Ancient Egyptian Games: Senet and Tjau

Last weekend I visited the King Tutankhamun exhibit at the Seattle Pacific Science Center.  The exhibit featured a 40 minute video about ancient Egyptian tombs followed by a 90 minute guided tour (narrated by Harrison Ford, no less) of ancient Egyptian artifacts, highlighting a sample of the rare artifacts found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The artifact I was most interested in, of course, was the one of four ancient game boards on display that was buried with King Tutankhamun. The game board featured two ancient games: Senet and Tjau.

Senet

While no set of instructions have ever been found to supplement either game, historians Timothy Kendall and R.C. Bell have each proposed their own sets of rules to play the game based on the information available.

The Senet board consists of a grid of thirty squares (three rows of ten squares). The drawer held two sets of five pawns and four casting sticks or knucklebones that were used in both games.

Rules

Kendall’s Version

A summary of Timothy Kendall’s work on the reconstruction of the rules of Senet is given in the book by Lhôte.

  1. At the beginning of the game the seven pawns per player alternate along the 14 first squares. The starting square is counted as the 15th. In the oldest games this square featured an ankh, a “life” symbol. The pawns move according to the throw of four sticks or, later, one or two knucklebones. When using the sticks the points seemed to have been counted from 1 to 5: 1 point for each side without a mark and 5 points if the four marked sides were present together.
  2. When a pawn reached a square already occupied by an opponent pawn, they have to exchange their positions.
  3. The special squares have the following effects on play:
    • 15 : House of Rebirth, starting square and the return square for the pawns reaching square number 27.
    • 26 : House of Happiness, a mandatory square for all the pawns.
    • 27: House of Water, a square that can be reached by the pawns located on squares 28 to 30 which moved back when their throws did not allow them to exit the board. They have to restart from square 15.
    • 28 : House of the Three Truths, a pawn may only leave when a 3 is thrown.
    • 29 : House of the Re-Atoum, a pawn may only leave when a 2 is thrown.
  4. The winner is the first to move all of their pawns off the board.

Bell’s Version

Each player has 10 pawns. Four two-sided sticks (one side painted) are thrown to determine movement.

  • When only one painted side is visible : 1 point.
  • With two : 2 points.
  • With three : 3 points.
  • With four : 4 points.
  • With none : 5 points.
  1. At the beginning of the game there are no pawns on the board.
  2. Each player in turn throws the sticks, and puts his pawns on the board on the squares with the symbols I, II, III, X, O according to the number of points thrown. Only one pawn may be present on each square. So if a pawn is already present the turn is lost.
  3. A player may either move one pawn or add a new pawn to the board, if possible, with each throw. The pawns located on the marked squares are in shelters.
  4. Pawns may not be stacked. When a pawn arrives on a square already occupied by an opponent pawn, the opponent is removed and must restart from the beginning. This rule does not apply for the marked squares which are shelters.
  5. The first pawn to reach square number 1 earns a bonus of five points and it fixes the goal of the game: that player’s other pawns have to reach odd squares whereas the opponent must reach the even squares. The game ends when the pawns of the two players are alternately placed on the first and second rows.
  6. When a pawn has reached its last square, it cannot be attacked.
  7. The first player to have put all his pawns on his own squares wins the game and earns 10 points. He also gets one point for each move his opponent makes while placing all of his remaining pawns.

Tjau

The Tjau, or Twenty Squares, board was found on the reverse of the Senet board but instead of using all thirty squares, the board features a 1 x 8 tunnel entrance that protrudes from the middle of a 3 x 4 grid.

While the exhibit called the game Tjau, every other resource has declared that name ‘a common mistake’ and referred to it instead as Aseb. The rules remind me of the classic board game, Sorry!

Rules

Each player has five pieces; spindles and cones, like in Senet.  The pieces begin the game “off-board”, in the long spaces on either side of the board’s stem.

Object of the Game

The object is to be the first player to bear off all 5 of his pieces, by landing them precisely on the last square. Once successfully borne off, a piece plays no further part in the game.

Player Turns

The players throw once each alternately, and move a single piece by the appropriate number of positions.  A move must be made, and made in full.  If no move is possible, then the turn is forfeit (passes to the other player).  When forfeiting a throw, the opponent has the option of adding the forfeited throw to his own.

Movement

Each player enters the pieces onto the board from his reserve and moves them as follows:

Pieces move forward only.  As pieces reach the last square (by exact throw), they bear off; be the first to bear off all your pieces and you win!  The marked squares give you an extra turn; when you land on them, you get to throw the sticks and go again.  Only one piece may occupy any given square; if you land on an opposing piece, it is removed —sent back to the player’s reserve.

To bring your first piece on, you must first throw a 4 or a 6; when that happens, you throw again and move the piece in by that amount.  The remaining pieces can be brought in on any throw.  Waiting for that initial throw of 4 or 6, particularly while the opponent is already moving, can be quite frustrating, so it is an acceptable variant to forego that rule entirely.

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