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How Senet Works

How to Play Senet

Just how complex can a 5,000-year-old game played with sticks become? Senet may surprise you. From the etchings on the game board to the fact that it's not possible to cast a five with the sticks, Senet is a game imbued with the symbolic. For the ancient Egyptians, five was a mystical number that denoted the five elements that compose each person, and each of the etched squares is believed to represent a religious concept. (We'll explore Senet game squares in more detail on the next page.)

Although records of Senet's original rules have never been recovered, much of the game's play has been reconstructed based on unearthed sets, images wrought on tomb walls, and the study of Egyptian culture and religion. According to a version of the rules researched and developed by archeologist Timothy Kendall, players begin the game by placing their pieces in alternating spaces to fill the first 14 squares on the board. Thus, the 15th square is Start.

To determine which player goes first, they take turns casting the sticks. The first to throw a one (one stick that lands with the flat side up and three that land flat-side down) makes the first move. And the second move as well: Each time a player throws a one, four or six, she goes again.

The game pieces move in an S-shaped path, reversing direction with each row, and progressing from the square each starts on to square 30. Contestants try to move ahead of their opponents and force them backward using blocking techniques -- more about that on the next page. The winner is the first to move her game pieces to the final row and then off the board [source: Soubeyrand].