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Parlor Games when there was nothing else to do!

Social Distancing is the new norm in America and other parts of the world right now. As we all work together to keep safe and healthy we may be finding ourselves looking for things to do with the family. Believe or not you can get tired of binge watching all your favorite shows when that is all you have been doing for weeks! Lets take a journey back in time to see what kept our ancestors entertained.

Games have always been an important part of life for many cultures, dating back thousands of years. The Egyptians played games. We know this because those games have been found in ancient tombs. Some of them have actually evolved into games that we play today. Ancient Egyptians played floor hockey, boxing, archery, handball, tug of war; they ran marathons and pursued equestrian sports. Board games were used for relaxation after a long day's work and were often found placed in graves and tombs. Egyptian children played versions of hopscotch and leap frog.

The ancient Egyptians played Aseb on one side of this box and Senet on the other side. Look closely at the picture and you can see some knuckle bones. The ancient Egyptians would use these as dice. Egyptian tombs and temple paintings are full of depictions of everyday life that included the playing of games.

The Romans were also big game players. Roman soldiers would wile away the time by playing games of dice, almost exclusively played for wagering. Children played a form of jacks that was called Knuckle-bones. The Romans invented Checkers. Archaeologists still find the grids scratched onto the floor tiles of excavated villas, guard houses, and homes in what was once the Roman Empire. Do you like Marbles? Thank the Romans, children would play with small baked clay balls or if you were wealthy with small balls of marble...hence the name!

From the middle east came what we now know as the game of Chess. After the Muslim conquest of Persia(638-651) Shantranj, a Persian game spread to the Arab world. While pre-Islamic chess sets represented Elephants, Horses, Kings and Soldiers; the Islamic prohibition against image worship led to increasing abstraction in chess set design. Islamic chess pieces were therefore simple cylindrical and rectangular shapes. The game became immensely popular during the Abbasid Caliphate of the 9th century. During this period there were several treatises published on chess problems and chess openings. This game made its way to Europe about 822 A.D. by way of the Iberian Emirate of Cordoba. By the 10th century was being played in Spain, Italy and Southern Germany. In 1200 A.D. it was in Britain and Scandinavia.

How about Snakes and Ladders. My youngest son and I would play that every morning before he went to pre-K. It was once known as Vaikuntapaali and has it's origins in India. A Hindu game it has been played since the early 2nd century. Parcheesi was also popular in India. Depictions of the game have been found in caves of the Ajanta in Maharashtra that date to around 800 A.D.

The Chinese get credit for several very popular games. Chinese Chess or as it was known in the 4th century B.C., Weigi, was played by aristocrtas. Do you like to play cards? Thank the Chinese! They were using porcelain tiles with depictions painted on them as early as the 9th century A.D., during the Tang Dynasty. The earliest unambiguous attestation of paper playing cards date back to 1294 A.D. They did not reach Europe until the 14th century, via Italy, by way of Egypt, who got them from trading with the Chinese. Whew! That was quite a journey! They had suits that are similar to the traditional Italian playing cards of today, swords, clubs, cups and coins. This period also saw the development of Tarot cards.

In England we see the development of many outdoor games such as Lawn Bowling, Skittles (based on lawn bowling) Billiards, Stooball ( early Cricket), Horse Shoes (originally played by Roman Soldiers, throwing a discarded horse shoe at a short sword stuck into the ground) This game was probably played by Roman soldiers who were stationed in Britannia, part of the Roman Empire until 410. Many had inter-married with locals and remained after the Roman abandoned Britannia. Later the game became know as hoops, hoopla and quoits.

Jack straws was created in the late 14th century and seems to have its origins in the rural farming communities as the pieces were in the shapes of farm implements and weapons of war. We know it as pick-up sticks today. Other farm type games seem to be a rolling hoop, most likely a discarded barrel band, and Graces, two hoops and pairs of pointed sticks. England gained fame for its multitude of Board games that began to be printed on linen in the late 16th century and continued to the mid 19th century. They are so numerous it would take an entire blog to list them! The most memorable are Mansions of Happiness, The Game of Goose, Fox and Geese, Catch the Hare and Shut the Box. Shut the Box was actually not a true board game but is classified as one. It has origins in both England and Ireland was primarily a gambling game played in taverns and pubs.

Games have played integral parts in the development of human interaction. Some could be played alone, like a Ball and Cup (Egyptian). Others require several players and can be competitive (dice and cards). Some are purely for entertainment. Whatever their purpose one thing is certain, the fill a void in our lives and can keep us entertained during the best and worst of times, taking our minds off the present and letting us indulge in the joy of play!


Attia, Peter. “The Full History of Board Games.” Medium. The Startup, September 5, 2018.

Bellis, Mary. “History of Board Games, Playing Cards, and Puzzles.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo, November 20, 2019.

Byron. “The Complete History of Board Games – 5000BC to 2020!” Geek Gear Galore, November 17, 2019.

Murray, Harold James Ruthren. A History of Board-Games Other than Chess. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952.

Solly, Meilan. “The Best Board Games of the Ancient World.” Smithsonian Institution. Accessed March 30, 2020.

Staff, MH. “The Origin Of Chess And The Silk Road.” Moorish Harem, January 18, 2018.

Wilkinson, W. H. “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards.” American Anthropologist 8, no. 1 (1895): 61–78.


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