Sunday, May 20, 2007

Game of the Week: Senet

It's impossible to know when the first boardgame came to be, but the most ancient one we have evidence for is the game known now as Senet. According to R.C. Bell in the Boardgame Book, the earliest record of Senet is from a wall painting dated about 2613 BC. Ancient writers rarely seemed to bother with the mundane aspects of life, so it's hardly surprising that we don't have any written references that might describe how to play. What has survived are some paintings (always in profile, by Egyptian artistic conventions) and about 40 or so copies of the game in various tombs (in various degrees of completeness).
This means we can't be sure about how to play, but some educated guesses can and have been made and you can buy commercially made copies of the game. I have a 1998 version by Fundex Games and a nearly identical 1976 edition by Northwest Corner Inc.
Suggested rules also appear in the Boardgame Book and in The Word of Games among other places.
Everyone seems to agree that play moved back and forth down the 30 spaces rather like a game of Snakes & Ladders. Most believe play started in the upper left corner and moved to the lower right. All also seem to agree that it's in the backgammon family of games, and indeed, it may be the original founding game of the type. Each player had an equal number of identical pieces (either 5 or 7) and the "dice" were four throwing sticks that were flat on one side and rounded on the other.
The board comprised 30 spaces in three rows of 10 each. 24 of the spaces were plain or decorated with art that had no game effect. If we start the numbering system at the upper left, the first special space is No. 15. This seems to be a "starting" space of some kind, according to most authorities, although probably not the game start. Instead it seems to be a restarting space for pieces that are sent back from the "water trap" in space 27, which I'll discuss later on.
The next space of note is No. 26, which apparently usually had a symbol implying it was a "good" space. Space No. 27 is the "water trap" which is a "bad" space. Most authorities believe that pieces that landed there were sent back to Space 15. Finally, spaces 28, 29 and 30 are marked III, II and I, respectively. Most believe these were "bearing off" spaces.
Apparently these markings were remarkably stable for the several thousand years that the game was played.
Here's the general board layout, taken from a leaflet by Damian Walker:
We can't know what the "right" rules were, of course. And it's likely that over the course of several thousand years the rules changed a bit over time and from place to place. The rules were transmitted orally, so local variations and customs no doubt occurred. One only has to consider how many different ways there are to play checkers (draughts) and dominoes to see that the same set of game equipment can result in a lot of variation, even if the basic idea stays the same.
All that said, I think experienced game players can make some reasonable judgments about what's likely to have been the rules. I'm not sure that many of the Egyptologists have also been game players and some of their suggested rules don't seem to make sense to me.
For example, R.C. Bell's suggested rules have the players starting off the board and trying to marshal all their pieces into position on the board. I think this is highly doubtful. Other games in the class such as Backgammon, Ludos Duodecim Scriptorum and Snakes & Ladders bear off, not on. I think this is a fundamental aspect of play and probably has always been so. It's also much simpler in execution than the alternative. Finally, the pictorial evidence seems to show that pieces started on the board, as this illustration from the World Of Games suggests:
Some sources, such as the Fundex rules, suggest that the marked spaces are simply "safe" spaces" without any further game effect. Authorities seem pretty sure that pieces that landed on an opposing piece sent the target back to where the aggressor came from. There also seems broad agreement that a pair of adjacent friendly pieces protected each other from being bumped and a row of three friendly pieces created a block that could not be passed by the opponent.
But it seems to me that game board markings, especially those that remain stable over many centuries, certainly must have some effect on play. The III, II and I markings (and their variants, which always show three, then two and finally one thing) most likely mean that the pieces needed that exact throw to bear off. I think they were also "safe" spaces, but not just safe spaces)
The water trap's effect of sending pieces back to space 15 works well, adding a bit of fate and drama to the game , especially near the end. I'm not sure about the "good" space at No. 26. Walker's rules that it's a mandatory "stop" space that all pieces have to pause in before going further. This doesn't seem much like a "good" effect to me and just slows down a game that's not exactly torrid in its pace anyway. The Fundex rules merely treat it as another "safe" space, which doesn't seem like all that much, but it's still at least somewhat positive.
Everyone agrees that a toss of the sticks that shows 1 flat face up allows one piece to move one space and another throw. Throws that show 2 or 3 flats allow one piece to move that number of spaces and pass the sticks to the opponent. Four flats up allows a move of four spaces and another throw.
There's some difference of opinion about no flats (or four round sides up). Walker and Bell suggest it's a "five" while the Fundex rules and the Jequier rules in World of Games say it's a "six." Either way it also allows another throw. I think "six" is preferable because it adds a little more speed to the game. In cases when there is no legal forward move, then the value from the casting sticks has to be used for a retrograde move instead.

The starting setup is thus with 14 pieces (from Walker):
If using only10 pieces, such as in the Fundex set, just set up the pieces in the first row.

Game play is more interesting than it might first appear from a game with such simple rules. There's considerable scope for tactical play as the two armies claw past each other trying to exit. Forming and maintaining blocks is a big part of the game, although the water trap and the difficulty of bearing off quickly mean that it's hard for one side to run off with the game. The Fundex 1998 rules do have an option for scoring extra points in a series of games if the opponent still has pieces in the first or second rows at game end (similar to gammoning in backgammon).
The element of fate in the game appealed to Egyptian cultural sensitivities and the game eventually became associated with religious themes, although it always was played as a secular past time as well.
Modern players may find the game a little too slowly paced and repetitive and some people may not like the casting sticks. They are a little louder and more harsh in the hands than what we moderns are used to. The Fundex edition includes a modern 6-sided die for players who don't mind the anachronism.
The game can be played online in a demo version suitable for teaching at

R.C. Bell, The Boardgame Book1979 Knapp Press
Fundex Senet Rules, 1998
Northwest Corner Senet Rules 1976
Peter A. Piccione, In Search of the Meaning of Senet, University of Waterloo, 1980
Damian Walker, Senet, Traditional Board Games Series Leaflet #4
Jack Botermans et al, The World of Games, Facts On File, 1989