How Senet Works


This Senet box from 1978 reproduces an ancient Egyptian wall painting. The caption reads "Nebenma'at plays Senet with his wife while their daughter looks on. A scene from their tomb at Thebes. Late Dyn. XIX or Dyn. XX (ca. 1250-1100 B.C.)." See more pictures of toys and games.
Avedon Games Collection, courtesy Canadian Museum of Civilization

For three consecutive days, the skies were misting, the sogginess settling over our spring break plans like a dew-soaked sleeping bag. Instead of camping, my children whiled away the days rolling dice, moving pawns and crafting victory plots -- all while enjoying the vistas of our living room. Although the rain brought a sting of disappointment, it also lent a lovely haze that, like a soft-focus lens, made even this ordinary scene a bit more satisfying.

They may be playing board games for fun (or at least to pass the time), but this wasn't always the case for players of one ancient game. Senet, which originated in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago, carried such cultural and religious significance that it was often entombed with the dead. And it's no wonder: The outcome of a Senet game may have meant the difference between annihilation in the underworld and everlasting life with the gods.

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Even the game's name centers on a dual meaning; the word means "passing," and as they play, competitors strive to pass their opponents and pass their pieces off the board, thus winning the game -- or signaling their personal entry into a comfortable afterlife.

Although Senet was played for thousands of years, it fell out of fashion sometime after 400 A.D. -- and the rules were never written down. For decades, Egyptologists and other experts have attempted to reconstruct the game's intricate rules, as well as the nuanced meanings of its board symbols. Most agree the object is to be the first of two players to race the game's pieces along an S-shaped path to the final square on the rectangular board.

Senet may be the forerunner of several modern games, including Backgammon and Parcheesi, whose rules are cut of similar cloth. In Backgammon, for example, a player competes to move his checkers to a home quadrant and then off the board faster than his opponent. And in Parcheesi (which stems from the original Indian classic Pachisi), players attempt to block their opponent's game pieces as they strive to place their own in safe squares on the game board, all while racing to the finish.

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.

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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

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.

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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].

Understanding Senet Game Squares

A brilliantly glazed Senet board from circa 1390 to 1353 B.C., housed at the Brooklyn Museum.
A brilliantly glazed Senet board from circa 1390 to 1353 B.C., housed at the Brooklyn Museum.
Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum: Set of Thirteen Gaming Pieces, ca. 1390-1353 B.C.E. Faience, glazed, Greatest dimensions for reel-shaped pieces: 1/2 x Diam. 13/16 in. (1.3 x 2 cm). Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 49.57.1-.13. Creative Commons-BY-NC.

There's ongoing debate about the rules of Senet, as well as the exact meanings of the symbols on its board. Some ancient Senet game boards have blank squares, while others feature ornate symbols in every square. Despite these variations, there are five squares that have largely remained unchanged for 5,000 years. You'll find them on the last five spaces of the board. The rules attached to them here are the ones suggested by Egyptologist Dr. Peter A. Picionne.

  • Square 26, the House of Rejuvenation: Land here and you'll receive a free turn. The square's also a nod to mummy preparation; the place where the dead were prepared for burial and eternal life was known as "rejuvenation."
  • Square 27, the House of Water (also known as the Waters of Chaos): Land on this square, and you'll not only lose a turn, but you'll have to remove the game piece from the board. Ancient Egyptians believed the dead must gain passage on a boat to float over the deadly waters of the netherworld; otherwise, they would drown.
  • Square 28, the House of Three Truths: A game piece may only leave this square when a three is cast. The markings on this square are believed by some Egyptologists to symbolize Thoth, a powerful god of writing, magic and science thought to have written the spells in The Book of the Dead [source: Seawright].
  • Square 29, the House of the Re-Atum: A game piece may only leave this square when a two is cast. Leaving this square symbolically follows the emergence of this god into a deity.
  • Square 30, the Re-Horakty: This square signifies Re-Horakhty, the sun god who rose into the dawn, and is the most important square on the board. A game piece may only go forward from this square when a one is cast.

When on the last three squares, if a player cast more than the number needed to move a piece off the board, he must move the extra number of spaces backward. For example, if a game piece is on Square 28, a player must cast a two to move the game piece to Square 30 and, subsequently, off the board. In this case, if he cast a three, the player must move the game piece forward two spaces to Square 30 and then backward one space to Square 29 to complete his turn. The first player to pass all of his game pieces over Re-Horakhty's square and off the board wins the game -- at the least. At the most, he is assured of safe passage through the netherworld and of eternal bliss in the afterlife [source: Piccione]. (More about the religious beliefs surrounding Senet later on.)

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In addition to the last five squares on the board, two other squares often held a special significance. The 15th square, which frequently depicts a frog, is thought by some experts to signify the House of Repeating Life because a frog is the ancient Egyptian symbol for resurrection. Game pieces that land on this square can take an extra turn or remain safe from attack for a turn. Landing on the 16th square, known as the House of Netting, results in the loss of turn. Egyptians believed sinners in the netherworld would become tangled in their executioners' nets, so game pieces lose a turn to signify their torture and eventual annihilation in pits of fire [source: Astral Castle].

Senet Game Play Tips and Strategies

If you're curious about everything ancient and Egyptian, check out these videos to learn more about what their lives (and afterlives) may have been like.
Discovery

Senet isn't as straightforward as casting sticks and moving game pieces the appointed number of squares on the board. Strategy -- and a bit of luck -- come into play when you throw a number that would allow you to land on a square occupied by an opponent's game piece. This attack forces the opponent's piece to go to the spot where you came from, essentially exchanging places.

As you progress along the board in accordance with the number you cast at the start of your turn, you can jump over an opponent's piece or one of your own. However, you cannot put two of your own pieces on the same square; if a roll would land your piece on a space occupied by another piece of yours, you'll have to choose another piece to move so that you can avoid this. And keep in mind that there's an important exception to the jumping rule: If two of your opponent's pieces are in adjacent squares, you can't jump over the one closest to you -- or attack it. When two or more of a player's game pieces are in adjacent squares, each are protected -- while this can pose a problem if an opponent manages it, it can also play right into your strategy.

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You can block another player by creating a wall of game pieces on adjacent blocks. Unless your opponent throws the exact right number to justify a multi-space leap over all your adjacent game pieces, he'll be stuck behind them and will need to wait for your pieces to move. If your opponent is near the end of the board and must go backward on the squares to complete his turn, but cannot because a wall of your game pieces that are blocking his movement, his turn is over -- even if he rolled a one, four or six [source: San Diego Museum of Man].

Also keep in mind that a player must have all his pieces off the first row (squares one through 10) to remove any of them from the board.

Reconstructing Senet's Past

This Senet board from circa 1938 to 1700 B.C. has only 21 squares. The Brooklyn Museum staff suggests it was a symbolic funeral piece.
This Senet board from circa 1938 to 1700 B.C. has only 21 squares. The Brooklyn Museum staff suggests it was a symbolic funeral piece.
Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum: Gaming Board, ca. 1938-1700 B.C.E. Faience, 1 5/16 x 9 3/16 x 4 1/8 in. (3.3 x 23.3 x 10.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.2. Creative Commons-BY-NC.

The game of Senet may well have been invented as an entertaining way to pass the time, but as Egyptians became increasingly fascinated with the gods, it began to take on greater symbolism. By 1300 B.C., King Tut and his contemporaries probably played Senet to simulate the journey through the underworld and perhaps even to symbolically seal their own eternal fate.

There's evidence that ancient Egyptians believed winning a Senet game could result in a soulful union with the gods. The starting square in the upper left hand corner of the game sometimes features a bird-headed divinity, thought to announce the arrival of souls into the court of judgment and arrange their passage through the netherworld.

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As you progress through the game, you'll symbolically sail on Re-Horakhty's bark across the choppy waters of the netherworld and through its 12 dark regions (one for each hour of the night), where newly departed souls are judged for their sins and either reap their punishments (torture and annihilation) or rewards (food, drink and eternal life with Ra, the sun god). If you were the first to pass your ab from the board, your soul would be one of the fortunate ones; you'd be assured of your survival while sojourning through the netherworld and could rest assured that upon your death you'd rise with Re-Horakhty in the eastern sky at dawn, where you would become one with Ra. Not bad for winning a board game, right?

This also explains why contemporary depictions of the game increasingly mirrored Senet's value as a religious ritual rather than an entertaining pastime. Some ancient illustrations show only one person playing the game; the opponent couldn't be seen because it was the player's own soul [source: Piccione]. Eventually, the game itself may have transcended the necessity of play: Merely having it in one's tomb may have been enough to secure a positive afterlife.

Despite its religious significance and favor among the ruling classes, secular versions of Senet co-existed and were played by Egyptians of varying stations. Although the rules remained the same, the intent was vastly different; secular versions were still played recreationally.

Author's Note: How Senet Works

Just a few weeks ago, I'd never heard of Senet. Somehow, I think this made it even more fascinating to uncover its history and follow its progression from child's play to predictor of eternal life. Plus, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it's actually a fun game to tackle. Not as straightforward as it seems, Senet involves a surprising amount of strategy. Up next? Crafting my very own Senet game out of cardstock. No word yet on whether I'll be sailing or swimming through the netherworld.

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Sources

  • Astral Castle. "The Game of Thirty Squares: The Ancient Egyptian Game of Senet." (March 17, 2012) http://astralcastle.com/games/senet.htm
  • Britannica. "Atum." (April 29, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/42347/Atum
  • Dollinger, Andre. "Play: Children's Games." (March 17, 2012) Reshafim. http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/games.htm
  • Museum of Childhood. "Pachisi and Ludo." (March 17, 2012) http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/collections/games/pachisi-and-ludo
  • Piccione, Peter. "In Search of the Meaning of Senet." University of Waterloo. July 1980. (March 17, 2012) http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Piccione/index.html
  • Play 65. "How to Play Backgammon." (March 17, 2012) http://www.play65.com/HowToPlayBackgammon.html
  • San Diego Museum of Man. "Play the Game of Senet." (March 17, 2012) http://pages.cs.brandeis.edu/~storer/JimPuzzles/GAMES/Senet/INFO/SDMuseumOfManPage.pdf
  • Seawright, Caroline. "Thoth, God of the Moon, Magic and Writing." The Keep. Aug. 6, 2001. (April 29, 2012) http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/thoth.html
  • Soubeyrand, Catherine. "The Game of Senet." (March 17, 2012) Game Cabinet. http://www.gamecabinet.com/history/Senet.html