Greatest Traditional Games Around the World

Patricia Sá

Published on
Greatest Traditional Games Around the World

Long before the great names of Risk, Monopoly and Scrabble won over the hearts and minds of thousands of fans, there were other board and card games that claimed the spotlight for centuries. A mix of thought out rules, strict strategy and tactical moves have been the core of these games since the beginning. But you might ask yourself (and us), what “beginning” is this? What’s the true original game? And more importantly, who came first, the chicken or the egg? Just kidding. Let’s not get into that life-long argument.

There isn’t a single source that can be linked to the creation of the first board or card game. You can find bits of gaming history throughout almost every continent, ranging from endurance plays, miniature races to battles for treasure. The further you travel back in time, the more you realize that objects like simple pebbles or hand-carved rocks or pieces of wood were the main figures used to play. That’s because they were the most common resources you could find lying around anywhere. Different cultures came up with their own takes on entertainment, but there’s always some similarity between most of them.

Despite the variety, some board and card games still provide deep insight into ancient cultures to this day. The ancient Greeks are one of many examples, where their interest for board games has been proven. A Greek amphora from the 6th century B.C. contains portraits of two Greek heroes—Ajax and Achilles—playing a dice game between battles. This portrayed gaming was a piece of inspiration many centuries after, in particular to Disney animators when creating the foundations for the Hercules movie that we all know and love.

We’ve decided to take a trip around the world—through our screens of course—and learn a bit more about some countries' most traditional board and card games. We’re getting a feel of how such different cultures have taken on entertainment throughout the centuries. If you’re a proud gamer, or just a pursuer of cultural knowledge, stick along for the ride and maybe you’ll develop a newfound taste for a traditional game!

Baraja from Spain

Spanish Baraja consists of a deck of cards that’s used in multiple Spanish card games, going back as far as the 14th century. It’s believed that Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to introduce card games into their culture, and each deck used Latin symbols to represent its four suits. Much like the tarot card decks found in Italy, these four suits were recognizable by their coins of gold known as oros, swords known as espadas, cups referred to as copas and clubs known as bastos. Earlier decks would also have jokers, known as comodines. Games like Mus, Seven-Thirty, and Tute were some of the early baraja games, and according to various documents, the cards were hand painted by card makers.

Crokinhole from Canada

Crokinhole might seem like a simple and relatively easy board game to the naked eye, but on a closer look, you might find that there’s a very particular strategy element to it. Players must take turns flicking small disks on a round board, trying to gain points by getting the disks into central regions. The main rule of this game is that your piece must have contact with the other team’s pieces in order for the disk to remain in the board after your turn.

There are some that believe that this game originated in Ontario back in 1876, when a wagon wheel builder crafted the first documented Crokinhole board as a gift to his son. But, alas, there are other takes on the history of this disk game. Some believe it dates back even further, all the way to the Mennonite community—members from a Protestant church that rose from the Anabaptists in the 16th century. Aside from its origin, in the past few years, this game led to the creation of the World Crokinhole Championshop, a National Crokinhole Association, and even a Crokinhole Centre youtube channel

Go from China or Japan

One of the world’s most ancient games to be documented is none other than Go. If you’ve ever thought that Dungeons and Dragons offered you a world of infinite strategy and moves, think again because we’re bringing Go into the spotlight. With a history just as complex as the game itself, Go’s origin remains unknown. Many theories support different points of view, including whether it originated in China or Japan. Some believe that Go was created by the legendary Chinese Emperor Yao—dating all the way back to 2356-2255 BCE—as a way to discipline his rebellious son. Others believe it consisted of a sort of divination method with white and black stones representing the yin and yang.

As Go’s popularity grew, Chinese scholars such as Confucius and Mencius wrote about it. Eventually it became one of the Four Accomplishments, siding with painting, calligraphy, and playing the lute. But what’s the game’s purpose? The main goal is to use your stones to surround your opponent’s stones and form territories on the vacant areas of the remaining board.

Scopa from Italy

If you happen to ask anyone in Italy if they’ve heard or even played Scopa at a certain point in their life, their answer will most likely be yes and why haven’t you played it yet? As a traditional Italian card game that’s been part of Italy’s culture since the 16th century, Scopa—Italian for “to sweep”— might seem like an easy game to play but it requires time and patience to master.

It’s usually played with a Neapolitan deck of cards with four suits, and you can find different regional versions of the deck in every part of Italy. In some regions, a card known as the Fante of Coppe (a soldier that is worth 8 points) is usually depicted as a female figure called Donna instead of the usual man figure.

The main goal of this game is to sweep as many face-up cards as possible to sum up points, and try to use the right strategies in each round to overthrow your opponent.

Bagh Chal from Nepal

Known as an ancient hunt board game, Bagh Chal has had its origins in Nepal thousands of years ago. The name itself roughly translates into “moving tigers,” where one player controls the tigers on one side of the board and the other controls the goats. It’s believed that this game originated from the Himalayan herders, because of the similar strategy it has to the occupation movement from the herders. Using large stones as pieces to represent the bagh (tigers) and smaller stones as bakhri (goats), shepherds spent many hours of their days drawing a grid on the dirt to play this game. Today the Bagh Chal grid is carved into a brass or wood game box.

To win this game you must survive at all costs. Sounds a bit adventurous and might we say, dangerous? That’s the whole fun of it. On one side of the board, to quench their hunger the tigers must “eat” a sum of 5 goats on the board. But if you end up being the goats, you must protect your herd at all costs. Goats win when they’re able to surround all tigers in play, making the tigers unable to pounce or even make their usual movements.

Mancala from Egypt

For over 7 thousand years, Mancala—Arabic term that translates into “to move”—has been one of the oldest games ever played, specially throughout the African continent under many different names like Wari, Adi or Bao. With its origins rooted deep within ancient Egypt, the earliest versions of Mancala were made out of primitive materials such as wood and clay, or even stone carvings. Through the years it was common to see players use tree seeds or shells for coins, and more recently, gemstones or marbles.

Don’t let yourself be fooled by how simple playing it seems to be. There are many layers of strategy hidden within. The main goal of the game is to collect as many stones as you can, capturing the opponent’s stones. From controlling the game so you gain extra turns to full-on capturing your opponent’s pieces with no mercy, there are a lot of strategies you can use depending on the twists the game takes.

Pachisi from India

When hearing the word Pachisi, what would your first thought be? A type of food? Some kind of ritual? Or someone just calling over their friendly neighbor? Well, today Pachisi is none other than a slightly different version of Ludo. With its origin rooted deep in India, Pachisi was a board game made out of cloth or jute that was very popular in the medieval era. The name Ludo came a bit later, after being patented in England around the 19th century. Throughout the world this game is played under many different names, usually based on the different emotions that players go through while playing it. In Sweden it’s known as Fia—a Latin-derived name for “so be it!”—while in Germany this game is known as Mensch ärgere dich nicht (Man, don’t get irritated).

Ludo is very recognizable by its board’s characteristic four colors—red, blue, green, and yellow—which are commonly known as bases. Each player will have a color and a respective path all the way to the center, or the home triangle. The main goal of this game is to get your four pieces in the home triangle.

As you can see, from ancient times until today, games have been an intricate part of our cultural development. Our need to seek out entertainment came in the shape of pebbles, figures, miniatures, cards and boards and has transcended centuries and continents. Even though some games were lost midway or died out completely, many others survived to our modern times. And some went through changes, accompanying the cultural shifts from the countries that play it.

Patricia Sá
Lisbon, Portugal
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