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Game of Senet

Game of Senet


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How to Play Ancient Egyptian Senet Game: Rules to Know

Want to know how to play an ancient Egyptian game? Then the Senet game is what you want! With Ancient Egypt, in the name, you can probably already guess that Senet is a very old game with a rich history behind it.

As one of the oldest board games still played today Senet is well worth playing purely from a historical perspective. But it is also a game with a lot of strategy to it. Although like all good strategy board games the aim of Senet is quite simple.

There are variations to the standard rules of Senet but many people follow the traditional rules which we’ll be setting out in this guide. So, let’s learn more about this historic board game and learn how to play Senet.


Ancient Egyptians Had Their Own Kind of Ouija Board

Played by royals and commoners alike, senet would transform from a simple game to a symbolic journey to the afterlife.

  • Thousands of years ago, Egyptians created their own kind of Ouija board, and it all began with the simple board game of senet.
  • The game&mdashwhich was played by people across all social circles&mdashseemingly became a way to reconnect with the dead and took on a life all its own.
  • An analysis of one particular senet board shows how the game underwent this cultural transformation.

Ancient Egyptians were competitive at everything&mdashobtaining natural resources, going to war, and playing board games. First appearing in the Old Kingdom nearly 5,000 years ago, senet (meaning 'passing') was a game much like backgammon that grew into a morbid fascination with death, much like a modern Ouija board. It quickly became popular throughout the Nile River valley.

A senet board consisted of three rows with ten squares per row, and according to Science, two players would move pawns around the board after rolling 'throw sticks,' the ancient version of dice. Most of the squares were blank with the exception of squares 26-29, which contained symbols that still remain a mystery today. The first person to get all their pawns to the end&mdashin this case, the 30th square&mdashwas deemed the winner.

The oldest known reference of the game of senet&mdashaside from a few fragments that some believe were originally part of a senet board&mdashis in a painting on the tomb of Hesy-Ra, a member of high Egyptian court (and possibly the world's first dentist), who lived during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser around 2600 B.C.

There's also a depiction of Queen Nefertari playing senet against an unseen opponent on a wall painting within her tomb (pictured above) and Tutankhamun was buried with at least five sets of the game.

But eventually, around 4,300 years ago, senet took on a deeper cultural meaning&mdasha connection with the dead. While similar to its secular origins, this new version depicted how a soul passed on from this life and traveled through Duat, the Egyptian underworld, toward the afterlife.

Science reports that more than 3,000 years ago the game board began to reflect changes in design, too. Instead of "three simple vertical lines" typically seen on the 28th square of the board, some boards started to show a hieroglyph of three birds, a well-known symbol of the human soul.

A senet board in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California, actually shows some of the changes as the board evolved from its secular origins into a more religious artifact.

The 27th square of this particular board shows a hieroglyph for water, where traditionally, the 27th square would typically show an X. This possibly represented a body of water a soul needed to traverse along its journey through Duat. This redesign would last for the next 800 years until the game became less popular and people eventually stopped playing.

Although the game fell out of popularity, the history of senet remains embedded in hieroglyphics and ancient artifacts&mdashand with humanity itself. If the Ouija board is any indication, we still haven't shed our morbid fascination with the afterlife.


Ancient Board Games: Senet and the Royal Game of Ur

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The Royal Game of Ur. (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

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Our history studies in homeschooling come in four year cycles, which breaks up recorded time into ancient, medieval, early modern and late modern times. Since I’ve been teaching my kids for four years now, we have swung back around to ancient history. Because my daughter is considerably older than the last time we studied ancient civilizations such as Sumer and Egypt, we’re diving in deeper, learning about more of the details of life and advances in technology.

One fun aspect of ancient life that we came across is board games. Perhaps these civilizations played more games than have been found, but the few that have been discovered are still great fun to play. It should be noted that historians aren’t completely sure about the rules of these games, but have pieced together instructions as best they could.

The Royal Game of Ur (for lack of a better name) was discovered in a tomb in Ur, an ancient city in Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern day Iraq. To play, you roll dice and try to move your pieces around the board faster than your opponent can move theirs, all while trying to thwart their advancement. You and your opponent are racing on slightly different game paths.

Senet is an ancient Egyptian game where you also are racing against your opponent to get pieces off of the board. Your paths are identical, however, and there does seem to be more strategy involved with this one. But instead of rolling dice, you toss sticks that have a light side and a dark side. There are also more complicated rules that add a decent amount of strategy to the luck of the toss.

Both games have entertained us over and over, but Senet seems to have captured more of our attention. Give both games a try. You can play Senet and The Royal Game of Ur online for free, and you’ll get to experience a bit of life from thousands of years ago. You can also buy reproductions of both games online.


How To Play Senet

Through many ancient depictions and snippets of text, historians have been able to piece together how the game of Senet might have been played.

What You’ll Need To Play

In order to play Senet you’re going to need a few things. The 10 x 3 game board, 10 pawns (5 of each type) and 4 Senet sticks.

Creating Your Own Senet Set

The Board: A modern Senet board consists of 30 squares in a 10 by 3 grid. This can be made on a piece of paper, ensuring the spaces are roughly the same size. The board also has a few glyphs written onto some of the spaces.

The Pawns: Senet usually consists of 10 pawns. 5 for each player. These can be anything as long as each player has 5, such as coins or rocks.

The Sticks: The Senet sticks are used for movement in the game. These can be made with 4 Popsicle sticks. One side of each stick should be painted white and the other black.

Terminology

  • Houses/Squares – The squares on the board that the player must move through
  • Senet Sticks – The sticks used to determine how far you can move

Objective Of The Game

Senet is a game of strategy in which each player aims to get all their pieces off the board before their opponent. The first player to do this wins the game.

Pawns travel through the first row, then the second, and then the third. Turning when they reach the end of the row and going down the next row in the opposite direction. Once the end of the third row is reached the pawn is removed from the board.

Initial Setup

To start the game each player places their pawns on the board.

The first player puts their pawns on the first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth houses. The second player places their pawns on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth houses.

Taking A Turn

Players take turns tossing the Senet sticks and then moving accordingly. How far they move depends on the result of the Senet sticks.

The very first move of the game is done by the second player, and must move the pawn on the tenth space.

Senet Stick Toss Meanings

There are 5 different possibilities when tossing the Senet sticks.

  • 2 white and two black: Move two houses and then end your turn.
  • 3 white and one black: Move 3 houses and then end your turn.
  • 3 black and one white: Move 1 house and then toss again.
  • 4 white: Move 4 houses and then toss again.
  • 4 black: Move 5 houses and then toss again.

Occupying and Protecting Houses

Only one piece can occupy a house at any time. If a player lands on another players pawn, the pawns switch places.

However, a player can protect their house by having more than one pawn next to each other. If a pawn is touching another pawn of the same color, the opponent cannot land on either house.

If a pawn cannot move forward, it must move backward. If it cannot move backward either the turn is over.

Special Spaces

  • Trap: The 27th house is a trap, and transports any pawn that lands on it back to the 15th house.
  • Safety Squares: Houses 15, 26, 28 and 29 are designated safety squares that cannot be attacked.
  • The House Of Happiness: Marked by 3 lines on the 30th house, this is the final space on the board. Any piece that lands on this space is removed from the board. Pieces must land directly on this space, not pass it.

Due to the long history of the game, there are many ways to play Senet. So these are only the simplest modern rules. Some variations add additional special houses and rules.


Game of Senet - History

This elegant looking game board (pictured on the left) is made of ebony, ivory, lapis, and gold, and was found in King Tut's tomb, along with a number of other games of this type. Tut died about 1350 B.C., nevertheless, Egyptologist indicate that a version the game of Senet was probably played in Egypt prior to 3000 B.C. Archaeologists report that board games first appear about 9000 B.C., and Senet may be an evolved type of these very early board games.

Click on the left menu item above to read a scholarly paper written in 1980 about this game and some of interpretations concerning it over the years. Archaeologists and Egyptologist have been excavating Egyptian tombs for more than a hundred years, and have unearthed a great deal of information about the game of Senet. While there are no written instructions for play of the game that have survived the millenniums that it has been played, there are many types of "evidence" that have enabled Egyptologists to explain how the game can be played.

This evidence is in the form of many wall paintings in tombs illustrating people playing the game, papyrus scrolls which include information about the game, and of course, some hieroglyphic evidence. Since the game was played in the mid-east into the early A.D. centuries, there are findings about the game during those times.

Archeological findings from different periods range from the elaborate board such as found in Tut's tomb, to simple baked clay tablets. This range of materials suggests that people of all social classes played Senet.

When the Museum moved into new quarters on the University campus in the mid-1970s, it borrowed the Senet game (on the left) from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for an exhibit. The "board" was not a board as such, but 30 preserved earthen tiles held in a wooden frame built by the ROM. The game pieces (that the ROM provided) were similar to ones that would be used for Senet, but were from another archaeological find. The ROM's arrangement of the tiles was appropriate, since in the main, a "standard" Senet board consisted of 30 tiles arranged in 3 rows of ten. In almost all of the Senet "boards" found, only the last five squares (bottom row) as in the ROM board, contain etched hieroglyphics on their top faces. All the other tiles are usually blank.

What do these hieroglyphics say, and what do they say about the play of the game? It is assumed by Egyptologist that the hieroglyphics have something to do with the play of the game, and are not just decorative. Since Senet is thought to be a game in which two player's race to complete a course on a track, the last five tiles either impede or increase a player's change of winning. This is much like in a contemporary game in which a player lands on a square that says "back up 3" or "advance 7 spaces". As in most "racing games on a track" some chance device is required by players to indicate how many moves they can make on the track during each turn. In contemporary games, dice are often used for this purpose. In Senet a set of "throw sticks" were used by players as a chance device.

In 1979 the Museum acquired the reproduction of the Senet game pictured on the left. As in more elaborate ancient sets, this reproduction has a drawer in the base to hold the playing pieces and the throw sticks. The reproduction was manufactured by Northwest Corner, a company in Seattle, Washington, U.S. The board (box) is made of wood and is 13cm long x 41.5cm wide x 4.6cm high. The top is divided into 30 squares, 3.5cm each and each is surrounded by molding.

The set includes a booklet with a history of the game and instructions for a number of ways the game might be played.

According to the manufacturer, this version is a pre 18th Dynasty version from Egypt, and thus the 5 hieroglyphics are placed as in that original game with one in the middle of the board, and four in the third row.

The wooden playing pieces are shaped like spools (2.4cm high) and cones (2cm diameter x .3cm high) There are 5 of each in the set. The four wooden "throw sticks" are 10.6cm long x 1.6cm wide x .6cm high. Each stick has a rounded embossed and painted top, and a plain underside.


The Petrie Museum has three mostly intact board games that can be reasonably recognized as the game of Senet, which was one of the most popular games played by the Ancient Egyptians as well as people in Cyprus and the ancient near east.

Four Senet boards were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but it was an activity that was not dependent upon one’s status in Ancient Egypt. There is evidence – ranging from scratched graffiti boards to more luxurious and elaborate boards adorning the tombs of royalty – that people from different social classes partook in the game.

More like this

In play for between 2,000 and 3,000 years, the oldest hieroglyph found relating to Senet dates to around 3100 BC and, over time, many components of the game changed, including the boards themselves and the rules.

These rules have been debated by academics for years, but one thing we do know is that the Egyptian word “snt” means to “to pass” or “to go by” and this echoes the overall aim of the game, which is to get all of your five playing pieces from one end of the board to other. Comparisons have been made to backgammon, with the game board made up of three rows of ten squares, some of which have specific hieroglyphic symbols on them.

UC2320: An intact board game identified as Senet at The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Courtesy UCL Culture

Reflecting the game’s longevity, the examples at the Petrie come from different periods, such as the Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and Late Period and the collection also boasts a few additional board games or pieces of board games that are likely related to Senet too.

There is also a noticeable variation among the examples as different squares are decorated with different hieroglyphs.

One rectangular slab of green/grey siltstone dating to the 26th Dynasty features hieroglyphic signs/groups in the lower right hand corner, a handle with three grooves carved at the same end, and at the back, three columns containing eleven circles, the one in the centre having six petals incised in it.

Another fragment of a grey/green steatite senet-game board features two joined lotus flowers and a carved handle at its unbroken end. The squares are divided by three lines with hieroglyphs or groups in separate squares: Hr nb, two ii’s three iii’s, boat on mw, ms together with partly incised circles on the back. In two pieces, according to Flinders Petrie, this game board came from the New Kingdom.

The Ancient Egyptians used sticks to move across boards like these, however the game is playable with a dice and there were five uniform playing pieces per player (ten in total).

UC2317: Another intact version of Senet at the Petrie. Courtesy UCL Culture

UC2317: The underside of the Senet board game. Courtesy UCL Culture

The rules of Senet

As the rules have varied over time, it is difficult to highlight objectively how the game should be played, however, if you want to give it a go yourself here are some core facets of the gameplay:

  • Players start at one end of the board (squares one to ten) alternating every other piece
  • The highest possible role was 4 (if using sticks like ancient Egyptians)
  • A player can move a piece as many pieces as they roll (roll a two, move two spaces)
  • If you land on a space with an opponent’s piece, you take that spot and the opponent moves to where your piece came from. Other versions suggest if you move and land on a square where you can move your opponent’s piece, their game piece should return to the beginning of the board (instead of where you came from)
  • If you get three of your pieces in a row (other sources say four or five), that creates a blockade that your opponent cannot go past. Some versions have rules where if you roll certain numbers (like a two or three or both) you get to go again
  • Once a game piece has made it to the final three squares – you need the exact number from your roll to land on the imaginary 31st square to safely exit. The first player to get all of their pieces off wins
  • The pieces must travel horizontally on the game track in a clockwise direction, kind of in a reversed “Z” shape
  • You cannot land on a square which already has one of your pieces on it
  • Pieces that stand on the last four squares cannot protect each other and must follow a set of special rules
  • If the opponent swaps pieces from square 26 with a piece on one of the last four squares, the player must move their piece to square 27.

The special rules of Senet

And here, for those who really want to walk and play like an Ancient Egyptian, are the special rules that have been deciphered and compiled by Egyptologists:

  • Square 26: “The House of Beauty” – All pieces must stop on this square if a roll lands a piece there. A piece on this square can leave the gameboard with an exact roll of five
  • Square 27: “The House of Waters” – You have two options if one of your pieces lands here. Option 1: Return the piece to square 15 or “The House of Rebirth”. If a piece should already be here then you must return the piece to the first available square behind it. Option 2: Try and roll an exact value of foour. If successful the piece can be taken off the gameboard and you receive one extra turn, if not, your turn is over
  • Square 28: “The House of Three Judges” – A piece cannot be moved but can be removed from the gameboard with an exact roll of three
  • Square 29: “The House of Two Judges” – A piece cannot be moved but can be removed from the gameboard with an exact roll of two
  • Square 30: “The House of Horus” – A piece can be removed from the gameboard with a roll of any value.

Good luck! And remember: information extracted from Old Kingdom tombs suggests that, although Senet was a game of strategy, it was aided by a bit of luck. Any good luck experienced playing the game was considered to be a blessing from the gods…

UC2319: A Senet board fragment. Courtesy UCL Culture

This article was written from research written by MA Museum Studies students, taking the Exhibition Project Module from the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Venue

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

London, Greater London

The Petrie Museum houses an estimated 80,000 objects, making it one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. It illustrates life in the Nile Valley from prehistory through the time of the pharaohs, the Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic periods to the Islamic period. The entire&hellip

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The Game of Senet

Senet is an Egyptian race game and may be the ancestor of our modern backgammon. We know of this game through ancient Egyption boards that have survived to this day. More than 40 have been discovered, some in very good condition with pawns, sticks or knucklebones still intact. The oldest known representation of Senet is in a painting from the tomb of Hesy (Third Dynasty circa 2686-2613 BCE).

The game board is composed of 30 squares: 3 rows of 10 squares each. If we number each square, the board can be represented like this:

The path of the pawns probably followed a reversed S across the board.

Squares 26 to 30 have symbols on them. We will represent them in order by X, O, III, II and I. It seems that the square with an X, carrying the sign nfr, was beneficial, whereas the one with an O, associated with water, had a negative meaning. Square 15, also called the "square of Rebirth," might have been the starting square.

Other elements found with the gameboards were pawns. The Hesy painting shows a game with seven pawns for each player. Then, some time after 1600 - 1500 BCE, the players were represented with seven or five pawns. Some games have even been found with ten pawns per player.

The movement of pawns was probably decided by the throw of four, two-sided sticks (as depicted in the Hesy painting) or, later, knucklebones might have been used to determine the moves.

What was the function of Senet? A game or something more? In his book, Lhôte notices that the first pictures show two human players whereas later the human player is depicted alone with an invisible opponent. It appears that Senet began as a simple game and later acquired a symbolic, ritual function.

Of course, the original rules of Senet are not known. No record of the rules on papyrus or tomb wall has ever been discovered. It is very difficult to reconstruct the game through the pieces and the tomb images.

Kendall's Rules

A summary of Timothy Kendall's work on the reconstruction of the rules of Senet is given in the book by Lhôte.

    At the beginning of the game the seven pawns per player alternate along the 14 first squares. The starting square is counted as the 15th. In the oldest games this square featured an ankh, a "life" symbol. The pawns move according to the throw of four sticks or, later, one or two knucklebones. When using the sticks the points seemed to have been counted from 1 to 5: 1 point for each side without a mark and 5 points if the four marked sides were present together.

  • 15 : House of Rebirth, starting square and the return square for the pawns reaching square number 27.
  • 26 : House of Happiness, a mandatory square for all the pawns.
  • 27: House of Water, a square that can be reached by the pawns located on squares 28 to 30 which moved back when their throws did not allow them to exit the board. They have to restart from square 15.
  • 28 : House of the Three Truths, a pawn may only leave when a 3 is thrown.
  • 29 : House of the Re-Atoum, a pawn may only leave when a 2 is thrown.

Bell's Rules

Another version of the rules was proposed by RC Bell.

Each player has 10 pawns. Four two-sided sticks (one side painted) are thrown to determine movement.

  • When only one painted side is visible : 1 point.
  • With two : 2 points.
  • With three : 3 points.
  • With four : 4 points.
  • With none : 5 points.

Bibliography

R.C.Bell, The Boardgame Book, 1979 Marshall Cavendish Ltd, London

Kendall Timothy, Passing Through the Netherworld : The Meaning and Play of Senet, an Ancient Egyptian Funerary Game, 1978 Belmont, The Kirk Game Compagny

Lhôte Jean Marie, Histoire des jeux de société, 1994 Flammarion


What is Senet? (with picture)

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.

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.

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.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.


Gameplay in Ancient Games

Senet is the first game published by the Ancient Games collection. It features in total 42 Avatars, 28 Boards and 6 Dices.

From where it starts, the pawn must follow an S-like path across all the board, row by row, starting from the upper row, in order to be taken off the board. The dices in question are a bunch of four sticks, whose score is obtained by counting the number of white faces of the sticks (for example, two white faces on the sticks mean that the player can move a pawn by two squares) horever, in case of no whites, the player can move a pawn by 5 squares. If a player scores a 1, 4 or 5, he/she can play again.

A pawn is considered protected if it is beside an ally pawn, and cannot be captured. Instead, it is isolated if it is alone, if an adiacent square is occupied by an enemy pawn and the other is empty, or if it is surrounded by two enemy pawns. If an adversary arrives on the square occupied by an isolated pawn, the two pawns trade places.

The player can move a pawn if it ends up on an empty square, or one occupied by an isolated enemy pawn. The move is instead impossible if the pawn arrives on a square occupied by an ally pawn or a protected enemy pawn.

The last five squares of the board are special: in order to access the last four squares, a pawn must first stop on the previous one (the 26).

  • If a pawn ends up on square 27, it is sent back to square 15, or the first empty square before 15).
  • If a pawn ends up on square 28, 29 or 30, it is stuck until it is captured, or gets out the board n one throw (for example, a pawn that ends up in square 28 can get out only by a throw of 3). Horever, they can still capture enemy pawns ahead of them, provided that the rules above are applied. It's worth noting that, instead of trading places, the captured pawns are sent back to square 15, or the first empty square before 15).

To score a point, a player must take a pawn out of the board from the squares 26, 28, 29 or 30. The player that scores 7 points first is the victor.


Watch the video: How to Play Senet (January 2023).

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