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Ancient Strategy Games and How They Contributed to Our Civilization - Origins of Chess

Submitted by Teo Graca | RSS Feed | Add Comment | Bookmark Me! print

I have always loved strategy games and wondered how strategy games influenced our civilization since the days of the hunter gatherers. Here is a small bit of my research.


Chess is one of the best known games of strategy, but one of the earliest predecessors of the game was Chaturanga, which is an ancient Indian game that is presumed to be the common ancestor of the games of chess, shogi, and makruk, and related to xiangqi and janggi. Chaturanga is interesting in that up to four players can play the game, and to make it really interesting, the piece you move is chosen by the roll of unusual 4-sided dice, but like Chess, Chaturanga is played on an 8x8 board and relies on capture and checkmate. 

Sanskrit Chaturanga means "having four limbs or parts" and in epic poetry often means "army" - 4 represents the basis of the game. There are 4 distinct main pieces and 4 pawn type pieces per army, and 4 armies in every game. The pieces move in a similar way to modern Chess pieces.

Zhou Wenju Go Players

  • The Raja (moves like a King)
  • Ratha or Sakata (aka Chariot, which moves like the Rook in chess)
  • Gaja, Elephant or Boat (two squares in any direction - can jump over one other pieces)
  • Ashva or Horse (moves like the Knight in chess)
  • 4 Pedati, Sainik or Bhata (aka foot-soldier or warrior, which moves like a pawn in chess)

The game of GO, also called Pinyin or Weiqi, originated in China in ancient times. It was described in the Analects of Confucius. According to legend, the game was created as a teaching tool after the ancient Chinese Emperor Yao (2337 - 2258 BC) designed it for his son Danzhu to learn discipline, concentration, and balance. Another legend suggests the game originated around Chinese warlords and generals to map strategic attacking positions. Other plausible theories relate Go to divination or flood control. It's surround and conquer methodologies are often compared to Sun Tzu military strategies.

Liubo is another ancient Chinese strategy game thought to have been invented around 3,500 years ago during the Shang Dynasty (1,783 1,134 B.C.). Liubo was a two player game and consisted of one general and five pawns. The game was decided by the capturing of the general and moves were determined by the roll of dice.

Liubo was first mentioned in Sima Qiang's (135 BC – 86 BC) Shiji - Yan Bunji, which recorded Emperor Shang Wu Yi (1,198 1,194 B.C.) - a cruel king - proving his power as greater than that of the divine by playing Liubo against God. He made a statue of God and then ordered his official to play the game on behalf of God. Not wanting to cross the king, the official let Wu Yi win 3 times. Wu Yi then demolished the statue and defiled and cursed it. Leter killed by a bolt of lightning, historians said that this was the "revenge" of God for his blasphemy.

Like many that inherit wealth or power instead of earning it, Wu Yi was torn internally to find some way to prove that he was worthy of his inheritance. It's interesting that he chose a strategy game to try to prove it, but his tactical approach of positioning a person afraid for his life as the representative of God's power proves only that he had absolutely no mind for strategy. 

Strategy has always been about using an effective set of tactics logically to attain a powerful position. Just take a look at the career of Johnny Carson - the most powerful man in show business of his time. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Logic in 1949 from the University of Nebraska and used that with his expertise in performing arts strategically to build his career.

If we reach all the way back to the hunter-gatherer period, imagine people settling awhile, perhaps as herd migrations were completed each season. Imagine members of a community coming together over a few flattened stones or clay area, coming up with a "playing field" and marking out game designs. Game patterns found are primarily simple squares, rectangles, triangles and circles as found sparingly in our archeological records. See two examples of typical game board designs on the right.

These games mark strategic planning that come in the form of abstract designs for simple games. They exercise the part of the brain that plans, and as we got better at planning, we found better designs for hunting tools, shelters, ways of storing food, and eventually growing our own food.

My thesis is that simple strategy games are what actually propelled us out of out of the hunter-gatherer period and into towns and eventually great cities.

The picture on the right is an ancient game called "Senet" found in Egypt and dated to around 3,300 BC. The board and pieces of Senet suggest elements of chess, checkers, and cribbage, but no one really knows exactly what the rules of the game were. No rules have been found, but it is generally agreed that Senet was based more on luck than skill with moves being determined by the throw of four flat sticks painted on one side.

Strategic thinking is more important in today's society than it has ever been in history. If you have worked on any kind of project that involves a team of people, logistics of any kind, materials, or any tools to get the project accomplished, maybe you can imagine the level of thought development it took to get us here. Starting with simple hunting and cooking tools to building a space craft that leaves our solar system, strategy games were cherished throughout history as something Godly - something that would take us to the next level. Is it any wonder that the most respected persons in their fields are strategic planners?

Where would we be today without these strategy games? I doubt very seriously we would be where we are today.

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