On a visit to the National Museum of Antiquities, once upon a family field trip, I picked up a copy of the ancient Egyptian board game of Senet. We’ve had it in our home for over a decade now, and I’ve been playing it with my boys ever since.

For the unini­tiated, Senet is a classic game that will remind you of chess, checkers and backgammon. It is depicted on hiero­glyphic paintings and has been found in several Egyptian tombs. The game is known to have existed as far back as c. 2600 BCE, although it is probably at least half a millennium older than that. The gameplay is thought to symbolize the passage of the soul to the under­world.

Last night, my son and I were playing another round of Senet, and we wanted to clarify the rules of the game to resolve a question we had. So we opened up the wooden case, took out the gameplay instruc­tions, and searched for our answer.

Conjecture and Confusion

Before I tell you what we found, let me clarify one thing. No one knows defin­i­tively what the rules are for playing Senet.

Egyptologists have been trying to piece together the gameplay from snippets of text and images that span thousands of years. But the recon­structed rules are by necessity based on conjecture and are almost certainly not how Senet was played by the ancient Egyptians. And it is very likely that over its long history, the game has been played in different ways by different people.

Senet board inscribed for Amenhotep III (c. 1390–1353 BCE) [source]

There is however, some consensus among contem­porary game manufac­turers: they mostly follow the rules as recreated by histo­rians Timothy Kendall and R. C. Bell, and I assume that goes for our own set of Senet as well. 

But when we consulted the rulebook for our game, we were surprised to find that we had, in fact, been playing the game wrong all this time. For the most part, we were doing every­thing right, but somehow we had missed or misre­mem­bered some of the details.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the “new” tweaks to the gameplay made the game even more inter­esting than it already was. Still, the new-and-improved Senet caused some confusion and took getting used to. We regularly defaulted back to our familiar old ways, and had to remind each other of the additional elements to keep in mind.

A New Game, a New Year

As all of this happened on the last day of the year, it made me think of new year’s resolu­tions. They, too, are in essence tweaks to the gameplay of everyday life.

If your resolution is to eat fewer snacks, then in the game of life, the rule that “coffee and a cookie go together” may be declared invalid going forward. But just like my son and I found ourselves forgetting that throwing a “1” gives you another turn, so you might find yourself with a cookie in your hand (or, worse, in your mouth!) before you know it. 

Thinking of our day-to-day existence as a game can be very helpful. Life has rules, it has players, it has an end; humans have objec­tives and make choices, which have conse­quences.

Perhaps thinking of new year’s resolu­tions as marking a great dividing line between Then and Now is counter­pro­ductive. Significant behav­ioral change rarely comes in the form of a one-off event, a Big Choice. It can, to be sure, but more often it is the result of gradual accumu­lation. And a relatively simple way to kick-start such an accretive process is to change the rules of the game.

So instead of going into the new year thinking of New Beginnings or a Fresh Start, think of the coming year as an add-on to the game you were already playing. Just like Senet, a human life is a game whose rules contin­u­ously evolve and are in part learned through conjecture. 

When you raise your glass at midnight tonight, in addition to saying “Happy New Year”, why not also think to yourself: “Game on!”

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Top image credit: Painting from the burial chamber of Queen Nefertari (1295–1255 BCE) [source]

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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