10 Times Board Games into your Myth and Legend

Board Games have been with humans longer than art and longer than language. Board Games have woven themselves into tales of Greek Demigods, Japanese Samurai, and Arthurian Knights. Let’s look at 10 times that board games got into myth and legend.

Amphora by Exekias

Amphora is a vase painted sometime in the 300’s BC, depicting Achilles and Ajax playing a board game in full war regalia. It’s understood that the scene is meant to portray the pair during the Iliad, though there aren’t any known board game scenes in Homer’s classical piece. It’s likely to portray the moment when Ajax speaks earnestly to Achilles in an attempt to overcome Achilles’s feud with Agamemnon and return him to the war.

Ancient Pop Culture

I like that this is a piece of historic fan art, where the artist decided to add his own flair to the course of events. It shows how generally popular board games were in Greece at the time. Unfortunately, Ajax was unsuccessful in his argument, probably because they were playing a game and Ajax is a notoriously bad loser. (When Ajax lost claim to Achilles armor to Odysseus, Ajax went a little crazy killed a bunch of cattle and then was so ashamed that he killed himself).

Oware To Marry

Oware is a game from the mancala family that originated from the Ashanti culture in Africa. There is a common story of a man and a woman who were obsessed with playing this game. The more they played it, the more people complained that they were neglecting their responsibilities.

Fed up with others’ nagging, the pair decided to get married so that they could play the game in peace. Henceforth, the game was called Oware, which literally translates into “to marry”. There are a lot of two person activities that marriage allows you to do without social pressure, and I’m glad at least one culture decided that board gaming was the most important one.

Thoth Gaming For Moonlight

By many accounts, Ra—the falcon headed sun-god—was a strong, paranoid leader. Like many gods and kings, he feared the existence of those who would overthrow him. So when Nut—the goddess of the sky who is also sometimes a cow—became pregnant, he was furious. Ra declared that Nut would not give birth on any day of the year.

Nut went to Thoth—the crane-headed god of wisdom—for help and they devised a plan. Thoth went to play Senet with Khonsu—the very green god of the moon—and wagered on the game to win a bit of moonlight. The more they played, the more moonlight Thoth won. Eventually, Thoth won enough moonlight to fashion five additional days that were not a part of the year that Nut could give birth in.

So, according to the myth, not only is a board game responsible for the leap days in a year, it’s also responsible for the five gods Nut birthed during them, namely: Osirus, Isis, Set, Nephytus, and Horus.

Sato Tadanobu with a Goban

Sato Tadanobu was a samurai of legend, with a long list of daring deeds. Once, he was ambushed while playing a game of Go, and, rather than grab his weapon, he grabbed the Go Board (goban) and beat his enemies to death with it.

More than just a historical quirk, this scene has been portrayed in countless kabuki plays and pieces of artwork.

Something to think about if you’re on the fence about buying deluxe Catan.

Despite killing many enemies with a large blunt piece of wood, eventually Sato is completely surrounded, and commits ritual suicide. In Go, pieces that are completely surrounded are removed, making Sato’s death feel appropriately poetic.

The Dead Man’s Hand

Like most parts of the old West, Wild Bill Hickok’s life was filled with superstition and high adventure . . .only after he died. He was a pretty regular gunslinger, soldier, and lawman; he was just good enough at shootin’ and playin’ cards that Buffalo Bill Cody deemed it appropriate to add him to the Wild West Pantheon.

As Hickok aged, his eyesight started to go, and he spiraled into vagrancy and spent less time at shootin’ and more time at cards. He beat a drunk Jack McCall at cards, and suggested the man quit until he could cover his losses. Hickok even offered him some money for breakfast the next day. Jack took that as an insult and returned the next day to kill Hickok with a revolver point blank to the back of the head while Hickok was playing cards in 1876.

It wasn’t until decades after his death that people began to bestow a superstitious quality to the cards Hickok was holding when he died. Aces and Eights, became a portend as ominous as Piracy’s black dot. It goes to show how ubiquitous poker has become to the experience of the old west that it has so captured the public’s imagination.

The Persian Chessboard

The myth of the Persian Chessboard is told and retold by mathematicians everywhere. A beggar is given an audience with a king, and the beggar asks the king for rice upon a chessboard; one grain on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third grain, and so on. The king agrees, happily until he does the math and it turns out he has offered more rice than exists in his kingdom.

Doesn’t work out as well for everybody.

Carl Sagan called the story the Persian Chessboard in a book outlining exponential growth in bacteria, and the math involved in the story has interesting properties for applied mathematics. It’s likely the story originated in India, where chess and high level maths were common in early history.


The Völuspá is the first and best known poem of the Poetic Edda, which summarizes in prophecy the whole of Norse Mythology. It begins with the prophetic völva (seer/shaman) describing the Norse creation myth, with the gods going about their duties to make the world. In stanza 8, the gods retire from their labors to “play at tables”.

While the rules aren’t explicit, scholars believe this is a reference to Tafl, an early Scandinavian chess-like game. The game doesn’t play much into the plot of the myth, but it shows how the Norse humanized their gods. Norse Gods ate, drank, and played board games, just like the rest of us.

Peredur son of Efrawg

Peredur is a welsh knight with legends adjacent to the Arthurian Mythos. His story follows the similar grail-seeking story as Percival, but takes place primarily in Wales.

His search takes him to the Castle of Wonders where he encounters a magic gwyddbywll, a welsh board game in the tafl family of games. The gwyddbywll plays itself and the little men cheer as though they’re real.

Image result for welsh is a silly language
Wales, where a word like “gwyddbywll” isn’t even all that weird.

Peredur does the only sensible thing when encountering a mysterious board game that plays itself; he picked it up, went outside, and threw it into a lake. Turns out the board game belonged to a quasi-magical “empress”, who then sends Peredur on a series of quests to atone.

If a friend wrecked my one of a kind board game, you can bet I’ll send them on quests of atonement. To be fair, my quest probably wouldn’t include murdering a unicorn and some dude out of spite.

The Pope’s Chess Game

According to a Jewish legend, there was once a Jewish boy who learned chess from his father and became incredibly skilled at a young age. He was so good that a Catholic servant thought that it would be a great service to kidnap the boy and give him to the Church to raise as a Christian.

The Jewish boy was so smart and good at chess that he rose quickly in the Church, though, secretly, he never forgot his father or his roots.The boy grew up and became Pope. Now at the top of the Catholic Church, the boy wished to find his father and help the Jewish people.

So the Pope declared heavy taxes on Jews from his hometown. Sure enough, a representative was sent from that region to contest the Pope’s new rules. The Pope met with the man, but before he would talk he demanded that they play a game of chess.

The Jewish leader agreed, and was soon surprised at how well the Pope played chess. The Pope used maneuvers and techniques that the Jewish leader had taught his son. Soon, the Pope revealed himself as the lost son, and quickly rescinded the harsh new rules. He sent his father back with a secret message to his hometown, letting them know what had happened.

Moral of the story? If you get really good at chess, you too can become Pope, even if you’re not Catholic.

BUDDHA Hates Board Games

According to the Brahmajāla Sutta, Gautama Buddha had a list of games he would not play: Games on boards with 8 or 10 rows, Games of throwing dice, and more. While it’s easy to imagine that board games are frivolous activities that the Buddha would deem distracting from the path to enlightenment, board games had an interesting role in ancient India.

Related image

India has a history associated with lots of rules; it enforced a complex caste system, it advanced mathematics quite a bit, and it was the birthplace of a lot of board games. A common board game that is likely to have been excluded by the Buddha would have been Gyan Chauper, a game we know today as Snakes and Ladders.

While we think of Snakes and Ladders as a children’s game, it has a history in ancient India as a religious tool. Roll a die, and land on spaces that either send you upwards towards enlightenment or downward into vice.

Looking at ancient india as a society heavy with rules, it makes sense that Buddha would caution against games that encourage mindless adherence to those rules. You can’t expect to find enlightenment by following a prescribed set of rules, enlightenment must come about through mindfulness and rigorous self reflection. 

King Atys and the Kingdom of Lydia

Recorded in the histories of Herodotus, the Ancient Kingdom of Lydia faced a famine. To survive this hardship King Atys declared they would only eat eat every other day. To cope with the hunger, the Lydians would play games on days without food. Nothing distracts quite like getting wrapped up in complex gaming minutia. Try to imagine a culture of hangry MTG players, it’s a surprise they made it as long as they did.

It’s a testament to the power of games that their culture was able to persist through a famine, but I have to imagine it was remarkably unpleasant. Think about playing cards with your family on Thanksgiving once you found out there wasn’t going to be any food.


There’s certainly more to the Lydian’s story, that I’ve gone into before. Take a look, here.

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10 Times Board Games Got Into Your Favorite SciFi

The future is a foreign country; they play games differently there. Whether it’s the alien games of distant worlds, or familiar games PLAYED. IN. SPAAAAACE, science fiction loves bringing board games into the plot. Regardless of the ships you pilot or creatures you encounter, someone is willing to set up a board of some kind. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Star Trek Original Series – Tri D Chess

The third episode of Star Trek opens with Spock and Kirk playing a little Tri-D Chess. While we’re given bits and pieces of Spock’s cold Vulcan logic in previous episodes, this game really sets up the core of Spock and Kirk’s relationship. Spock’s calculated strategies give him the upper hand, while Kirk’s irrational playstyle is often surprising. Kirk finds Spock’s emotionless play irritating, because, for him, humanity is ruled by emotion. To be human is to embrace our flaws, struggles, and passions.

Seeing the pair interact during leisure helps solidify the closeness of their friendship.

Having Kirk’s humanity laid bare in a game becomes relevant as the episode progresses. A crewman is imbued with psychic abilities that continue to become more and more powerful. Greater power strips the crewman of his flaws and, consequently, his humanity. This crewman becomes convinced that his power is absolute, and that a new race of superior psychics should replace mankind. Unpredictably, Kirk kills him with some rocks.

Star Wars – Holochess (Dejarik)

What do you know about Wookiees? These days, we know a lot about their mannerisms, their home planet, and their Life Day traditions.

Maybe too much about their life Day traditions.

But in 1977, we knew very little about Wookiees. In fact, the word Wookiee only appears once in A New Hope.

“Let the Wookie win”

Aboard Han Solo’s ship, there’s a Holochess terminal that Chewbacca and R2D2 take to playing. It’s not surprising that an interstellar starship would have some form of entertainment, but the scene allows for some interesting world building.

Comic by iharthdarth

Han comments about the Wookiee propensity to rip the arms off of players who beat them at holochess; that gives us two pieces of information: Chewbacca is a Wookiee and Wookiees are violently sore losers.

This brief scene is a great introduction to one of the most iconic characters from the Star Wars universe, and the presence of a game allows Lucas to playfully instill the notion that Star Wars is much larger than what we’re just seeing on the screen.

Battlestar Galactica – Triad

Triad is a pretty funny example of different for the sake of different. The show runners looked at the script and saw the characters playing poker and said, “Nuh uh, this is SPACE, we gotta have ’em playing SPACE POKER, and they play with hexagons or something.”

In the original BSG, Triad was the name for the space-equivalent of basketball and space poker was called Pyramid. Apparently, when they rebooted the series, they got the names mixed up, and noone on the team thought to double check.

Obama close enough meme with cylon head

Back to the Future 3 – Chess


This chess reference is a clever bit of set dressing. Doc Brown’s dog, Copernicus, sits at a chess board with all the pieces wired up in a ridiculous mad scientist rig. At first glance, it’s easy to write it off as a goofy prop, but Doc Brown’s brainwave reader is used in a couple bits in the series.

Upon careful examination of the board, chess nerds agree that Marty’s move has given Copernicus a significant advantage with board position, because Copernicus is a good boy.

Tron: Legacy – Go


When Tron Legacy was released, computer AI’s were only just starting to consistently beat the best human players at Go. It’s no accident that Finn would have a Go set, since it represents a battleground where humanity is engaged in a losing struggle against artificial intelligence.

Finn is engaged in a losing struggle against Clu, a rogue program made in Finn’s image. Finn has always been defined by games, transitioning from the twitchy games of 80’s arcade cabinets to the patient strategy of board games. Clu has an equal but opposite love of games, creating violent blood sports for his own amusement.

Finn’s fondness for Go becomes a visual representation of his philosophy and disposition. Quorra, his protege, describes her own strategy as rash and impulsive compared to his more measured approach.

The game also describes Finn’s relationship with Quorra. Despite a life of danger, Finn spends time to teach her Go. Sharing the game allowed him to be the father figure for Quorra that he couldn’t be for his actual son.

Firefly | S1E2 – Chinese Checkers


Firefly is a joy, and it’s filled to the brim with personality. It never misses a moment to playfully expand the relationships between characters. Watching our smugglers enjoy a quiet moment of leisure gives us a chance to laugh and get closer to them. I just wish they weren’t playing Chinese Checkers.

Firefly has a problem. The setting is a mix of Western and Eastern influences. Character’s swear in mandarin, Asian text is commonly seen, many spaceports have a decidedly eastern feel. However, all of those elements are surface level. There are almost no Asian actors, and no meaningful interactions with how Eastern traditions would translate into a space opera. It’s guilty of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is trying to sell someone’s heritage as exotic without actually exploring what that heritage means. Chinese Checkers is actually a perfect example of cultural appropriation. Developed in Germany in the late 1800’s, Chinese Checkers is based on purely western games, but salesmen thought it would sell better as a exotic game from “the Orient”. This is both disingenuous and stands in the way of pop culture with actual eastern heritage getting wider adoption.

So to see this game come up in Firefly feels particularly tone deaf.

Dr. Who | S6E13 – Live Chess


“The crowd is getting restless. They know the queen is your only legal move. Except you’ve already moved it 12 times, which means there are now over 4 million volts running through it. That’s why they call it live chess.”

Leave it to a British TV show to make chess into a bloodsport. It’s a brilliant device in this episode. The Doctor corners his opponent into a chess game and, using only his intellect, strips his opponent of any options except to divulge some very critical information.

“Even with the gauntlet, you’ll never make it to Bishop 4 alive.”

The chess game is both incredibly descriptive of the Doctor as a character, but it also acts as a metaphor for the plot of this particular episode. The Doctor is searching for information, meticulously beating up pawns, and working a plan to corner the leader who pulls the string.

In Chess, the goal isn’t to kill the king; checkmate is when the king cannot move. Likewise, the Doctor’s plan is one of decidedly nonviolent entrapment.


X Files | S5E20 – Stratego

After the first season of X-Files, the department is shut down and Mulder finds himself struck in a web of intrigue. He wants to pursue the truth, but he can’t risk any information getting found out. After a discrete talk with Skully, he begins to question his perspective.

Later, he dreams of the night his sister was abducted by aliens, the core reason for Mulder’s search for the truth. Before she was taken, the two of them were playing Stratego.

Stratego represents Mulder’s struggles moving forward in the series. Secrets are the core of Stratego’s gameplay, both keeping them and uncovering them. While a game like Clue is about solving a mystery, Stratego is about surviving in a web of intrigue. If Mulder wants to find his sister, his survival will hinge on his ability to play a game of secrets.

Stargate SG1 – Poker


Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell spent a big chunk of the later seasons of Stargate trying to get the SG-1 team back together, which proves a difficult feat both physically and emotionally (for both him and the casting directors).

To call the team members that do manage to return dysfunctional, is somewhat of an understatement. To improve performance, Major General Hank Landry forces the team on a “relaxing” log cabin vacation. It has all the fun of a mandatory work picnic, and Mitchell and Landry spend several awkward moments over a chess board. Neither are fond of chess, but they also don’t know how to interact with each other outside of work and need something to fill the time.

Eventually the team bonds over solving a mystery and killing a monster. They’re reminded of their bonds as a team, and they finish the episode playing poker. The transition from chess (a game where you could ignore your opponents and just look at the board) to poker (a game that relies on reading your opponents) certainly shows the team warming up to one another off-duty.



X Men: Days of Future Past – Chess


Comic books really get off on the whole good-verses-evil motif. I mean “super-hero” and “super-villain” pretty much scream moral absolutes. Chess is a pretty common trope, because it immediately invokes the concept of “us vs them”.

The recent string of X-men movies revolve around Professor X and Magneto hurling their figurative pawns at one another, so it’s no surprise we get to see them do so in a literal sense as well.

The movies also revolve around how Captain Picard and Gandalf are the bestest of best friends.


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