Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Books: The Games People Played Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Michael Abrams


Gambling that some out there are growing weary of video games, Front Porch Classics has produced Old Century Games of the World, a package of seven popular ancient games. While the game pieces and two double-sided boards are well designed, the poorly written rule book can make understanding the games something of a challenge.

The first of the games is Chaturanga, the Indian precursor to chess that dates back to at least the sixth century A.D. The pieces move much like those in chess (also included in the package), but instead of two armies of 16, four players control armies of eight. Two four-sided dice are rolled to see which pieces can be moved each turn. The game develops much more quickly than chess, but the addition of the dice means luck determines the outcome more than strategy. Two-person play is also possible, but the rule book falls short in explaining how to pull it off.

Dudo is an Incan game that comes to us by way of the conquistadors (dudo is Spanish for "I doubt it"). There's nothing to it but rolling dice and taking turns predicting how the rolls turn out, and even players with no head for statistics will enjoy slamming their tumblers of dice down on the table. The basic concept is simple, but Dudo's betting procedures can be tricky and once again the instructions are confusing.

Believe it or not, Parcheesi is the third most popular board game in this country. But long before there was Parcheesi, there was Pachisi, thought to have originated in India around the fourth century A.D. Presumably the ancient Indians had more fun playing this mind-numbing game than I did. Players roll dice and move their pieces around an endless board till they get home (the rule book leaves out nuances like blockading that make the game more interesting).

Other games include Wari, an African game played on a board with shallow depressions; the intricate Asian Go, in which players take turns placing stones on a large grid; and Quirkat, from ancient Egypt, which combines the jumping and double jumping of checkers with the endgame of chess.

For anyone eager to find out how the ancients spent their free time, Old Century Games of the World is a great package. But find the rules elsewhere.

Michael Abrams is the author of the puzzle and game book Dr. Broth and Ollie's Brain-Boggling Search for the Lost Luggage.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America