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10 best traditional board games you shouldn’t ignore just because they’re old

Not-so-modern classics.

Go classic board game gameplay
Image credit: jia xu/Pixabay

When people think of traditional board games, most folks would naturally turn their mind’s eye toward such games as chess or Monopoly. But what if you still want a great traditional board game, you’re just not looking for something as complex as chess or don’t want to break into the annual Christmas fistfight over Mayfair?

Traditional board games

Well, we’ve got good news for you, because board games have been around for literally thousands of years. If you haven’t taken the time to play some of these older titles, then now may be the time to do so. Between numerous online locations, reprints at your local gaming store, or even an antique board and pieces from a second-hand store - you should be able to find most of these pretty easily. Even if it takes a bit of effort, they’re worth it. Here are some of the best traditional board games that are well worth tracking down and playing.

1. Backgammon

This Persian game has a mechanic called 'dancing', how can that not be fun?

Backgammon has remained a popular two-player board game for centuries. Image: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay

Believed to have originally debuted in Persia in the sixth century, the traditional backgammon is one of the first dice-based table games to be played in the known world. Backgammon is a game for two players played on a board that often folds up to hold all the pieces inside it - very useful for saving space.

In backgammon each player has 15 checker pieces that move between twenty-four points, twelve on each side of the board. The ultimate goal is to roll a pair of dice and move the checkers from their starting points until they are all on your own quarter of the board, then bear them off - meaning to get them all into your container off the board.

There is a tactical aspect to moving your pieces in the right order, keeping them protected from your opponent’s attempts to capture them - sending them back to the start - or even deciding when to take an opponent’s pieces. But to keep things from getting too predictable, the dice add an element of luck to the game. Backgammon can take anywhere from five or ten minutes to possibly hours if each player plays aggressively and keeps capturing each other’s pieces.

You can even make your own backgammon board with a piece of cardboard and a marker, 30 chequers and a pair of six-sided dice. Great to occupy some bored kids on a day with poor weather.

2. Mancala

Plant the seeds of fun with this ancient game

Mancala is a genre of traditional board games rather than a single game. Image: TheUjulala/Pixabay

Another traditional two-player game reportedly first recorded in the Israeli city of Gedera, dating back to the second century. Like backgammon, it’s likely that what we call mancala originated even earlier than that. Mancala is technically a classification of a type of game, rather than a single game. Mancala itself is Arabic for “to move”, stemming from the root word naqala.

The basis for mancala is a board made of numerous divots to place little pieces in - pebbles, coloured stones, gems or beads, or even beans, marbles or shells - referred to as seeds. Ancient mancala boards were often carved into stone or just dug into the ground. The divots are usually called pits or houses.

The general idea of most mancala games is that you fill each divot with a number of seeds, equal for both players, and the goal is to end the game with the most seeds in your side’s bin, called your store. You score points by getting seeds, one house at a time, over to your store. This is done by emptying a hole of seeds and dropping one seed in each house in a circle around the playing field, until you’ve run out of seeds in hand. If your last seed lands in your store, you usually get to go again. Likewise, if your last seed lands in an empty hole on your side of the board, you get to capture any seeds on your opponent’s side and put them all into your store.

There are different versions of mancala popular around the world - including versions where each player has multiple rows of pits full of seeds. Sometimes instead of stores the goal is to have the most seeds on your side of the board, or to control all the seeds. A strictly tactical game, there is little luck to deal with if things like backgammon’s dice aggravate you.

In a pinch you can gather a few handfuls of beads, buttons, or stones and just dig a few holes in the ground - or even put little bowls on a table and play together that way.

3. 9 Men’s Norris

A game so prominent, a first-century poet wrote of it

9 Men's Morris is sometimes also known as the Mill Game due to its row-making gameplay.

Don’t let the name fool you, 9 Men’s Morris is only a game for two players. The name is sometimes believed to come from the Latin word for gaming pieces, merellus. The traditional board game is also referred to as Mills, or the Mill Game, because the ultimate goal is to create mills - a row of three pieces on the same line of the board.

The traditional game is played on a surface made up of three rectangles of increasing size, each comprising eight points, creating an imperfect grid with 24 points. The game is broken into three stages: placement, movement and flying.

In the placement stage each player takes turns putting their pieces on the board on empty points, with the goal to either create a mill, set up a future mill or prevent their opponent from creating mills. When a mill is formed by a player, they may remove one of their opponent’s pieces from the board. The ultimate goal is to reduce your opponent to only two pieces - thus making it impossible for them to create mills, or by making sure they cannot make a legal move with their remaining pieces.

The second phase of the game begins once both players have put all their pieces on the board. Now players may move their remaining pieces into adjacent points in order to continue the goal of creating mills and removing opposing pieces from the board - or locking up the opposing player’s pieces. In the final phase, which begins when one player only has three pieces remaining (i.e. on the verge of defeat), the losing player may move their remaining pieces to any space, breaking the adjacency rule.

Ancient boards from the turn of the first millennium have been found in old Roman settlements and the game was known to be popular amongst Roman soldiers.

Like the previous two games, you can recreate 9 Men’s Morris with a sheet of paper, a pen and nine checkers for each player. There are also smaller and larger versions of the game, such as 3 Men’s Morris and even up to 12 Men’s Morris.

4. Tafl games

These traditional board games’ popularity spread alongside the Vikings that played them

Sometimes nicknamed 'Viking chess', hnefatafl is probably the best known tafl game. Image: British Museum

Tafl, which goes by many different names - including tablut, taefl and hnefatafl - all basically translate to the word “table”. As you might expect, this covers a wide array of traditional board games, but most tafl games are pretty similar in their basic premise. Unfortunately the traditional rules of the original medieval game have been lost to time, which is part of why there are so many different versions.

As the common names might suggest, tafl are Scandinavian games made popular by their spread from the Vikings. Arguably tied for most prominent versions of the game are hnefatafl, meaning ‘King’s Table’, and tablut, meaning ‘to play a board game’ - prominent as a minigame in the video game Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord.

Both versions of the game have the same basic principle - there is a central set of pieces with a king piece and there is an outer force of pieces that outnumber them 2:1. The goal of the king’s forces is to let the king get to the edge of the board without getting captured. The goal of the outer forces is to capture said king piece.

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Pieces act just like a rook from chess in that they can move any number of spaces in a single direction. Capturing opposing pieces occurs when you surround the piece on two opposing sides - however, a piece is not captured if it moves between two opposing pieces. The king moves in the same fashion, but there are usually special rules concerning the centre piece the king starts on once it moves - like it being impassable, or counting as a capture piece for the outer forces if the king is backed against it. Some theorise dice may have been involved in the original game, but modern rules generally forego them, turning the game into an entirely tactical play style.

You can play tafl at home if you modify a chess board by converting it into a nine-by-nine board and have a few handfuls of chequers.

5. Draughts

Pieces for this traditional board game were said to be found inside the Sphinx

One of the many traditional board games you can play easily on a chess board, draughts - or checkers - is a simple game of strategy. Image: Ziko van Dijk

Draughts is the British name for a game Americans would know well as checkers. The difference in names comes from a verb for movement opposed to being named for the chequered-style board of differentiating coloured spaces.

Generally played on an eight-by-eight chess board, there are common variants of the game played on 10x10 and even 12x12 boards. Draughts is a must-have just for the board and pieces as, like many of the traditional board games on this list, there are numerous variants you can play with these items.

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The rules for draughts are so basic that it’s one of the greatest starter games for new players. The pieces move diagonally, one space at a time, capturing pieces by jumping over them. If you get a piece on the other side of the board, it gets to move forward and backward.

You can make your own board with a standard sheet of paper, or a chunk of cardboard, and a marker, and use almost anything as pieces.

6. Carrom

This Indian game is like a mating between marbles and draughts

The pucks of draughts meets snooker-like dexterity in this traditional game. Image: PDPics/Pixabay

If games like draughts, tafl and 9 Men’s Morris are too rigid for you and you just want to cut loose, carrom may be the game for you. The traditional board game is comprised of a smooth, walled board with holes in the corners and a strategically-placed diagram of lines and circles. Within the centre circle is a group of 19 pieces, known as carrom men - but also called seeds, coins, pawns or pucks. The pucks are generally three colours: nine of one player’s colour, nine of the other colour and one special puck, referred to as the queen piece.

Carrom is a dexterity game where your goal is to knock your pieces into a hole in one of the corners of the board. This is done by flicking a larger piece, called a striker, against the smaller multicoloured pieces. The ultimate aim is to get your own coloured pieces into the holes and also to strategically get the queen piece into a hole as well. If you get a piece in the hole, you get to flick again.

A common version of the rules is that each piece in a hole is a single point, but the queen is worth three - however, you must sink a regular piece into a hole immediately after the queen to ‘protect the queen’, or else the opposing player gets a point. Another common form of the traditional board game is that getting the queen in last simply wins the game, and if the queen gets knocked into a hole before all your other pieces, it counts as a foul - similar to pocketing the cue ball in snooker (or billiards).

Carrom is unfortunately difficult to set up with home materials, due to the need for a special type of board. But if you have a carrom board there are enough rules variations to keep play interesting.

7. Crokinole

The only game on this list believed to have originated in North America

Crokinole was invented in the 19th century - making it a 'modern' classic by comparison to many traditional board games.

Perennial favourite around the Dicebreaker office is the 19th-century Canadian creation known as crokinole. Very similar to carrom, crokinole is a dexterity game wherein two players (or four, playing in teams) try to flick small wooden discs into a hole in the centre of the board. The main differences to carrom are that crokinole doesn’t use a striker piece - instead, you simply flick the pieces as normal - the hole is in the middle of a round crokinole board rather than the corners of a rectangular carrom board, and in crokinole there is no queen piece.

The idea of the traditional board game is to get your piece into the hole in the middle of the board, but there are also point values for the space of the board decreasing in worth as you get further away from the centre hole. The hole is worth 20 points, the area around it 15, with surrounding areas decreasing outward to a mere five. If the opposing player(s) have any pucks on the board you must strike at least one - else it is considered a foul and your own piece is removed from the board, scoring you no points.

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Some versions of crokinole are played with cue sticks, making it something of a Frankenstein’s monster of games: carrom, shuffleboard and billiards, all mixed into a single game. The name itself is French-Canadian and derives from a word that meant to flick or hit something with your finger. It also referred to a hairstyle popular back in the day and currently is the name of a type of pastry.

Like carrom, crokinole is a tough game to set up using home materials due to the highly specific board.

8. Mahjong

With over 500 million players worldwide, this traditional game can give chess a run for its money

Mahjong's rules can seem complicated at first, but the traditional board game is similar to card game rummy. Image: LazarCatt/Pixabay

The traditional Chinese game mahjong is definitely a contender for title of “most complicated-looking game that is actually deceptively simple”. Mahjong, derived from the Chinese word for sparrow, is much easier to learn than it seems. The traditional board game is made up of 144 tiles, comprising several different suits: dots, bamboo stalks and characters, each numbered one through nine. With four of each multitude in the three suits they make up 108 tiles within the deck, a number important to Buddhist iconography. Along with the three suits of nine tiles, there are also the four winds and three dragon suits - some games will also include special bonus tiles.

The basic premise of the game is very similar to rummy in that you are trying to build a hand of runs, pairs and sets in the various different suits. That’s the simple part of the game. The thing that makes mahjong difficult is that not all hands are considered valid. You may, for instance, have a run of the entire bamboo suit - one through nine - but without some pairs or sets from other suits, your hand is worth very little and can’t actually win the game. The initial difficulty is simply figuring out the tiles themselves, while the difficulty to mastering mahjong is figuring out what hands are valid and how you should assemble them.

At home, you can reproduce mahjong tiles as cards by simply drawing on some blank cards or scraps of paper. Likewise, if you’ve got a set of mahjong tiles, you could also just play mahjong solitaire, which is a much simpler matching game.

9. Go

The underside of this game's board is often recessed for acoustic enjoyment

Go is one of the oldest board games still played today. Image: Mario Venzlaff/Pixabay

Go, or weiqi as it is called in the original Chinese, is a strategic game of capturing territory on a grid. Considered one of the essentials of ancient aristocrats, it is largely considered to be one of the oldest board games still in existence today. In ancient China generals were sometimes thought to be judged on their strategic abilities by playing Go.

The rules for Go are deceptively simple: each player has a supply of pieces in their colour and they take turns placing their pieces along the intersecting points of the grid on the board. The standard size of board is 19x19, which gives players over 300 different positions to place their pieces.

The ultimate goal is to surround your opponent’s pieces orthogonally in order to capture the territory they inhabit and remove them from the board. Victory is achieved by surrounding the opposing player’s pieces with your own until either player cannot make a legal move; whoever has captured more territory on the board wins.

A similar form of the traditional board game is called Gomoku, in which the goal instead becomes to create a line of five of the same coloured stones in a row. Gomoku is, on the surface, much simpler and faster than a standard game of Go, but uses the same board and pieces.

To play at home, you can easily draw a 19x19 board and use any type of coloured pieces to replicate the traditional board game.

10. Reversi

The most popular variant of this traditional board game is named after a Shakespearean character

Reversi and Othello don't use exactly the same rules, but the names are often used to refer to the same traditional board game. Image: Neuhaus

Reversi, often also called Othello, is a traditional board game that is played in a similar way to Go. Unlike Go, however, Reversi pieces are placed inside the boxes of an eight-by-eight board, rather than on the intersecting points. While surrounding an opposing piece in Go results in capturing it and removing it from the board, in Reversi a captured piece is flipped over and turned into the capturing player’s piece.

Pieces are captured by surrounding them on any two sides - orthogonally or diagonally. The exciting kicker to the game is that it’s not just single pieces. If you surround a whole row of pieces, you capture the entire row, as well as in any direction that is also surrounded. Reversi, as the name suggests, can quickly go back and forth between who is winning, making it quite the exciting game between equally skilled players.

Most games of Reversi use the Othello rules, to the point that the game is called Othello as often as it is Reversi. The traditional board game is started by each player placing their pieces in the centre, before each player takes turns placing a piece on the board to make capturing manoeuvres. Pieces can only be placed next to enemy pieces - if a player can’t make a valid move, their turn is skipped and the other player gets to move again. Once neither player can move, generally due to the board being totally filled, the pieces are counted. Whoever has more pieces in their colour at the end of the game, wins.

You can use almost any eight-by-eight board - a chess board for example - and any double-sided tokens for Reversi pieces: coins, scrabble tiles or even game pieces from something like Magic: The Gathering or monster tokens from Betrayal at House on the Hill.

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