Board Games: A Brief History

I’ll let you in on a little secret – board games are HOT right now. Despite decades of competition from video games, the board gaming hobby has never been more popular. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Board games have been a mainstay of  popular entertainment for thousands of years. Even before there was written history, people were using dice, tokens, and cards to play games.

Board Games in the Ancient World

All The Way Back To The Beginning

Many of today’s most popular games have ancient origins. Backgammon, for instance, surged in popularity during the 1960s, but this groovy classic dates all the way back to the Roman Empire. It’s rumoured that Julius Caesar actually coined the phrase Vini Vidi Vici after a particularly successful evening on the backgammon board (ok, maybe we just started that rumour, but it could be true!).

Chess also dates back to before the common era. This complex game of strategy appears to have developed first in either China or India and then spread across the Silk Road to Persia, East Asia, Southern Europe, and ultimately Norway, paving the way for global domination by the World’s #1 player, Magnus Carlsen.

But the original games are much older, with archeological evidence from the Middle East suggesting an origin of at least 5,000 B.C. when early humans created crude forms of dice made of painted sticks, turtle shells, carved bones, and stones.  

The Intersection of Board Games and Belief Systems

A Board Game Religion?!

The Ancient Egyptians, like other advanced civilizations, loved board games. But what’s unique about Egypt is the way that board games seeped into their religious system, with one game, in particular, becoming closely entwined with their polytheistic worship of the serpent God Mehen. 

(image courtesy LearnPlayWin)

The rules of the game have been lost to history, but it appears to have become so involved with religious practices that even today historians aren’t sure whether the game was named after the serpent god or vice versa. At Well Played, we’re not too sure about the serpent-god stuff, but any religion based on a board game can’t be all bad! 

Teaching Morality in India

While the earliest board games were created for entertainment, over time game designers realized they could also serve as a fun, accessible way to teach morality.

This is exactly what Gyandev, a poet-saint of Hinduism did. He invented a board game called Gian Chauper or Mokshpat, which eventually became known as Snakes and Ladders.

The ladders, representing humility, kindness, faith, and other good values, allowed players to ascend towards salvation. The snakes represented bad deeds and less-than-admirable characteristics, and landing on one would send players backward. 

It’s reassuring to know that Chutes and Ladders is really just a metaphor wrapped up in some really frustrating game mechanics, because let’s face it, despite its enduring popularity, it’s a pretty boring game. 

The United States

Closer to home, board games had a slow start in the United States. The Puritans, who established some of the first and most influential colonies in North America, believed that dice and cards were sinful. With those headwinds, it wasn’t until the 19th century when board games really took off.   

Believe it or not, Monopoly, started out as an attempt to teach social values. Originally called “The Landlord Game,” it was invented by an early 20th-century feminist and social reformer named Elizabeth Magie whose goal was to illustrate the evils of capitalism. 

In an ironic twist, Elizabeth Magie sold the rights to The Landlord Game which was then adapted into the modern, money-obsessed version we know today. The Parker Brothers made millions, while Elizabeth Magie received hardly anything. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. 

Board Games in the 20th Century

The Modern History of Tabletop Games

The popularity of Monopoly sparked the creation of many games that are still played today including Candyland, Clue, Pictionary, Scrabble, Risk, Sorry, and Trivial Pursuit. 

(image courtesy

But by the end of the 20th century, board games had lost some of their appeal. With the rise of video games, board games were considered by many to be an antiquated relic, at odds with the modern world. That all changed in 1995, when Klaus Teueber published what would become the international sensation Settlers of Catan. Catan represented an evolutionary step forward in gameplay and came to define the new era of Euro-Style gaming, fundamentally changing not just board games design, but also reinvigorating the popularity of the hobby.

Board Gaming’s 21st-Century Renaissance

Today, board games are more popular than ever. There are a lot of reasons for the spike in popularity, but our Gamemasters at Well Played point to three factors in particular: 

1. Innovative Game Mechanics 

Games have gotten better. It’s not just the themes, the artwork, or the rise of cheap 3D printing, the actual game mechanics that underlie every turn have improved. From cooperative, to worker placement, to deck building, there’s a whole universe of game styles that simply didn’t exist before, opening up the hobby to more people.

2. The Power of Nostalgia

It’s also hard to resist the nostalgic allure of board games. Let’s face it, the world sometimes seems like a pretty complicated, scary place. As adults, board games help connect us to the kid within, where we can focus on fun, explore fantasy realms, and put off adulting for 45-60 minutes. 

3. Real-World Social Engagement

Finally, humans are social creatures. We crave connectivity. Board games create space for families and friends to get together face-to-face, put down their phones, and just have fun.

This is why we’ve seen the rise of board game cafés. What’s not to like about a friendly and relaxed community space where people can gather and play games while enjoying tasty food and drinks? At Well Played, we’re proud pioneers of this movement and to be the first, biggest, and best board game café in North Carolina! 

Want to receive our blog articles right to your inbox? Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter below!


* indicates required
/ ( mm / dd )