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The Ancient Board Game 20 Squares

Not much of a name for one of the oldest board games ever discovered, is it? 20 Squares is closely related to the Game of Ur, Senet and Asseb, and may be little more than a variation of those games. It predates the earliest versions of chess by nearly 3,000 years, with the oldest find dating to 2,600 BCE. Boards have been found from India to Egypt, some of them with sophisticated carrying systems carved into the wood so travelers could store pieces with the board.

20 Squares in stone

We don’t know the exact rules for playing 20 Squares because no one, not even Old Kingdom Egyptians, could own a board game without losing the instructions. We did stumble upon a tablet that partially covers 20 Square’s rules, so we know it’s a racing game where players compete to see who can move across the board the fastest. Throw the throwing sticks, move your tokens, knock pieces off the board, get to the other side before your opponent does. Then shout the ancient Egyptian equivalent of HUZZAH!

Modern Rules

Since we weren’t content with half a rule set, everybody and their butler has come up with modern variations on the ancient theme. Some rules turn the game into a betting war, others keep the race concept but add tokens and reactive movement rules. Nice, but a bit too complex for a game that uses wrist bones as random number generators.

Harvard Semitic Museum has a video with three sets of rules for 20 Squares. The “regular rules” presented below are my favorite, as they add just enough complexity to make the game fun for smart modern humans like us.

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