Summary of the Board Games of the Ancient World seminar

The theme of the last AMME Seminar in 2021 was board games in the Ancient world. The first talk was by Dr Walter Crist (Maastricht University) with the title “The Playable Past: Digital Tools and the Board Games of Antiquity”. Second speaker of the evening was Dr. Jacob Schmidt-Madsen (University of Copenhagen) on the topic of “From Victory to Defeat: A Brief History of Backgammon in Medieval South Asia”.

Dr. Walter Crist works with the Digital Ludeme project that aims to collect information about traditional strategy games and reconstruct their rules computationally. Components that make up a game are called ludemes. The known components, or ludemes, are added to the program and the program’s artificial intelligence attempts to fill the missing components out. Then the AI tries out multiple options, but the most playable ones are the ones that are most likely closest to the original rules. It is unlikely that a game that would be impossible to finish or would take hundreds of turns to be finished would become very popular. The Ludii Games Database can be accessed online where information of various games can be read. Some games, such as Senet, can even be played on the website.

Compared with other games board games are usually easier to construct because they have crucial material elements of which some have been preserved to our day. The rules of ancient games are not known to us because traditionally games were taught in person and the rules were not written down. This also meant that there were multiple variants of the same games, and the “official” versions were created once the rules were written down. Games and their rules are not mentioned in many ancient texts, but there are some exceptions such as the Seleucid game rule text. There is more iconographic evidence of the games of the ancient world and some of these images even have captions. Images can also reveal who usually played the game. 

One of the games that have been studied by using the Ludii software is the ancient Roman game Ludus Latrunculorum. Parts of the rules are known, but not all. Based on the archaeological evidence the game was played on a rectangular or square board, but boards of many sizes have been found. Were all the different boards really used to play this particular game? The Ludii software AI played Ludus Latrunculorum on variedly sized boards to determine whether all these boards could be used. Testing revealed that as the size of the board increased, the playability of the game decreased. So, it seems that the larger boards were used to play something else than Ludus Latrunculorum.

Dr. Jacob Schmidt-Madsen dived into the history of Backgammon. In Europe the roots of backgammon can be traced back to the ancient Rome where games like backgammon were played. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the popularity of backgammon decreased. Its popularity began to increase again in the age of the Crusades. Even if European sources do not mention backgammon for almost 500 years, in Persia it is thriving. In Persia backgammon, or Nard was very important and they even had a legend that described that the game was invented in Persia. The legend also describes how the game was introduced to Indian people. Many iconographic sources from India from the middle of 1st millennium show Shiva and Parvati playing backgammon. It is likely that it means that the game was widely known in India at that time. 

Textual evidence from India is also known and it is from the Manasollasa text. Manasollasa includes five books; the first one tells how to acquire a kingdom, the second how to keep it and the last three books give instructions on how to enjoy one’s kingdom. In the fifth book many games and their rules are introduced, and one of these games is backgammon. The basic rules differ slightly from the traditional backgammon because it is played with two pieces 4-sided stick dice instead of cubic dices. Different setups of the game are described and one of the alternative setups - exceptionally played with cubic dices - is the same as backgammon is today. The text also mentions that backgammon is often played with money which is why king should only play it with his queen for an amorous end. The connection to gambling might one of the reasons why the popularity of backgammon in India began to decrease. It was slowly replaced by Chaupar that is played on cruciform board and multiple players can play at the same time.

The Ancient and Medieval Middle East Seminar will continue on January 27th!