Sunday, 15 January 2012


The Forgotten Egyptian Game

So, yesterday, my wife and I found ourselves unexpectedly visiting Cyfartha Castle.  "So, what does the industrialisation of Merthyr's iron and coal industries have to do with games and diversions?" you'd be correct to ask me.  Patience, young Padawan.

The museum had a small section dedicated to ancient Egyptian artifacts that the Edwardian and Victorian peoples took a great interest in, and that was excuse enough to have a kiosk running a touch-screen recreation of Senet, a curious little game that, apparently, we don't quite know the rules of.

The version we played was surprisingly polished, with a smooth and satisfying response to our tactile stimuli on the screen, and the computer did all the messy bits like throwing the sticks for us.  To explain that last part, the Egyptians didn't have dice.  Instead, they threw a bunch of sticks that could land one of two ways, giving a result between 0 and the number of sticks thrown, so in this case we got 0 to 5.  As my wife acutely observed, this meant a result different to just hurling a standard six-sided die, as the results would skew towards the middle results, with 0 and 5 being significantly less likely.

Senet plays quite like Backgammon, and despite the rules being a "best guess since we can't ask a dead culture", it plays to a reasonably satisfying standard.  Wikipedia — always a good standby to make me look more learned than I actually am — tells me both Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation and TV's Lost made reference to the game, but that doesn't incline me towards playing the former or sitting through the latter again, because if I missed it the first time, I guess it wasn't worth noting.

I can't find the exact version we played online, but if you want to give the game a try there's a fine page right here that demonstrates things pretty well.  Also, many modern publishers have jumped at the opportunity to produce their own versions, sometimes under names like King Tut's Game and Passing Through The Netherworld.  Personally, I think I'll see if I can tempt my good lady into a few more games on a mock-up board — it's not hard to make, being just three rows of 10 squares with 5 pawns apiece.  If that proves a hit, who knows?  I might just try making myself a set out of something more substantial.

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