Five ancient maths games that can be played by students today

Mathematics games have been played and enjoyed for thousands of years by civilisations all across the world. Help your child expand and sharpen their mathematical skills with these tried and true games from ancient times.

1. Two Stones (China)

Background: Also known as Pong hau k'i this is an ancient Chinese game. It was traditionally played on the ground using chalk and stones but can be easily adapted.

Things you need

  • Two players
  • Piece of paper
  • Pen.

Step 1

Each player has their own distinctive “stone”. This can be a pebble or a circle cut out from cardboard or paper.

On a piece of paper – draw the following, using a thick black pen or texta.

Step 2

Place two stones (coloured pieces of paper) at the top and two at the bottom like this:

Step 3

The first player moves their pebble to the middle of the board. Then, each player takes turns to move their stone anywhere there’s a blank spot.

Step 4

How to win: block your opponent so they can’t move their stone anywhere.

2. Mulinello Quadrupio (Rome)

Background: This board game from the late Roman empire, originated around 5th or 6th century AD and was discovered in street excavations. It’s similar in concept to noughts and crosses.

Things you’ll need

  • 2 players
  • A board
  • 5 counters of one colour (e.g. red) You could also use dried pasta shapes likes shells.
  • 5 counters of another colour (e.g. green). You could also use dried beans or dried pasta like penne.

Step 1

Create a board like the one shown in the picture. You can do this by drawing a grid of five by five lines (you may need a ruler to keep the lines straight). Then black circles on each line intersection. Then each player takes turns to place one of their counters on an empty space on the board.

Step 2

When all ten pieces have been placed on the board, players take it in turns to move one of their pieces to an empty adjacent blue circle along any of the marked lines.

Step 3

The first player who gets their five pieces in a line - horizontally, vertically or diagonally is the winner.

3. Shisima (Kenya)

Background: Traditional game from Kenya that is similar to tic-tac-toe or three-in-a-row. Shisima means “body of water”in Kenyan and the game was inspired by watching water insects crawl towards a water source. It was originally played using beans or stones.

Things you’ll need:

  • Each player has three distinct piece of different colour or design to the other player (for fun you could use coloured jellybeans or else counters).
  • An octagonal board as shown below. (You can easily draw this using a ruler on a large piece of paper)
  • 1 x 6 sided dice.

Each player puts their three coloured pieces down on the three coloured points on the board. Each players’ pieces should be facing the other players’ pieces. The centre circle is left empty.

Step 2

Roll a dice to see who goes first.

Each player takes turns moving one of their pieces along a line to an empty space. You’re allowed to move into the middle centre circle.

Step 3

You can’t jump over another player’s counter.

The first player to get their three counters lining up in a row is the winner. See picture below.

4. Senet

Background: This is an ancient game that dates as far back as 2600 BC/ BCE and possibly earlier. It was wildly popular - a game board was even found in the tomb of King Tut.

Things you’ll need

  • 2 players
  • A game board made of 30 squares (in 3 rows of ten) Eight of the squares have hieroglyphics (see illustration below)
  • Five differently coloured counters for ech player. For instance one player has five green counters, the other has blue counters.
  • 1 six sided Dice (the Egyptians used throwing sticks but dice are easier)

Step 1

Throw the dice to see how many squares to move your piece forward. You can move any of your pieces you like when it’s your turn - but you can only move one piece per turn.

If you throw a one, four, or six, you get an extra turn. The movement starts in the top left square and then snakes along the board until all pieces reach square 30 (see below).

Step 2

You can't land on one of your own pieces.

If you land on the other player's piece, you switch places with them. However, you can't switch with them if they have two or more pieces in a row.

If the other player has three or more pieces in a row, you can't pass them. If no moves are allowed, back or forward, the player misses a turn until he/she can move.

Step 3

Some squares are ‘safe' squares and some are ‘danger' squares. These squares have special traditional names.

The House of Happiness is marked by what looks like three upside down stick figures. All of your pieces need to pass through this house to win. You must land on the house exactly.

If, for example, the House of Happiness is located on square 26 and you're on square 25, if you do not roll in such a way that you'll move exactly one house you have to stay in place until your next turn.

The House of Water is marked by three zigzagged lines. If you land on the House of Water, you have to move straight back to the House of Rebirth. The House of Rebirth is marked by three sideways stick figures. Your piece remains on the House of Rebirth until you choose to remove it again.

The House of Three Truths is marked by a drawing of three birds. If you land on this house, you can roll the dice again. If you roll a three, you can automatically remove this piece from the board.

The House of Re-Atoum is marked by two dancing stick figures. If you have landed here, roll the dice again. If you roll a two, you can remove your piece from the board.

The last house on the board is marked by a leaf-like drawing. When you reach this house, you must roll again. You cannot remove your piece until you roll the dice and get a one.

The first player to get all of their pieces off the board wins the game.

5. Noughts and crosses (Persia)

Background: The history of Noughts and Crosses as we know it today goes back to far Persia, almost a thousand years ago. It was discovered by Italian traders who brought it to Europe. In a short period of time, it became one of the most popular games in Europe during the Middle Ages. It’s easy to play anywhere, which is part of the reason for its enduring popularity.

What you need:

- 2 players

- Pen or pencil

- Piece of paper

Each player takes turns putting in a cross or a nought. The first to get three in a row, diagonally, horizontally or vertically, wins. Each player tries to block the other player from getting three in a row. If no one is able to get three in a row, the game is a draw and you start again.

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