When people visit Level One Game Shop and see our selection of new-generation hobby games, a common question is what our oldest game is. As for hobby games, it’s probably Cosmic Encounter or Dungeons & Dragons. But Level One doesn’t just specialize in hobby games, we carry all kinds of games. In reality our oldest game is probably backgammon - which is even older than chess!
Some of these classic games have been in our living memories effectively forever. Many of us grew up with them, so it seems like they always existed. But obviously they didn’t, and even though they don't have a copyright date, they must have come from somewhere, right? Let’s take a look at a few of the most curious classic games on our shelf to see where they come from.
So backgammon is the oldest game in the shop and is one of the oldest games in existence. Similar games have been discovered in archaeological sites all across the ancient world. A common thread in many backgammon-esque early games, such as senet from ancient Egypt and The Royal Game of Ur from ancient Iran, was using dice to move pieces across a track. Ironically, modern board game fans identify this style as “roll-and-move” with disdain due to its use in a multitude of shallow-but-marketable games from the 20th century.
The rules for Backgammon can be attested to in the late Roman Empire in 480 AD. The Byzantine emperor Zeno had a roll so bad he had to write a short poem about it for posterity. Fascinatingly, Zeno’s backgammon is almost exactly the same as the backgammon we play today.
Chess is almost the living fossil that backgammon is. We can trace chess’ roots pretty clearly back to 6th century India. The progenitor was a game called chaturanga, which is a Sanskrit word for “having four limbs.” This name is a poetic reference to the four segments of an ancient Indian army: elephants, chariots, horsemen, and infantry. This is where even modern chess pieces came from: elephants correspond to bishops; chariots to rooks; horsemen to knights; and of course, infantry to pawns.
From India, chaturanga was eagerly taken up by Persian peoples, who also made the first record of a chess match in the 10th century. Persian players called the king piece the shah, and when a player achieved victory they would announce shah mat, meaning “the king is dead.” When Europeans finally picked up chess in the 10th century, they borrowed these Persian words to eventually come up with the words “chess” and “checkmate.”
And naturally, chaturanga picked up many house rules and variations on its journey to become chess. The focus of most variants altered how pawns, queens and kings move. The modern form of chess is actually a variant called Mad Queen Chess, named so because the far-reaching movement of the queen was unique. But the Mad Queens took over and unified the chess world under the set of rules we know today.
While Rummikub isn’t as ancient as backgammon and chess, it has this elegance and mystery that makes it seem so. And its origin has just as much history in it as any other ancient game. Rummikub was actually invented in the 1940s - it’ll reach its centennial in just a few decades. The inventor Ephraim Hertzano was living in Romania as a young man, and during this time Romania was under the rule of a strict Communist regime. This regime had outlawed playing cards, deeming them as a “decadent” distraction. However, games are an indelible part of human life, and life always finds a way. The regime hadn’t outlawed tiles, and an enterprising Hertzano emulated melding-based card games using painted tiles. This is where Rummikub gets its name. It’s a version of rummy, played with cubes.
Hertzano moved to Palestine in the 50s, before it would soon become Israel, and brought his tile game with him. Hertzano and his family hand-crafted Rummikub sets in their backyard and sold them on consignment to local businesses. It’s popularity spread throughout the West Bank and Anatolia, spawning a popular Turkish coffeehouse game Okey. Rummikub’s popularity really exploded in the 70s, and in a really modern way. American comedian Don Rickles, while on the Johnny Carson Show, mentioned how his wife became a big fan of “the funny game” of Rummikub when they visited Isreal. Rummikub was officially published in America in 1978, and from then on Rummikub became a fixture in families’ homes across the continent.
The Long Roots of a Flourishing Tree
The hobby board games that Level One Game Shop specializes in are part of a trend from about the 1990s onwards. And with the non-stop storm of innovation that drives the hobby, it’s easy to get lost in modern trends and lineages of inspiration. We see echoes of these designs in abstract territory games such as Tak and Cairn, set-building games like Jaipur, even roll-and-move games like Downforce. History reminds us that games have come naturally to humans since the dawn of civilization, and even all this modern sophistication is just a chapter in an epic of creativity and cleverness.