What were the first games?
There have been toys and games since before there were people; even young chimpanzees carry around wooden sticks as dolls and pretend they are babies.
What kind of games did early humans play?
Many very simple games are also very old, like running races and playing tag or leapfrog, circle dances, seesaws, swings, or competing to see who can jump the highest or the farthest, or throw a stone the farthest.
Cat’s cradle games with string probably go back as far as string does, to the Paleolithic, before the first people left Africa. Jacks, which is basically just tossing small stones up in the air and trying to catch as many as possible, is also probably very old.
The first ball games
Boys in Athens played a game like field hockey with curved sticks and a ball. Girls juggled in ancient Egypt, and also in ancient Greece.
Hopscotch and marbles
Hopscotch seems to have started out as a training exercise for the Roman army, but it soon spread to Africa and all across Asia.
(Glass marbles were not invented until much later. It is still possible, though not easy, to buy clay marbles, but I have not found a source for stone marbles).
Again we don’t know the rules. But probably they played the same basic games of marbles that we know today.
In one version you take turns tossing the marbles at a goal (another marble, a hole, or a wall). In another version, you take turns shooting the marbles within a circle drawn in the dirt, trying to get them out of the circle.
Chunkey and bowling
Both Native Americans and Romans invented similar games where you set a target at a distance and throw balls, or spears, to get as close to the target as possible.
Jump ropes and hoops
Children jumped rope in Song Dynasty China (about 1100 AD) and in medieval Europe just a little later.
Another type of game was played with wooden hoops and sticks. You could toss the hoop up in the air and try to keep it up in the air with the sticks (rather like a hula hoop). Or you could roll the hoop along the ground, pushing it with the stick.
When were the first board games?
People have probably been playing board games since the Stone Age, just digging little pits or scratching lines into the dirt and moving stones or beans from one pit or square to another.
That’s the basis of the African game Mancala, and of checkers. The Egyptian game Senet, which goes back at least to 3000 BC, is a little bit more complicated. You toss sticks to decide how many spaces to move, and some spaces have special powers.
When were dice invented?
People first tossed sheep knucklebones, sticks, beans, and seashells to play games of chance. Because people also used shells as money, they could gamble with them much the same way you gamble with marbles.
Around the beginning of the Bronze Age, people in Mesopotamia or India invented six-sided clay or stone dice to throw instead. The odds on these dice were easier to calculate mathematically.
Board games with dice
Once people were playing with dice, they soon combined dice with board games to play backgammon, and the Egyptian game Hounds and Jackals. In India, they started to play the Hindu game Snakes and Ladders (which you may know as Chutes and Ladders).
Go, chess, and playing cards
By the early Middle Ages, mathematicians knew more about statistics and game theory. They created new games that didn’t use dice: in China, the games of Go and double land, and in India, the game of chess. Mathematicians also invented new gambling games using paper playing cards about this time.