A game for kings and paupers alike, we take a closer look at the Ancient Egyptian board game of Senet in the collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
The Petrie Museum has three mostly intact board games that can be reasonably recognized as the game of Senet, which was one of the most popular games played by the Ancient Egyptians as well as people in Cyprus and the ancient near east.
Four Senet boards were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but it was an activity that was not dependent upon one’s status in Ancient Egypt. There is evidence – ranging from scratched graffiti boards to more luxurious and elaborate boards adorning the tombs of royalty – that people from different social classes partook in the game.
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In play for between 2,000 and 3,000 years, the oldest hieroglyph found relating to Senet dates to around 3100 BC and, over time, many components of the game changed, including the boards themselves and the rules.
These rules have been debated by academics for years, but one thing we do know is that the Egyptian word “snt” means to “to pass” or “to go by” and this echoes the overall aim of the game, which is to get all of your five playing pieces from one end of the board to other. Comparisons have been made to backgammon, with the game board made up of three rows of ten squares, some of which have specific hieroglyphic symbols on them.
Reflecting the game’s longevity, the examples at the Petrie come from different periods, such as the Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and Late Period and the collection also boasts a few additional board games or pieces of board games that are likely related to Senet too.
There is also a noticeable variation among the examples as different squares are decorated with different hieroglyphs.
One rectangular slab of green/grey siltstone dating to the 26th Dynasty features hieroglyphic signs/groups in the lower right hand corner, a handle with three grooves carved at the same end, and at the back, three columns containing eleven circles, the one in the centre having six petals incised in it.
Another fragment of a grey/green steatite senet-game board features two joined lotus flowers and a carved handle at its unbroken end. The squares are divided by three lines with hieroglyphs or groups in separate squares: Hr nb, two ii’s three iii’s, boat on mw, ms together with partly incised circles on the back. In two pieces, according to Flinders Petrie, this game board came from the New Kingdom.
The Ancient Egyptians used sticks to move across boards like these, however the game is playable with a dice and there were five uniform playing pieces per player (ten in total).
The rules of Senet
As the rules have varied over time, it is difficult to highlight objectively how the game should be played, however, if you want to give it a go yourself here are some core facets of the gameplay:
- Players start at one end of the board (squares one to ten) alternating every other piece
- The highest possible role was 4 (if using sticks like ancient Egyptians)
- A player can move a piece as many pieces as they roll (roll a two, move two spaces)
- If you land on a space with an opponent’s piece, you take that spot and the opponent moves to where your piece came from. Other versions suggest if you move and land on a square where you can move your opponent’s piece, their game piece should return to the beginning of the board (instead of where you came from)
- If you get three of your pieces in a row (other sources say four or five), that creates a blockade that your opponent cannot go past. Some versions have rules where if you roll certain numbers (like a two or three or both) you get to go again
- Once a game piece has made it to the final three squares – you need the exact number from your roll to land on the imaginary 31st square to safely exit. The first player to get all of their pieces off wins
- The pieces must travel horizontally on the game track in a clockwise direction, kind of in a reversed “Z” shape
- You cannot land on a square which already has one of your pieces on it
- Pieces that stand on the last four squares cannot protect each other and must follow a set of special rules
- If the opponent swaps pieces from square 26 with a piece on one of the last four squares, the player must move their piece to square 27.
The special rules of Senet
And here, for those who really want to walk and play like an Ancient Egyptian, are the special rules that have been deciphered and compiled by Egyptologists:
- Square 26: “The House of Beauty” – All pieces must stop on this square if a roll lands a piece there. A piece on this square can leave the gameboard with an exact roll of five
- Square 27: “The House of Waters” – You have two options if one of your pieces lands here. Option 1: Return the piece to square 15 or “The House of Rebirth”. If a piece should already be here then you must return the piece to the first available square behind it. Option 2: Try and roll an exact value of foour. If successful the piece can be taken off the gameboard and you receive one extra turn, if not, your turn is over
- Square 28: “The House of Three Judges” – A piece cannot be moved but can be removed from the gameboard with an exact roll of three
- Square 29: “The House of Two Judges” – A piece cannot be moved but can be removed from the gameboard with an exact roll of two
- Square 30: “The House of Horus” – A piece can be removed from the gameboard with a roll of any value.
Good luck! And remember: information extracted from Old Kingdom tombs suggests that, although Senet was a game of strategy, it was aided by a bit of luck. Any good luck experienced playing the game was considered to be a blessing from the gods…
This article was written from research written by MA Museum Studies students, taking the Exhibition Project Module from the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
London, Greater London
The Petrie Museum houses an estimated 80,000 objects, making it one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. It illustrates life in the Nile Valley from prehistory through the time of the pharaohs, the Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic periods to the Islamic period. The entire…