Senet is an ancient Egyptian game, and one of the oldest known games. The earliest recording of the game was a hieroglyph dating at about 3100 BCE in the tomb of Merknera. Also, fragments of what appear to be Senet boards have been found in First dynastic burials. The first obvious record of the game was in the Third Dynasty tomb of Hesy, from then there are other paintings of the game and people playing it in other tombs. The earliest found intact Senet boards date to the Middle Kingdom (2050-1800 BCE). The game was also found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The concept of Senet revolved around the soul’s (Ka) journey to the afterlife. We know this from various papyri as well as depictions on the boards themselves. The game is even outlined in the Book of the Dead.
Based on the little information spanning over a thousand of years, (in which the game likely changed) historians have pieced together how they believe the game is likely played.
The game board is composed of 30 squares: 3 rows of 10 squares each. If we number each square, the board would look 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.
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.