Tactile games have been a part of human history since the early days of civilization. The most ancient games pieces found thus far seem to be a set of 49 carved and painted stones found at a 5,000-year-old burial mound in Turkey, discovered in 2013 by a team led by Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University. The discovery confirms that board games likely originated and spread from the Fertile Crescent regions and ancient Egypt, a region known for ancient toys. It further asserts that play is an intrinsic part of human culture – something we at Nefer Games firmly believe.
The gentleman to the right in the photo below with me is Dr. Irving Finkel. He is a curator in the Middle East department of the British Museum with specific expertise in the domain of Ancient Mesopotamia. He also happens to be a renowned expert in the matter of ancient games, being the discoverer of the rules of the Royal Game of Ur, a Sumerian game dating back to roughly 2500 BCE, and a collector of several others. I had the fortune of meeting Irving when he gave a talk at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on ancient games last November. I’ve been reading his work on ancient games for more than a decade, and the experience was both wonderful and timely, given our work toward launching Nefer Games.
As you might expect, decoding the rules to an ancient game requires interdisciplinary knowledge: anthropology, game design, archaeology and language – and Dr. Finkel excels in this realm. In fact, Dr. Finkel has determined that the Royal Game of Ur underwent an important transition throughout its history: its board layout changed, and it’s had at least two distinct sets of rules. This evolution is common among ancient games, as flaws in game design or opportunities to expand the richness of play were discovered organically through the iterations of play over centuries. A similar transition occurred for chess, the history of which likely began around 1500 years ago in India in the form of a game called chaturaṅga, which uses pieces related to but somewhat distinct from those of modern chess. The actual rules of chaturaṅga may be lost to history, but various scholars have speculated on them on the basis of artifacts and later rule evolutions, such as its successor shatranj.
It was an 18th century pachisi set that sparked my interest in games beyond a form an entertainment. And the evolution of ancient games, as well as their exalted place in ancient society, has inspired the mission of Nefer Games. Our game design philosophy is grounded in three principles:
- Attention to aesthetics: Ancient games tended to be built from natural base materials (stone, wood, etc) as well as natural enhancements (e.g., pigments) with attention placed on artistry as much as function.
- Focus on mental and social engagement: Indeed, until the 1930s – i.e., for thousands of years – games were not solely used for entertainment, but were primarily tools of teaching skills and morals both to children and adults.
- Solid game theory: While not initially designed with modern principles of game theory in mind (to my knowledge), games evolved over hundreds of years to address issues of gameplay and interaction in a way which not only adhere to these principles today, but in fact are much of the basis for our understanding of modern game theory.
An important distinction to be made in the context of solid game theory is that between complexity versus complication in game design. My own philosophy of these concepts is grounded in systems theory, which understands complexity as the emergence of a condition of richness which comes from the interactions between the parts of the whole, but does not rely on those parts necessarily being numerous, while complication does rely on the existence of numerous elements which may not interact in rich ways with one another. Many games I see being developed in recent years rely on complication rather than complexity, which – to me – renders a far lesser experience to players.
While ancient games such as the Royal Game of Ur and chess have few elements with complex interactions, a resurgence of this principle of game design can also be found in some modern games – especially so-called Eurogames, such as the popular games Settlers of Catan and Carcassone.
At Nefer Games, we currently have 22 games in various stages of development (and another 50 or so on the back burner). Our first product is Sedis, the fourth generic game device in history. Like many ancient games, all of these games adhere to our three principles of game design and are inspired by the phrase “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” Subscribe to be notified on when Sedis is launched.