The Ancient Origins of Modern Board Games

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Dice

A variety of cubic dice from 19th-century India, on display at the Sackler Gallery. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery hide caption

itoggle caption Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

At the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the exhibit "Asian Games: The Art of Contest" reveals that many of today's board games have roots in much earlier versions. Curator Ann Gunter takes Liane Hansen on a tour of the show.

Detail from 'Snakes and Ladders' Board Game

Detail from a "Snakes and Ladders" board game from England, date unknown. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery hide caption

itoggle caption Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

One easily recognizable older game is pachisi: four opponents receive four game pieces to be moved along a board shaped like a cross. The first player to get all four pieces back home wins. Kids know it today as parcheesi.

These games weren't just for recreation. India's Snakes and Ladders — a precursor of Chutes and Ladders — taught spiritual and moral lessons. In China, The Official Mandarin Promotion Game showed how to climb the ladder of bureaucracy.

The exhibit, organized by the Asia Society in New York, will end its Washington, D.C., visit May 15.

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