung heroes who are only recently being rediscovered.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a woman who shaped a new foundation for American codebreaking, but has long since been overshadowed by the reputation of her husband William Friedman (as well as FBI sexism and self-promotion which helped to bury and/or co-opt her accomplishments as their own).

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Of course, not her page. The page on her family line.]

And as part of my research into Elizebeth’s story, I encountered a curious anecdote from the 1600s about another codebreaker and influential spymaster who history had forgotten.

From The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone:

Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up. Most were men who did not believe women intellectually or morally capable of breaking codes; some were women who took advantage of this prejudice to steal secrets in the shadows.

One of the more cunning and effective codebreakers of the seventeenth century was a Belgian countess named Alexandrine, who upon the death of her husband in 1628 took over the management of an influential post office, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis, which routed mail all throughout Europe.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Naturally, I was intrigued. But there’s surprisingly little out there about Alexandrine, whose full title was Alexandrine of Rye-Varax, Countess of Taxis, widow of Leonard II, Count of Taxis, occasionally shortened to Alexandrine von Taxis. She gets merely a paragraph on Wikipedia, and most Google searches only feature her as part of noble family trees.

Which is amazing, because she created the first verifiable Black Chamber in Europe — better known ones in England, France, and Germany weren’t established until the late seventeenth century. (A Black Chamber is a secret spy room or intelligence office, and Alexandrine’s was not only one of the first, but it was one of the most expansive.)

Despite her status as a widow, she was sworn into office as Postmistress in 1628 (serving as such until 1646, when her son would come of age), using those years to improve the wealth and status of her family while expanding the reach of the Taxis postal business, based in the Spanish Netherlands.

[The Taxis postal service, circa 1505-1516.
Blurry image courtesy of ApfelbaumInc.com.]

Alexandrine took over the Taxis postal service — the primary postal service across the continent, save for private couriers. She had a monopoly over the post in Europe, and was the de facto postmistress for the entire Holy Roman Empire.

And she used that position to her advantage, forming the Chamber of Taxis, an elite intelligence team composed of agents, forgers, scribes, codebreakers, and artisans. In a couple of hours, they could melt the wax seals off letters, copy their contents (in short-hand, often), decipher any coded messages, forge a new seal (and any other marks, including signatures, that would authenticate a seal), reseal the letter, and send it on its way, the invasion of privacy undetected.

She spoke four languages — French, Dutch, Italian, and German — and was very politcally savvy, cultivating relationships with fellow nobles even as she prowled through their private messages.

It’s not clear for whom she was spying. Some sources claim she sold her information to the highest bidder, while others claim she worked for both Emperor Ferdinand II and his son and successor Ferdinand III.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

What is clear, however, is that many discounted her and the Chamber of Taxis as a possible threat because of who she was. Sir Balthazar Gerbier, an agent of Charles I, suspected her early on, but discounted his own instincts because of “her honesty, dignity, and sex.”

Yes, the fact that she was a woman disqualified her in the minds of many from being capable of the sort of deceit and spycraft going on in the Chamber. (It also rankled some, like several German princes, that she was in a position of power at all, given her sex.)

And discounting her was a mistake, given that she commanded a crucial hub in the postal network.

[Yes, there’s even a board game based on the family business.
No spycraft though, unfortunately. Image courtesy of 999 Games.]

From Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, edited by R. Adams and R. Cox:

Since the 1490s Brussels had been the gateway to Europe’s postal network, connecting international postal routes from Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and England. One single family, the Counts of Taxis (from 1649/50 Thurn and Taxis), commanded the mounted couriers over these many-branched routes.

Yes, the family name and title changed, and that was also Alexandrine’s doing.

When those aforementioned German princes questioned having a woman running the Taxis postal service, she ordered a full ancestral workup. That examination revealed her family’s ties to another important lineage, and from that point on, The Thurn and Taxis postal service (as well as her spy organization, The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis) would bear that additional name, increasing the prestige and reputation of both family and business alike.

For eighteen years, Countess Alexandrine commanded both a business and a spy network that spanned the European continent, influencing the information flowing between various noble families, and no doubt helping to shape the future of Europe.

I sincerely hope more is revealed about her life and the work of The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis in the future. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of the role she (and the group) played in European history.


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Those Sudoku Puzzles Can Be Criminally Tough!

Even when I’m not thinking about puzzles or intending to learn about puzzles, puzzles find me.

I was reading one of the most recent editions of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, those delightful compendiums of all things amazing, weird, and unlikely. Everything from world records and peculiar habits to once-in-a-lifetime events and mind-bending coincidences are found between the covers of these collections.

And one particular fact caught my eye:

Eighty-six prisoners at Exeter Jail in Devon, England, signed a formal letter of complaint claiming that a Sudoku puzzle in the local newspaper — the Exeter Express and Echo — on May 21, 2015, was impossible to solve.

I was instantly intrigued.

[Image courtesy of The Telegraph.]

Here is the message the prisoners sent to the editor of The Exeter Express and Echo:

Dear Sir/Madam, I am sadly writing this letter in A LOT of disappointment.

As you will see, I’ve enclosed last week’s Sudoko [sic] page and we (along with 84 other prisoners) believe you printed a ‘hard’ Sudoku which is IMPOSSIBLE to complete.

As being prisoners we are only aloud [sic] access to Thursday’s issue, so we couldn’t verify the truth.

Yours FAITHFULLY,

Michael Blatchford
Shane Smith

Yes, The Exeter Express and Echo is printed twice a week, and since the answers to Thursday’s puzzles appear on Monday, and the inmates don’t have access to Monday’s issues, they were unable to check their own work.

So, naturally, I had to see whether this Sudoku puzzle was as unsolvable as the inmates claimed.

Finding a copy of the puzzle wasn’t hard. Here, I’ll post it here, in case you want to try your hand at it yourself:

[Image courtesy of The Telegraph.]

So, is it impossible?

Well, no.

In all honesty, I’m not the strongest or the fastest Sudoku solver. But I did complete this puzzle, difficult as it was. I suspect, given time, you would complete it as well. I don’t mean to impugn the Sudoku skills of the Exeter Jail population. I’m just saying.

As it turns out, the inmates had made a few key mistakes, mostly in the middle section, and since they apparently solve in ink, it made things much harder.

But, in a lovely response, the staff at The Exeter Express and Echo promised to make Monday papers available to the inmates as well, so they can double-check their answers next time. That’s nice.

And here’s hoping their Sudoku solving has been smooth sailing ever since. Apparently, it has been, since Ripley’s has yet to mention them a second time.


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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of Elonka.com.]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]


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