Senet, ancestor of backgammon

The earliest known version of backgammon was called senat or senet, played in ancient Egypt by the pharos. Sets were found during the excavation of Ur of the Chaldees, one of the royal games of Ur. Other Senat boards were founds in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and in King Tutankhamen's tomb in the valley of the Nile.

The boards were made of wood, the checkers were made of stone.  It is not known how the game was played exactly but here is a good guess based on the known evidence from the Masters Traditional Games website.

How to play Senet

"A Senet board consisted of three rows of ten squares set in a rectangle.  In one corner, the square that is assumed to be the final square has a single stroke, the next one along in the row, two strokes, the next one three strokes, the next a diagonal cross and the fifth one along a symbol with a circle and cross.

It is assumed that these were squares 26 to 30 of a 30 square track that started in the opposite corner, went along one row, travelled back down the middle row and finished along the row ending in these special squares.  Square 15 also often contained a symbol and was called the House of Rebirth while square 26 with a cross and circle symbol is known as the House of Happiness and square 27 with the cross is known as the House of water.

Painting in tomb of Egyptian Queen Nefertari (1295–1255 BC).


Each person has five pieces of contrasting hue or contrasting pattern.  The movements of the pieces are determined by the throw of four split twigs with a dark face on one side and a light face on the other (binary lots).

Pieces are placed on the first ten squares of the first row with the colours alternating. 

The Play

Players take turns to move a single piece per throw of the split twigs viz:
  • 0 light faces up - 5 and an extra throw
  • 1 light face up - 1 and an extra throw
  • 2 light faces up 2
  • 3 light faces up 3
  • 4 light faces up 4 and an extra throw
A square can only be occupied by one piece at a time.  If no pieces can move, the turn is passed.  If a piece lands on an opposing piece, the opposing piece is moved back to the square that the attacking piece started the move from.

The House of Happiness cannot be passed over.  Every piece must land upon it before preceding onward.  The House of water is to be avoided - when a piece lands on this square, the piece is returned to the House of Rebirth.

Pieces can only bear off the final three squares by throwing the number indicated on the square.
The first player to bear all pieces off the board wins".

Rules copyright and courtesy of Maters Games .com  

The game is mentioned in the 1972 film version of the play Sleuth when the character Andrew Wyke refers to "an intensely complicated 4th dynasty blocking game called Senet. I've been at it for months but I am still only a beginner."  Sounds a bit like backgammon!

Ready to play! Follow the link here to the British Museum online Senet game!