Senet is an ancient Egyptian game that may be the forerunner of the modern game of backgammon. The game permeated all levels of society. A table-sized board was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen; simple boards have been discovered in the graves of more ordinary folk. More than 50 such boards exit; some of these are in very good condition, with pawns, sticks or knucklebones still intact. The oldest known record of Senet is shown in a tomb painting from the Third Dynasty, in the 27th century B.C.
Rules Have Been Lost
Despite the fact that the game was so well-known, the rules, unfortunately, have been lost in the mists of time. New sets of rules have been developed. These are either based on knowledge of the various drawings of the game being played, along with the written references to it; or by play-testing the game, using knowledge of its origins and the meaning of its markings and pieces.
The Senet game board is made up of 30 squares, three rows of ten squares each. The game was played with throwing sticks, tree branches cut lengthwise. In addition, each player had either five or seven playing pieces. While boards have been found in the tombs of the kings and nobles, they have also been found built into the tops of high walls, possibly by masons taking a gambling break from their work. The three-rows-of-ten squares format has been found repeated in large buildings, and even in antechambers to tombs. It is possible that some of these designs were used as boards with people or life-sized tokens serving as the pawns.
Might Have Started as a Calendar
The board may have been originally designed as a calendar, showing the 30 days of the Egyptian month. Eventually, it became so much a part of Egyptian life that it became part of the culture’s religious practice. Apparently, it was a way to gamble for a pleasant afterlife. Many people believed that a game played with the forces of the Underworld shortly after death would determine whether the recently-departed spirit would get to enter a peaceful eternity or not. Because of this religious significance, when Christianity began to spread throughout Egypt, Senet lost favor as a pagan custom.