A History of Games

By Tim Lambert

Games and Pastimes in the Ancient World

Egyptian Pastimes

In Ancient Egypt people enjoyed swimming. They also liked boxing, wrestling, and archery. They played a game that involved standing on a boat and trying to knock their opponents into the water with a stick.

The Ancient Egyptians also played a board game called senet. The board was divided into squares with counters. They threw sticks rather than dice.

Egyptian children played games similar to the ones children play today. They also played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles, spinning tops, and knucklebones, which were thrown like dice.

Greek Games

The Olympic Games

The Olympic Games began in Olympia in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, the chief god, and people who came from all over Greece and the Greek colonies to take part in them. Wars stopped to allow everyone to take part.

Athletes competed in boxing, wrestling, running, horse racing, chariot racing, and the pentathlon (five athletic events). Winners were not given medals. Instead, they were given a crown of leaves.

Women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However, women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (she was the wife of Zeus). The Heraean games were held once every 4 years.

Roman Games

In the towns, another important building was the public baths. The Romans went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. Roman Baths consisted of a frigidarium or cold room, a tepidarium or warm room, and a caldarium or hot room. You usually finished with a dip in a cold pool.

To clean themselves Romans rubbed their skin with oil and scraped it off with a tool called a strigil.

Larger towns also had an amphitheater where ‘sports’ such as cockfighting were held and sometimes gladiators fought.

In Rome, there was a great amphitheater called the Coliseum. It was built in 80 AD and could hold as many as 55,000 people. A sunshade or velarium could be unfurled over the heads of the spectators.

The Romans were also very fond of chariot racing. There were four teams, greens, blues, reds, and whites. Their supporters, who often gambled on the outcomes of races treated the charioteers as heroes. However, being a charioteer was dangerous.

The Romans gambled with dice. They also played board games. Roman children played games with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. They also played ball games and board games. And they played with toy carts and animal knucklebones.

Anglo-Saxon Games

Life in Anglo-Saxon England was hard. Games for the poor must have been cheap like wrestling, running races, and playing dice.

In the evenings rich Saxons feasted and drank. During the day the main pastime of the rich was hunting. Rich Saxons kept falcons. In the evenings they feasted and they enjoyed storytelling, riddles, and games like chess. After feasts, minstrels played the harp and sang.

Games and Pastimes in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the main pastime of the upper class was still hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boars with spears. Both men and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced, or played board games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing cards were introduced into England.


Knights took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them, knights fought with wooden lances, swords, or maces. It was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.

In the Middle Ages, wealthy people also played board games. We are not certain where or when chess was invented but by the 10th century, it had reached Europe.

Games similar to draughts were played by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The Arabs played a similar game and by the 11th century, a form of draughts was being played in Europe.

Golf is believed to be a corruption of the Dutch word ‘kolve’, which meant club. The Dutch played games with clubs in the Middle Ages but golf developed in Scotland in the 15th century. Meanwhile, the first recorded bowling green was created in Southampton in the 13th century.

Even for peasants, life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy Days (from which we get our word holiday). During them, poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a ‘pitch’, which might include woods and streams! In the Middle Ages, people made skates from cow’s shoulder blades and went ice skating.

People also enjoyed cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting and bear-baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Gambling was also common.

Aztec Games

Aztec nobles played a ball game called Tlachtli. It was played with a solid rubber ball. Players were not allowed to use their hands or feet. They could only touch the ball with their hips, knees, and elbows. Players tried to knock the ball through a stone hoop. The Aztecs also played a board game called patolli.

Games and Pastimes in the 16th century

The days of armored knights were over the rich still enjoyed tournaments. The contestants dressed in armor and rode horses. They fought with wooden lances and swords.

The rich also enjoyed hunting. They hunted deer with bows and arrows. After it was killed the deer was eaten. The rich also went hawking and falcons were trained to kill other birds. However, in 16th century England rich people did not hunt foxes.

People also liked wrestling and ‘casting the bar’, which was like shot-putting but with an iron bar. They also played billiards (but not snooker, which is a 19th century game).

The rich also played board games like chess and backgammon (a backgammon set was found on the wreck of the Mary Rose. People also played tennis with a leather ball stuffed with hair and they played bowls and skittles. Playing cards were also popular.

All classes gambled. Poor people gambled with dice. They also played games like shuffleboard (shove ha’penny) and nine men’s morris. The Tudors also played draughts and fox and geese.

Music and dancing were also popular. The printing press made books much cheaper so reading was a popular pastime for the wealthy.

Ordinary people played a rough version of football. People also played with knucklebones. Often you balanced knucklebones on the back of your hand then flipped your hand over and tried to catch them. Furthermore, cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting and bear-baiting were still popular.

In the 16th century, people learned to swim using bundles of bulrushes as floats.

Games and Pastimes in the 17th century

In the 17th century, people still played traditional pastimes such as cards and bowls continued. They also played games like tennis and shuttlecock. And they played board games like chess, draughts, backgammon, and fox and geese.

The wealthy also played a game called pale-maille (Pall Mall in London gets its name because the game was played in the area). Charles II made yachting a popular sport.

Games and Pastimes in the 18th century

Traditional games remained popular, including chess, draughts, and backgammon. Tennis and a rough version of football were also popular.

Then in 1759, a man named John Jeffries invented a new board game called A Journey Through Europe or The Play of Geography in which players race across a map of Europe.

It’s believed that dominoes was invented in China in the Middle Ages. This game reached Europe in the 18th century.


Horse racing had been carried on for centuries but in the 18th century, it became a professional sport. The Jockey Club was formed in 1727. The Derby began in 1780.

The well-off played card games and gambled. The theater was also popular. In the early 18th century most towns did not have a purpose-built theater and plays were staged in buildings like inns. However, later in the century theaters were built in most towns. Assembly rooms were also built where people played cards and attended balls. In London, pleasure gardens were created.

A form of cricket was played long before the 18th century but at that time it took on its modern form. The first cricket club was formed at Hambledon in Hampshire in about 1750.

Also in the 18th century, rich people visited spas. They believed that bathing in and/or drinking spa water could cure illness. Towns like Buxton, Bath, and Tunbridge flourished. Then in the late 18th century, wealthy people began to spend time at the seaside. (They believed that bathing in seawater was good for you). British seaside resorts like Brighton, Bognor, Southport, and Blackpool boomed.

John Spilsbury made the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767. He hoped to teach geography by cutting maps into pieces but soon people began making jigsaws for entertainment.

In the 18th century, many people still watched cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting and bullbaiting. Rich people liked fox hunting.

Public executions were also popular and they drew large crowds. Boxing without gloves was also popular (although some boxers began to wear leather gloves in the 18th century). Puppet shows like Punch and Judy also drew the crowds. In the late 18th century the circus became popular.

Games and Pastimes in the 19th century

In 1871 the Bank Holiday Act gave workers in Britain a few paid holidays each year. Also in the 1870s some clerks and skilled workers began to have a week’s paid annual holiday. However, even at the end of the 19th century, most people in Britain had no paid holidays except bank holidays.

In the early 19th century all workers had Sunday off but in the 1870s some skilled workers began to have Saturday afternoons off. By the 1890s most workers had a half-day holiday on Saturday and the weekend was born.

By the early 19th century many people disapproved of cruel ‘sports’ like bull-baiting and cockfighting. Bullbaiting and cockfighting were banned in Britain in 1835.

During the 19th century, many sports became organized. The first written rules for rugby were drawn up in 1845. The London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international football match was held between England and Scotland in 1872. Meanwhile, Australian rules football was invented in 1858.

In 1867 John Graham Chambers drew up a list of boxing rules. They were named the Queensberry Rules after the Marquis of Queensberry. The Amateur Athletics Association was founded in 1880.

People have played darts for centuries but in 1896 Brian Gamlin devised the numbering system on the dartboard.

Several new sports were invented during the 19th century. A form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Snooker was invented in India in 1875. Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith and volleyball was invented in 1895 by William Morgan. Basketball was adapted for women and it evolved into netball.

People have skated on ice for centuries but the first artificial water-based ice rink opened in 1876.

Ludo was originally an Indian game. It came to Britain in about 1880. Snakes and Ladders was also an Indian game. It came to Britain in 1892.

It’s believed Baseball evolved from earlier games but it became an organized sport in 1845. The National League was formed in 1876. American football evolved in the late 19th century. The American Professional Football Association was formed in 1920.

Ice hockey became an organized sport in the 1870s. The International Ice Hockey Federation was formed in 1908.

Meanwhile, the first recorded game of conkers was on the Isle of Wight (off southern England) in 1848.

At the end of the 19th century, bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle went on sale in 1885. Soon bicycling clubs became common in Britain.

The first World Weightlifting Championships were held in 1891 and the Olympic Games were revived in 1896. The first Olympic Winter Sports were held in 1924.

Games and Pastimes in the 20th Century

During the 20th century, people had more and more leisure time. In 1900 in Britain the average working week was 54 hours. By the 1980s it had shrunk to 39 hours. Furthermore, in 1900 most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays. In 1939 a new law in Britain said that everyone must have one week’s annual paid holiday. By the 1950s two weeks holiday was common and by the 1980s most people had at least 4 weeks of annual holiday.

In 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano. In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts. The Girl Guides were formed in 1910.

The first crossword was made in 1913 by Arthur Wynne. Several popular games were introduced in the following decades, including Monopoly in 1935, Cluedo in 1949, and Twister in 1966. Trivial Pursuit was introduced in 1982. It was followed by Pictionary in 1985.

Meanwhile, the first Grand Prix was held in 1906 and the first Le Mans 24-hour race was held in 1923. The famous basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters was founded in 1927.

Games and Pastimes in the 21st century

In the early 21st century a number game called sudoku became popular in Britain. At the same time, playing games like Scrabble and nine men’s morris on the internet became a popular pastime. Josh Wardle invented a word game called wordle. He made it public in 2021.

Last revised 2024