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How Senet Works

The History of Senet

Just as many of today's most popular games include a board and movable pieces -- and require a generous helping of luck -- so does the ancient game of Senet. Although Senet debuted long before there were game awards (or a game industry, for that matter), it surely deserves recognition for its appeal to players of all ages throughout the ages.

What may have begun as a visual way to mark each of the 30 days in the Egyptian month evolved into an entertaining game and then into one with serious cultural and religious significance.

The earliest Senet boards that we have evidence of date as far back as 3500 B.C. and were rectangular slabs of wood, limestone or faience (ceramic earthenware made from ground quartz and coated with a brightly colored glaze) that were carved with squares and symbols. By 1500 B.C., Senet games were increasingly self-contained. Many featured a board carved into or attached to the top of a rectangular box with pullout storage for the game pieces [source: Piccione].

Although Senet game play probably didn't change much over the years, its presentation became more elaborate. By the time of King Tutankhamen's death in 1328 B.C., Senet game boards were at least sometimes built atop gaming tables with built-in storage and exquisitely carved legs; such a gaming table was discovered in his tomb [source: Dollinger]. Despite Senet's royal appeal, it also appealed to the masses. Senet squares and symbols have been found atop high stone walls, most likely created by mason workers who enjoyed playing the game during breaks from building kingly tombs and other stately structures.

Whether the property of a prince or a pauper, all Senet game boards followed a format often repeated in ancient Egyptian edifices: three rows of 10 squares each. The game included five or seven distinctive game pieces for each player, depending on the era in which it was played. The pieces were shaped like cones or spools and were known as "ab," the Egyptian word for dancer, because they danced along the board [source: Astral Castle].

Four sticks cut from tree branches were used as dice; they had a rounded side and a flat side. Here's a movement guide:

  • One stick with flat side up = one spaces
  • Two sticks with flat sides up = two spaces
  • Three sticks with flat sides up = three spaces
  • Four sticks with flat sides up = four spaces
  • Four sticks with flat sides down = six spaces