Imagine this for a moment: Two men were working on a large building project when they stopped for their lunch break. While they were eating and talking with the other workers, one of them started scratching a familiar game board on the nearest surface. His buddy picked up some loose pebbles nearby to use as playing pieces, and soon the two of them were involved in a game. We have no idea now who won or lost or even whether they managed to finish the game before they had to return to work, but we still have their game board. You see, these workers were stone cutters. The surface they used for scratching their game board happened to be the stone they were cutting for the roof of the temple they were helping to build. This was Ancient Egypt.
Thousands of years later, someone noticed the game board, etched permanently into the stone, and recognized it for what it was, piecing together the story of the workers' lunch break entertainment. By then, the workers were long dead, their names long forgotten. What we do know is the game they were playing is now called Nine Men's Morris.
People have been playing games pretty much ever since there were people. What is truly fascinating to think about is that some of the games that were played hundreds or even thousands of years ago aren't that much different from the games we play today. Not every game, of course. Old games have been forgotten or almost forgotten, and new ones have been invented over the years. Sometimes, the rules for familiar games have changed over time, but elements of the rules known by early players have survived. Because of my love of history and games, I've decided to present these games, both the old favorites and the more obscure ones, by era so that other people who enjoy history can play them too. This site is always a work in progess, and more may be added later.
This is your portal to different periods of history!
Many games are older than people think. In fact, some of the most popular games for rainy afternoons have been around for hundreds and even thousands of years, their rules recorded and preserved for centuries. There will be some of these familiar favorites on this site, but there will also be other games that you may have never heard of before.
Many of the details of games that were played in the far distant past were lost because no one took the time to write them down or the sources that once described the original rules were lost or destroyed. In more recent years, scholars have attempted to re-create the rules for these forgotten games using the boards and playing pieces that archaeologists have found and the few written sources describing them that remain so that people in modern times can experience these games for themselves. For example, you'll notice that rules for games from Ancient Egypt are noted as being scholarly reconstructions, based on the remaining sources for those games. That means that we don't know all of the original rules for certain; we just have a likely set of rules based on scholarly research and experimental game play.
The games on this site are organized by when the games were commonly played, not necessarily when the games were invented, with the idea that readers would be more interested in what people were playing during these periods of history than in the origins of all the games, although I do give some information about the backgrounds of the games, too. Some games were played in multiple eras (Chess, Checkers, and Backgammon have been extremely popular ever since the Middle Ages, and they even existed in other forms before that), so you'll find links between different periods. The farther back you go in time, the less is known about what versions of games were played, although I do discuss special rules used during particular periods.
There are a wide variety of games here, including games for two players and games for large groups that would be good for parties. To make it easy on the players, the games here typically require little or no special equipment. I provide simple versions of game boards for most of the board games that readers can easily print off at home, and the required pieces are pretty easy to improvise, although there are commercially-made versions of many of the games from other sourcess as well. With the exception of some of the more complicated card games, most of the games here are pretty easy and kid-friendly, although parents should be aware that there is some discussion of games that involve gambling. Different time periods had different standards about what was appropriate for children and what wasn't. However, there is plenty here that is kid-friendly, and each game has an introduction that explains what type of game it is. Whether you're planning a theme party, looking for something to do with your friends this weekend or the kids over the summer, or just having fun and learning about history, have a look and try out some of these games!
I am offering online classes about historical games this fall through EdAdvance! These are just fun lectures about historical games from different periods. Each class is one session only. Registration is $25 per class.
Learn the history of board games and other games played in Colonial America. Upon successful completion of the course, the student will be able to discuss and play colonial games and recognize their connections to modern games. Topics to be covered include, but are not limited to, the game of goose, children’s games, and dice and card games for adults. There will be time to practice and play games during the class.
Thursday, October 12th, 2023 7:00-8:30 pm ET
The Victorian era was both the golden age of board games and the golden age of parlor games! Many of the party games and even car games we played on vacations came from this era, along with the board games companies that we knew as children. Learn the history of games played in the Victorian Era. At course end, the student will be able to discuss and play Victorian games and recognize their connections to modern games. There will be time to practice and play games during the class.
Thursday, October 19th, 2023 7:00-8:30 pm ET
Added link to an online Hearts Game. Thanks, Anna!
Added links to an online version of Ludus Latrunculorum (Latrones). Thanks for the link, Michael!
Added two more sites where viewers can play games online as resources to the main Bibliography page. Thanks for the other solitaire site, Emily!
Added solitaired.com as a resource to the main Bibliography page and other pages with related games. It's a good place to play a variety of games for free online. Thanks, Neal!
Updated the Medieval Bibliography page and added a new resource. Thanks, Deborah!
Thank you for the donation! I'm doing some editing and making updates to the site soon!
Added a new resource to my main Bibliography page. Thanks, Mik!
Updated the Bibliography page for the Colonial section of the site by adding links to online copies of the books on Internet Archive for the aid of students and researchers. Good luck on the paper, Dianna!
Added styles for smaller screens.
Added Google Translate feature to all of the pages for the benefit of non-English speakers!
Updating the bibliography sections and redoing the navigation of the pages. More style updates coming!
Updating the main bibliography section. Special thanks to Catherine for her suggestion!
Updating the Medieval bibliography section. Special thanks to Kathleen Clark for her suggestion!
Changed the header on the home page. I'm swapping out the old graphic headers for html versions that are friendlier to screen readers and making the site more responsive to different screen sizes. I'm planning to redo the buttons and headers in each of the other sections as well, but I haven't quite settled on the styles yet.
Updating the Medieval bibliography section. Special thanks to Piper Gray for her suggestion!
Updating the master bibliography page with additional sources, particularly web pages. More updates to come. Special thanks to Sultan Ratrout of the University of Jordan for his recommendations!
I'm in the process of reviewing and editing existing parts of the site, removing non-working links in the bibliography sections and correcting small errors. I'm still gathering information for expansions, and I've been considering the possibility of writing a series of small books on the games of certain time periods and the lives of people who would have played them. This is still very much a work in progress. Special thanks to Alexa for recommending an additional link for the Medieval bibliography section!
I've updated the styles and added new print styles. The headers and pictures will still print in color because I used colors to explain the movement of pieces in some of the board games. They are also important to the designs of certain game boards. However, everything else on a page will now print in black and white (like borders around text) and buttons no longer appear on printed pages (except for Portal pages, but that will change later).
I have in mind some further additions to the Victorian section, and some clarifications I'd like to add to the rules of certain games. I'm particularly concerned about the rules for Boston Whist in the Colonial section. They're a little confusing right now, and I'd like to make them a little more clear.