Top 5 Tabletop Games from Before Current Era

Tabletop games have been around for millennia, but which games are the best of all time? JK Geekly will try to narrow down this powder keg of topic by era. We’ll start with the games that predate gun powder with this list: The Top 5 Tabletop Games from Before Current Era (BCE).

AncientGames01We’ll get to the games in a bit, but let’s set some ground rules.

1: Cultural relevance plays as much of a factor as overall quality. This could mean that a game makes the list that isn’t as good as some others of its type, but the game in question was omnipresent, and you can’t ignore it.

2: Only one game from a franchise makes the list. That won’t matter so much in the early-going of these lists, but you can imagine a Top Five Shades of Monopoly.

3: Longevity plays a role, too. A game doesn’t have to fly off the shelves today, but it had to have some widespread appeal for a decent time period.

4: This last one’s more of a note of caution. There’s plenty of speculation as to when some of these games were created, but we’ll stick to ones that have multiple sources linking the game to this time period.

5) Liu Bo (1st Millennium BCE)
Folks can’t agree on how Liu Bo’s played or when it first adorned people’s tables. It’s one of those games last in history. But we do know that it had a beautiful board, it was one of the few things that would survive in ancient Chinese tombs, and it inspired several games that came after it.

Liu Bo01How do we know that? The game of Liu Bo was described in the mid-3rd century BCE “Summons of the Soul” in the Songs of Chu:

Then with bamboo dice and ivory pieces the game of Liu Bo is begun;
Sides are taken; they advance together; keenly they threaten each other.
Pieces are kinged and the scoring doubled. Shouts of “five white!” arise

Could these game pieces be the first playing pieces? Are these the first dice included in a game? When you say a piece is kinged, that reminds me of Checkers.

LiuBo02We may never know everything we’d like to know about this game, but we do know that it was such an important possession that people took it with them in the afterlife.

4) Jacks, Fivestones, or Knucklebones (At least by 500 BCE)

Knucklebones01No one knows when this game first originated – people can’t even decide on a single name –, but Sophocles attributes the invention of Knucklebones to Palamedes (the prince who led the Nauplians in the Trojan War). Both the Iliad and the Odyssey allude to games similar to Knucklebones. That places this game of bouncing or throwing a small object and then snatching as many smaller objects strewn on the ground as you can firmly with the Ancient Greeks.

Jacks01The modern game of Jacks replaced the ankle bone of a sheep (or astragalus) for a rubber ball and added five more small objects for you to catch to bring the total up to ten. Sure, most folks don’t play Jacks on a table, but you could and you can’t deny the game’s cultural relevance and longevity. People have been “riding the elephant,” throwing “peas in the pod” or “horses in the stable” for centuries. They’ll continue for centuries to come whether they play Astragaloi, Dibs, Chuckstones, Onesies, Kugelach, or Snobs.

3) Tic-Tac-Toe or Noughts and Crosses (At least by 100 BCE)
We know the ancient Romans played Tic-Tac-Toe or as they liked to call it Terni Lapilli – you can find ancient chalk grids of three by three in Rome – but Tic-Tac-Toe may predate the Romans. Evidence presented by Claudia Zaslavsky in her book Tic Tac Toe: And Other Three-In-A-Row Games from Ancient Egypt to the Modern Computer places the game’s origin to Ancient Egypt. Regardless, Tic-Tac-Toe is a very old game. It’s gone by many names, too, but the Brits named it Nought and Crosses, and that name stuck for centuries. The U.S. renamed the game Tic-Tac-Toe in the 20th century.

TerniLapilli01Outside of young children, you don’t see too many people playing Tic-Tac-Toe. Most folks discover that two evenly matched players, playing their best, usually tie each or other, or the cat gets the game. But despite Tic-Tac-Toe’s limited appeal to older players, it holds a special place in cultural history.

Game shows have used its game mechanics numerous times, Connect Four is a reimagined Tic-Tac-Toe played on a larger grid, and one of the first – if not the first – known video game was a Tic-Tac-Toe derivative OXO.

TicTacToe01Still, the most endearing legacy Tic-Tac-Toe has left behind has to be the logic behind most video games. While you think you’re fighting a dragon in a fantasy land, the computer-controlled dragon you’re playing against is playing a complicated game of Tic-Tac-Toe. If they do this, I’ll do this. It’s no coincidence that the most commonly used buttons on a Playstation controller are X and O.

PSController012) Checkers (3000 BCE)
King me.

Also known as Droughts, Checkers almost tops our list as the Before Common Era tabletop game king. It derives from the Middle Eastern game Alquerque (the oldest copy of the game was found in the city of Ur and was dated around 3000 BCE) and has become one of the best – if not the best – known abstract strategy games of all time.

Checkers01Checkers has influenced countless games that came after it, including the ubiquitous Chess which uses a similar game board. Players sit opposite each other and move their pieces diagonally, capturing their opponent’s pieces. If a piece makes it to an opponent’s side of the board, they become a king and can move backwards or forwards.

Checkers02In most non-English languages, Draughts is called Dame, Dames, Damas, or another term that has ties to ladies. Even so, the pieces are still called men or stones, but when they’re promoted to kings, they’re called dames or ladies which are the terms for the queen in Chess for these same areas.

1) Go (1st Millennium BCE)

The only game that can circle the wagons against Checkers is the game of Go.

Originating in ancient China between 1046-256 BCE, Go was so revered that it was considered one of the four essential arts of a cultured Chinese scholar. I don’t think anyone would say that of my mad Catan skills.

Go01The rules are simple: place your playing pieces (or stones) so they encircle your opponent’s stones in order to occupy more area on the board. Despite these simple rules, a game of Go can take numerous hours to play, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most played games in the world today. As of 2009, there are well over 40 million Go players worldwide – most of which live in Eastern Asia – and 74 countries are part of the International Go Federation.

Go02Like many other games on this list, Go has influenced many games and game designers. Othello (or Reversi) uses game mechanics similar to Go, and Go has joined Chess and Backgammon as the three oldest games that enjoy worldwide popularity. Backgammon is billed as a “Man vs. Fate” contest with its strong reliance on chance. Chess embodies “Man vs. Man.” But even the best Go players will only win half of their games, so you have to play the best way you know how, learning as you go, leading to Go as the embodiment of “Man vs. Self.”

Very few games match Go’s emphasis on self-improvement and that makes Go our top game from Before the Common Era.

Did we get the list right? Let us know which games you’d include in this Top Five or suggest ideas for new Top Fives.

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