What is Senet?

Mary McMahon

Senet is a board game which was widely played in Ancient Egypt. It is believed to be the oldest known board game, and as such, it would have been the precursor to numerous other similar games played throughout Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, senet appeared to acquire a religious significance; when the game spread to other regions, however, it was played purely for fun.

Bones of animals were originally shaped for use as knucklebones.
Bones of animals were originally shaped for use as knucklebones.

The oldest senet sets date back to around 3500 BCE, and some boards have been discovered in remarkably good condition. The board itself consists of a grid made up of three rows of 10 squares, some of which are marked with special symbols. Artifacts found with senet sets, along with paintings depicting games in play, suggest that players moved a set of pawns around the board, determining the number of spaces they moved with a toss of knucklebones or sticks.

The rules of senet are not known, although several theories about how the game was played have been posited. It is assumed that landing on the squares with special symbols probably had some consequence, and that players were probably racing each other to get off the board, as the name of the game comes from an Egyptian phrase which means “passing game.” The number of pawns appears to have fluctuated, as archaeologists have found anywhere from five to 10 pawns per player at various sites around Egypt.

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Because senet is largely a game of chance, based on lucky tosses of the knucklebones, the Egyptians believed that players who did particularly well were favored by the Gods. Over time, the board came to be used as a metaphor for the journey through the land of dead, with Egyptians believing that some people would be guided by the Gods, while others would struggle. Senet sets were frequently buried in Egyptian tombs, in the theory that the board would be helpful in the afterlife.

Many senet sets are on display in museums, and some are quite beautiful, with inlaid stones and precious metals, ornate carvings, and elegant drawers below the game board to store the pieces. Several game manufacturers have also produced senet sets for people who wish to play at home. Such sets typically come with several different versions of the hypothesized rules for people to play with.

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