If you consider yourself not just an enjoyer of video games, but someone who really likes to dig into them, to see where they came from and understand how they are made, then at some point, you might want to do some digging to find the earliest games ever made. We’re not talking about Pong or Tennis for Two, either, but rather the games that started it all, as far as we know, from well before the advent of video games.
Here, we’re going to look at some of the oldest games known to man, and whether or not they’re still playable, especially in digital form.
Although definitely an ancient game, first known to have been played in the 600s AD, and likely originating in India or China, chess is one of the most recent games on this list. It’s a game that has had countless variations as it spread across Asia from its earliest known form, the four-player ‘chaturanga’, into the courts of Europe, and to the modern game that we know now. Even now, we’re always creating variations of chess, with the videogame Chessarama showcasing just some of the ways that we’re able to keep adding new rules and theming to it.
While traditionally associated with Japan, where it is most popularly played, today the game of Go is actually known to have originated in China roughly 4000 years ago. A game that was apparently created with the explicit purpose of teaching discipline and concentration, like many classic games, it emulates battle, with a board that is dominated by tiles of black and white. You capture enemy tiles by surrounding them with your own, flipping them over to your own color until one player has complete domination of the board. The modern game as we know it was pretty much finalized in the 1670s, with the ruleset established that still exists today.
Also known as the Royal Game of Ur, this is thought to be one of the single oldest game that we know of, with records showing that it was played as early as 2600 BC. An Ancient Mesopotamian game, the game has since been reconstructed, and you play the Royal Game of Ur, or at least the closest approximation we have to it, today. Unlike the other games here, which have survived til the modern day through simple tradition, this is one of the few times that historians have been able to create an ancient board game from the ground up.
Sticking with the Near East, for now, one of the games that has survived the longest is one that we are still playing in much the same form as it used to be played over 5000 years ago. Backgammon is one of the very oldest games that we know has been played in one form or another since it was invented. Nowadays, it’s easy to play just about anywhere, with apps like Christmas Backgammon making it accessible to all. The earliest version we know that is more or less identical to how we play it is the Greek game, Tabula, which was played in the 200s AD.
The simplest game on the list, by most measures, checkers is just as old as Backgammon, as far as we know, being played in Mesopotamia in the 3000s BC. As simple as the ruleset is, checkers have remained much unchanged. After all, the concept is simple, you move pieces across a board to have them hop over and capture other pieces. It is thought to be the earliest known example of ‘war gaming’, aka, a game that basically simulates or resembles a battle between two armies, a theme which has been common in many of the ancient games we’ve looked at so far.
The single oldest game on the list, and perhaps the oldest game that we know of, full stop, Mehen is an Egyptian game, named after the snake god from the same mythology, that was played as early as 3000 BC. This game has not survived the test of time, unfortunately, and we haven’t been able to work out a ruleset for it just yet, but given the coiled snake-like shape of the body, marked in rectangles, it is thought that the aim of the game might have been to race pieces along the spiral, towards the center of the board and back again.
The history of video games, and gaming in general, is always a fascinating one to dig into. When you compare the use of dice and strategy in many games we love today, we can see that the appeal of many of these games is still what drives several genres of gaming today.