History of Mehen
Mehen was an ancient Egyptian board game from the predynastic period of Egypt (over 5,000 years ago!). Though its origins have been clouded in the ever-thickening fog of history, scholars and archeologists believe the game emerged sometime around 3000 BCE.
In any case, by the Third Dynasty (between the years 2600 and 2700 BCE), we know with certainty that Mehen had wide appeal as at least an upper-class game, for the tomb of Hesy-Ra depicts the game being played.
Although not the oldest known board game, Mehen is the oldest known board game for more than two players.
In this article, we’ll also discuss the history of Mehen and speculate as to its use and appeal worldwide before 2000 BCE.
From its first appearance in the historical record a little after 3000 BCE, Mehen enjoyed about 1,000 years of popularity.
By circa 2000 BCE, however, no other boards or depictions of Mehen in gameplay appeared at the onset of the Middle Kingdom. This leads scholars to believe that the game fell out of fashion sometime before the rise of the Middle Kingdom.
However, the game spread throughout Egypt and beyond in the 1,000 years between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE.
In Cyprus, for example, depictions of Mehen in action appear alongside depictions of players playing Senet, another board game from around this time.
Though the game’s original ruleset is unknown, scholars believe that Mehen, like Senet, likely held some religious or spiritual significance.
The Mehen board is shaped like a spiral, and many of the surviving boards include a snakehead in the center. In the tomb of Rahotep, we see that the Ancient Egyptians called the game Mehen by the Ancient Egyptians, a name which refers to the snake deity Mehen.
Mehen: How to Play
Players in Ancient Egypt and today play Mehen on a spiral-shaped board (the shape of a coiled snake).
The components of the game. A complete Mehen set consists of:
- The snake-shaped board
- A small wooden receptacle is known as “the bark of Ra”
- Four “throwing sticks” that are round on one side and flat on the other. These are essentially two-sided dice
- 36 player pawns
- Six lion figures
To begin, set out the board. The players (who can number between two and six) will all sit around the board. Each player gets six pawns. Place the bark of Ra on the side of the board opposite to the snake’s tail.
Each player places their six pawns to the left of the board next to the snake’s tail. Then, place one lion figure per each player to the right of the board, next to the bark of Ra. For example, if there are three players, three lion figures will be set to the board’s right.
The object of the game is to move your pawns around the snake from the tail to the head, at which point they are said to become enlightened. The first player to enlighten three of their pawns is the winner. Simple, right? Not so fast.
Playing the Game
The most enlightened player goes first (or just roll for it).
To begin the game, a player must place one of their pawns on the first square of the board game (closest to the tail) and throw the throwing sticks to gain movement points. A legal throw is a throw in which at least one stick makes one complete revolution in the air; you can’t just drop the sticks on the table and call it a throw.
The possible throws are as follows:
- 1 flat / 3 round: 2 movement points
- 2 flat / 2 round: 4 movement points
- 3 flat / 1 round: 6 movement points
- 4 flat or 4 round: Mehen move (discussed below)
When the roll occurs on the first turn, the movement points all go to the first pawn. At each subsequent turn, every player will begin their turn by placing their pawn on the first square of the board.
After every player’s first turn until the end of the game, the movement points gained from throwing must be apportioned out to precisely two pawns – no more, no fewer.
Gameplay continues with players throwing sticks and trying to bring their pawns closer to the snake head at the center, where they will achieve enlightenment. There are three basic movements: a move, a slide, and a jump.
Every movement point gained from the throwing stick allows a pawn to move to the next unoccupied space in front of it. Pawns cannot move backward.
If the square in front of your pawn is occupied, you may not land there, but you may slide over it. A slide is a movement that costs no movement points. If your pawn lands on a pawn-occupied square, it slides to the next available square.
If two pawns of the same color are standing on adjacent squares, sliding is not possible.
If you roll three flat sticks, you may apportion five movement points to one pawn to jump to an adjacent tile on an adjacent coil closer to the head of the snake. You may not jump onto a tile that is occupied.
A Mehen move is thrown if either four flat or four round sticks are thrown. This means the snake deity gets a turn. When a player throws a Mehen move, they must move one of the lions on the right of the game board to the bark of Ra.
If you throw another Mehen move, move one of the lions to the space just outside the snakehead in the center of the board. The third Mehen move brings the lion to the snakehead, and this lion is then in play.
Subsequent Mehen moves will repeat the process with the remaining lions until all lions are in play. Every pawn on the board moves two squares closer to the snakehead in the center if all lions are in play. If a pawn is two squares away from the snakehead in the center, it moves into Mehen, and the snake deity devours it.
Once a lion is in play, players may choose to move the lion instead of their pawns. You may move two lions during your turn or just one lion and one of your pawns. Lions are unique pieces that anyone can control.
Any piece that they pass over is devoured and removed from play. The lions have four possible movement options: a move, a jump, a devouring jump, and a sprint.
The lions move normally like pawns, except they can only move backward from the snakehead at which they originate.
Lions, like pawns, may jump using five movement points to an adjacent tile in an adjoining coil further from the snakehead.
Unlike pawns, lions may use only one movement point to jump to an adjacent tile in an adjoining coil if a pawn occupies that tile. This pawn is then devoured and removed from play.
If a player elects to have the lion sprint, its movement points are doubled, but it cannot devour any pawns during its movement turn. This is handy if you want to move the lion out of reach from your pawn.
Ending the Game
The game is over when one player reaches enlightenment with three of their pawns or when no player has any moves left to make. In this event, the player with the most enlightened pawns wins.
In the present day, the original rules and gameplay of Mehen have been completely lost. However, thanks to the surviving archaeological evidence, we have some idea of how to play the game. The rules used today, because they are modern-day reconstructions, can vary from person to person.