Board games have been with us for over 5000 years. They are a central part of what it means to be human. Here, game obsessive and Writer at Large, Neil Mackay, gives you the low down on the best games ever made, and their incredible history.

IT’S autumn. The nights are dark and rainy. The news is depressing. You watch way too much TV. You spend far too long on your phone. And everyone is trying to save money for when the Brexit balloon goes up.

Wouldn’t it be good to cheer yourself up with some quality time at home with family, maybe stretch your brain while your at it – do something social but not have to dig deep in your pocket for a night out?

Well, turn off the telly, hide your phone and fetch a board game. You won’t be alone. The global market in board games is worth $9.6 billion, and it’s growing each year.

Games make you do very human things: laugh, cry, argue, huff, scream, plot, cheat, lie, win, gloat. They build your imagination. They allow you to enjoy the simplicity of a physical past-time with people you love. Well, at least you’ll love them when you begin playing, you might well hate them by the end.

To help you get started, here’s our guide to board games – not just the greatest games ever invented, but the bizarre history of board games and the central role they’ve played in human culture since the beginning of recorded time.


Ramesess the Great, Pharaoh of Egypt, liked a good game of Senet with his wife Queen Nefertari. A depiction of the oldest known board game is painted on Nefertari’s tomb – she died in 1255BC. But Senet is much older, and probably dates to 3100BC.

Senet means ‘The Game of Passing’, and although the rules are lost to time, it seems moving pieces across the board represented the journey of the spirit into the afterlife. The game gets a mention in the Book of the Dead, the most important religious text in ancient Egypt, containing spells to get the soul through the underworld.

One of the oldest cities on Earth, Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, gave its name to the forerunner of backgammon known as The Royal Game of Ur. Like backgammon players had to race each other by rolling dice in order to get their pieces off the playing board and be declared winner.

The game was first played around 2600 BC, and is also thought to have had some mystical dimension to it – perhaps it was used to tell the players’ futures, or receive messages from the dead like a ouija board. Some boards have been found with inscriptions such as ‘You will find a friend’ and ‘You will become powerful like a lion’.

Ur boards have been discovered in Crete and India, and something resembling Ur was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. By the 7th century, Ur had morphed into backgammon.


An early form of chess played in 6th century India was called Chaturanga, meaning ‘the four military divisions’: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. These would eventually become pawns, knights, bishops and rooks. Even from prototype, chess had military conquest at its heart. It was the game of kings after all. Chaturanga spread along the Silk Road to the Islamic world and from there to Europe where it was modified, and by 1475 had become the chess we know today.

By the 1700s, chess was a staple in Europe’s new coffee houses, frequented by writers and artists, and quickly became linked with intellectuals. By the Victorian era, chess was more a mental sport than a game. It even became a front in the Cold War, with the American grandmaster Bobby Fischer vying for supremacy before the eyes of the world with his Soviet rival Boris Spassky. It remains the definitive board game.


Game fans chugged along with a pretty limited palate of chess, draughts, cards and dice until the 19th century when the industrial revolution meant more money and leisure time for the middle classes, and a boom in popular entertainment, including board games. One of the first modern board games was 1822’s Traveller’s Tour Through the United States where players moved around the map of America and had to name the places they landed on. The first to New Orleans won.

It’s in this period that the middle class home starts to be seen as a haven from the world. Previously, home and work were often the same place. But as the Victorian era arrived, the middle classes began to view work and worry as things that went on out there, beyond the home. Behind the front door there was family, entertainment, happiness, peace and quiet. The board game and affordable books all played a central role in the changing shape, and growing ‘cosiness’, of the home – just as radio and television would later.

Many games were ‘morally instructive’, like The Mansion of Happiness – a sort of biblical Snakes and Ladders. The aim is to get to Paradise. Land on a virtuous square, like humility, and you advance to heaven; land on a vice square, like pride, and you’re sent backwards to the pillory. The game was first produced in Salem, Massachusetts in 1843. Parker Brothers – the makers of Monopoly – were still selling The Mansion of Happiness in 1926

The much-loved Game of Life was first published in 1860 as The Checkered Game of Life. Like today’s version, the Victorian game saw players going to university, getting a job, and marrying.

Games were shifting into a new stage. Until the mid-1800s games were either about luck or strategy, from now on they began to reflect human life. District Messenger Boy, created in 1886, sees players begin as a humble messenger boy. The winner is the player who scrambles highest up the greasy pole. The Golden Age of board games culminates in the publication of Monopoly – a contender for greatest game of all time.


Monopoly is as much a part of childhood as Roald Dahl and Disney movies. We all know the idea – aided by dice and random chance, who in your family will show themselves to be the meanest, greediest, corporate psychopath at the kitchen table after Boxing Day lunch.

Monopoly began life as The Landlord’s Game, designed in 1903 by the American intellectual Lizzie Magie, with the intention of showing up the flaws in unbridled capitalism. The version we know today was published in 1935 by Parker Brothers, which bought the patent from Magie for a measly $500. The first board was a map of Atlantic City.

With the creation of the London board, Britain went mad for the game. The Secret Intelligence Service sent Monopoly to servicemen in Nazi prisoner of war camps. Inside, were hidden maps, compasses and money.

The game is now a global brand – like Coke or Nike – with its own world championships. There are scores of variations on the board. Want a Glasgow edition? You’ve got it. A Belfast board? Sure. Simpson’s cartoon, Walking Dead, Star Wars – whatever you’re into, there’s a monopoly board for you.


If Monopoly was for the noisy, kidding around type of family, Scrabble was for the more serious households. Scrabble came out in 1938 just a few years after Monopoly. Where Monopoly identified your family psychopath, Scrabble found the budding intellectual, bookworm and overbearing know-it-all. Like Monopoly, Scrabble could also trigger feuds at the kitchen table, usually when someone was trying to convince the rest of the family that ‘Qjxhwyz’ is a word.

Alfred Mosher Butts, an American architect, had been tinkering with a word game for a few years when he hit on Scrabble. It wasn’t until 1952, however, when the president of Macy’s department store in New York, Jack Straus, played the game and loved it, that Scrabble got the push it deserved and became a multi-million bestseller.

Along with Monopoly, it’s the game that almost everyone in the Western world has at home. In the digital age its pull remains undiminished – next weekend will see the National Scrabble Championships played in London in the most competitive board game tournament on Earth.


Many game lovers will have tried Mahjong – a bewildering Chinese tile-based strategy game, a bit like Gin Rummy on acid. If Mahjong intimidates you, then don’t go near Go. It’s another Chinese game, it’s thousands of years old and it’s seen – justifiably – as the hardest game on Earth.

Go is more a vocation than a game. It’s not played casually. Players have to study hard to become proficient. Basically, Go sees players try to capture their opponent's pieces. That makes it sound simple. Flying the Space Shuttle is easier. The game has literally an endless variety of possibilities. It makes chess look like checkers.

Back in the day – that’s roughly 800AD – being a Go master was seen as one of the four key elements of being a Chinese scholar and gentleman along with playing a musical instrument, calligraphy and painting. The name is derived from the old Chinese for ‘surrounding’ – which is the aim of the game, to surround and conquer your opponent.


As games became a staple of family life in the post-war era, consumers started to want something different. The thing that was missing was ‘story’ and ‘interaction’. Players didn’t just want austere strategy and random chance anymore.

And so to Risk – the ultimate war-game. There’s a map of the world and players take their armies and try to conquer the planet. Developed by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse in 1957, it’s basically playing at being Napoleon. The rules are simple, but the strategy is Darwinian. Will you and your sister team up against mum and annihilate her in North America? Should you pretend to be your wife’s ally only to betray her in Australia? The game, which can last eight hours, shows who you can trust and who’d throw you under the bus.

Instead of war as the storyline, The Settlers of Catan gives you the foundation of civilisation. Players settle the land, build, develop and trade. The well-known game designer Richard Dansky says that “for all of its elemental simplicity” Catan is a fundamentally “social game”. That’s why it’s been called “the board game of our time”. It genuinely brings people together. The Catan craze helped the boom in board game clubs that sprung up in the noughties.

We have to talk about Dungeons & Dragons – more a way of life for some than a game. It came out in 1974, created by the wonderfully named Gary Gygax. Today, it’s seen as the domain of the cosplaying uber-nerd, but when it arrived, D&D sparked moral panic with parents thinking the Tolkienesque adventure game inspired kids to devil worship, suicide and murder. Without D&D, though, modern pop culture wouldn’t be the same. There’d be no Game of Thrones, no comic-con – in fact, the entire fantasy genre would be a mere shadow of itself.

Equally as immersive, but entirely different is Diplomacy. Instead of being an elf or wizard, you play one of the leaders of the main powers in the run up to the First World War. Most of the fun revolves around secret negotiations. You need to make treaties, spread disinformation and share intelligence with allies and opponents. It becomes utterly consuming and can last two days.

For many, that’s too big an ask. If you want a game which lasts just a few hours, has bags of atmosphere, a great story, is as social as it gets, and also brings out the best and worst in people then, please, play The Fury of Dracula. To me, it’s the greatest game ever made.

Four players take on the roles of vampire hunters led by Professor Van Helsing, from the novel Dracula. One player is the Count – invisible on the board to the rest of the room. The players hunt Dracula across a map of Europe encountering evil traps he’s laid and wicked servants plotting their assassinations. The aim is simple: find Dracula and drive a stake through his heart.

Playing this game by candlelight, on an autumn night, with a glass of red wine and classical music in the background is quite simply why board gaming was invented.