a giant glacier lies ahead

The Ancient Board Game 20 Squares

Not much of a name for one of the oldest board games ever discovered, is it?

20 Squares likely originated in the Middle East or Indian subcontinent around 2600 BCE, though most of our familiarity comes from Egyptian boards that date to 1550-1295 BCE. The game is played on a club-shaped grid with a 4x3 fat end, an 8x1 path pointing out to the side, and five special squares usually marked with a rosette. Players take turns throwing dice and moving pieces along the grid, racing to reach the end while blocking or knocking opponent's pieces off the board.

20 Squares in stone

20 Squares predates the earliest versions of chess by nearly 3,000 years. Sets have even been found with sophisticated carrying systems carved into the wood so travelers could store pieces with the board.

Despite its simplicity, 20 Squares has many of the elements we look for in games. There's randomness from the dice rolls, risk/reward from deciding when to add more pieces and when to move existing pieces, even fun gotcha moments when we knock the opponent's piece off the board.

20 Squares Rules

We don't know the exact rules of 20 Squares because no one, not even Old Kingdom Egyptians, could own a board game without losing the instructions. We do know it's closely related to the ancient games Ur, Senet (PDF) and Asseb, and may be little more than a variation of those.

The rules below are adapted from what we know about the 20 Squares combined with rules we have for its sister games.

  1. Place the empty board with the fat side of the club to your left. Your opponent will sit across from you, the club head on their right.
  2. Each player starts with 5 pieces in hand, no pieces on the board, and one 4-sided die to share.
  3. Roll the die to determine who goes first.
  4. On each turn, a player rolls the die. If they have no pieces on the board, they must enter a piece matching the die roll, starting on the inside corner square on their side of the board. If they have pieces already on the board, they may add another piece or move one ahead by the number of squares rolled. Movement proceeds in a candy cane shape from the initial square to the outside edge of the club, then down through the center squares to the far end. Note that players never access the four squares closest to their opponent, making those safe spaces.
  5. No two pieces may occupy the same square. If a piece lands on an opponent's, the opponent's piece returns to the start square. If a piece lands on a special marked square, the player rolls and moves again.
  6. The goal is to move your pieces to the far end of the board and "fall off" from there. You have to fall by exactly one. So, if you were sitting on the very last square, you must roll a 1 to remove that piece.
  7. The first player with no pieces left wins.

Also check out the more modern 20 Squares variant Ramses.

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