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How Tutankhamun launched a board game 100 years ago

King Tut’s tabletop triumph.

Image credit: Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Grab a donkey, throw the dice and move forward a few squares. With a bit of luck and patience, the pharaoh’s tomb will quickly appear. When it does, a final dice roll will break the ancient seal and Tutankhamun will be revealed.

Howard Carter’s famous discovery of the boy king was not, of course, quite so straightforward. The British archaeologist and his team of excavators spent five fruitless years searching the Valley of the Kings before finding their prize. The work was sweltering, the discoveries disappointing, but on November 4th 1922, they glimpsed success. A long-buried stairway was unearthed in the sand, which weeks later would lead them to a plastered doorway bearing the seals of Tutankhamun. Carter’s world was forever changed, and the rest of the globe seemed just as pleased.

A wave of Egyptomania swept the world. Jewellery designers, fashion houses and architects incorporated Ancient Egyptian motifs into their designs. Screenwriters and novelists leapt upon the romantic mystery of Egyptian antiquity, and novelty songs like Old King Tut become radio hits. The British monarchy lapped up the news of Carter’s excavation, while US president Herbert Hoover even named his dog after the pharaoh.

Tutankhamun became a commercial brand that ignited the excitement of artists and businesses alike. One Californian fruit company began selling Tutankhamun-branded lemons. In London, the Carlton Cinema was constructed with a striking Egyptian facade that still stands out today. Tutmania was everywhere, and even America’s nascent mass market board game industry – which was so much in its infancy that the first commercial release of Monopoly was over 10 years away – couldn’t escape the pharaoh’s grasp.

Tutoom was released the year after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New YorkImage credit: Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Published a year after Tutankhamun’s discovery, Tutoom: Treasures of the Pharaoh was one New York company’s attempt to capitalise on the trend. Originally set up to produce paper and cardboard boxes, All-Fair Games branched into toy manufacturing just as King Tut became a cultural sensation. Tutoom, one of its earliest games, might be charitably described as a unique piece of history, or cynically seen as a judicious cash grab.

Tutoom might be charitably described as a unique piece of history, or cynically seen as a judicious cash grab.

On the face of it, the board game is little more than a reskinned Snakes & Ladders. Players take turns rolling dice to advance along a linear track, occasionally encountering obstacles that will move them backwards, instantly transport them to a new square or force them to wait still until they roll a specific number. Their journey starts at a Luxor camp and ends at the pharaoh's tomb – a gloating victory presumably replacing the golden treasures that Carter found.

“Tutoom is one of the few board games I’ve ever seen that deals with the craze for Egyptian stuff after Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered,” says Nicolas Ricketts, games curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The museum features Tutoom in its Game Time! exhibit, which charts American gaming history through the decades. “We include timelines in all of our exhibits in one part of the museum, and Tutoom represents the 1920s rather exactly because of the tomb’s discovery.”

The board game is essentially Snakes & Ladders reskinned to suit the Egyptian theme, as players make their way along the track from a camp in Luxor to the boy king's tomb. Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New YorkImage credit: Image courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

The game’s Egyptian theme might only be skin-deep, and the simplicity of its rules speaks to the state of board gaming at the time, but Tutoom isn’t without its charm. Many of the board’s squares are decorated with cartoon illustrations of archaeologists, and its four metal player counters are moulded in the shape of explorers perched atop donkeys.

“The centre of the gameboard is a recreation of the back of the throne they found in [Tutankhamun’s] tomb – one of the widely published photographs afterwards,” Ricketts says. “However, they were black-and-white photos, so instead of using lovely beige sandstone and turquoise blue, like many Egyptian antiquities, Tutoom is coloured a rather garish red, green and yellow.”

Like almost all commercially produced board games of the time, Tutoom has largely been forgotten. Copies occasionally appear on second-hand marketplaces – sometimes fetching over $100, sometimes going for significantly less. Currently, it’s featured in an exhibit at Oxford University's Bodleian Library as an example of 1920s Tutmania. But the true extent of the game’s reach isn’t precisely known.

The centre of the gameboard is the back of the throne they found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. However, they were black-and-white photos, so instead of lovely beige sandstone and turquoise blue, it's a rather garish red, green and yellow.

“I think it sold pretty well, considering,” Ricketts says. “I often see the game in antique stores or at game conferences and sales. That either means that nobody enjoyed playing it so it survived, or they sold a lot of them. In this case, because of all the excitement for Egypt back then, I think – or maybe hope – the latter is true. It’s only a simple race game, for little kids, really. But adults may have purchased it just for the imagery, too.”

Our obsession with Egyptology has waned in the decades since but hasn’t vanished entirely. In the tabletop world, board games like Ankh: Gods of Egypt, Ra and Camel Up show our fascination with Egypt is still alive. Other games go further, directly riffing off the discovery of King Tut and the mysteries surrounding his tomb.

The Egyptian theme is still alive and well in modern games, as our playthrough of Ankh: Gods of Egypt shows!Watch on YouTube

Something about Egypt’s ancient sands and the civilisation that once occupied them continues to capture the imagination of tabletop designers. Carter’s journey lives on through modern board games, just as it did through Tutoom a century ago. Will any of these games appear in a museum display case a hundred years from now? If they do, they’ll take the legacy of Tutankhamun with them.

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