The Game of Senet
Article by Catherine Soubeyrand.
Senet is an Egyptian race game and may be the ancestor of our modern backgammon. We know of this game through ancient Egyption boards that have survived to this day. More than 40 have been discovered, some in very good condition with pawns, sticks or knucklebones still intact. The oldest known representation of Senet is in a painting from the tomb of Hesy (Third Dynasty circa 2686-2613 BCE).
The game board is composed of 30 squares: 3 rows of 10 squares each. If we number each square, the board can be represented like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
The path of the pawns probably followed a reversed S across the board.
Squares 26 to 30 have symbols on them. We will represent them in order by X, O, III, II and I. It seems that the square with an X, carrying the sign nfr, was beneficial, whereas the one with an O, associated with water, had a negative meaning. Square 15, also called the "square of Rebirth," might have been the starting square.
Other elements found with the gameboards were pawns. The Hesy painting shows a game with seven pawns for each player. Then, some time after 1600 - 1500 BCE, the players were represented with seven or five pawns. Some games have even been found with ten pawns per player.
The movement of pawns was probably decided by the throw of four, two-sided sticks (as depicted in the Hesy painting) or, later, knucklebones might have been used to determine the moves.
What was the function of Senet? A game or something more? In his book, Lhôte notices that the first pictures show two human players whereas later the human player is depicted alone with an invisible opponent. It appears that Senet began as a simple game and later acquired a symbolic, ritual function.
Of course, the original rules of Senet are not known. No record of the rules on papyrus or tomb wall has ever been discovered. It is very difficult to reconstruct the game through the pieces and the tomb images.
A summary of Timothy Kendall's work on the reconstruction of the rules of Senet is given in the book by Lhôte.
Another version of the rules was proposed by RC Bell.
Each player has 10 pawns. Four two-sided sticks (one side painted) are thrown to determine movement.
R.C.Bell, The Boardgame Book, 1979 Marshall Cavendish Ltd, London
Kendall Timothy, Passing Through the Netherworld : The Meaning and Play of Senet, an Ancient Egyptian Funerary Game, 1978 Belmont, The Kirk Game Compagny
Lhôte Jean Marie, Histoire des jeux de société, 1994 Flammarion
Pusch E.B, Das Senet Brettspiel im Alten Agypten, 1979 Berlin