Teach Kids About Ancient Games and History

I’ve tried to tackle history a bit differently here, by exploring civilizations in part through the games they enjoyed. Many of the games here might seem a bit familiar to you, but some might be quite surprising. And all of them are truly quite fun (though my own favorite was probably the Royal Game of Ur).

I relied heavily on R.C. Bell’s work on board games and on a variety of excellent children’s history books to help me compile these lessons. I’ve also tried to find accurate printable boards and clear video explanations of the rules for each game here, along with historically accurate recipes and music created using replica instruments. I hope I’ve succeeded. You can find it all below.

What Kids Will Do

Kids might…

  • learn about the Sumerians, Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Vikings, and Aztecs
  • listen to music inspired by these civilzations
  • play a variety of board and table games and single-player puzzles
  • try writing cuneiform
  • make food using historical recipes
  • and more

Designed for elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.

Read On

  • Board Games Round the World: A Resource Book for Mathematical Investigations, Robbie Bell and Michael Cornelius [Amazon] — If you want to teach ancient board games, this is a fantastic resource. But you wouldn’t read this book with children. It’s clearly intended for teachers (or parents), as, not surprisingly, reading it is like reading back-to-back board game instruction manuals. But the instructions are generally clear, and the authors helpfully provide mathematical questions students might investigate with many of the games. At the back, the authors discuss what happened when they taught some of the games to students, and they even include a few handouts. It’s extremely helpful. (This book is basically an updated and shorter version of a standard games text, Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations. You don’t need both, and I strongly advise trying to get your hands on Board Games Round the World. It’s a better resource for teaching kids and easier to use.)
  • An Egyptian Adventure, Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke [Amazon | Bookshop] — An incredibly fun way to learn history: in a graphic novel format, with game instructions, crafts, recipes, mazes, and puzzles mixed in. Three friends travel through time to ancient Egypt and are given a friendly tour by a priestess named Tia. There’s a brief guide to the gods; a special focus on Set Maat, where craftspeople worked on the tombs in the Valley of Kings; instructions for how to play senet; and quite a few pages on mummification, death rituals, and the afterlife (and there’s a lot more, too). A clever and very entertaining history book, suitable even for kindergartners.

  • A Viking Adventure, Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke [Amazon | Bookshop] — Another superb graphic novel about history, with the Histronauts time-traveling to a Viking village. There’s a guide to the gods, a tour of Viking houses, instructions for playing hnefatafl and making a purse, plenty about navigation and boat burials, recipes, and a fun guide to runes.
  • A Roman Adventure, Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke [Amazon | Bookshop] — In their Roman adventure, the Histronauts meet an enslaved Roman boy who takes them on a tour of Rome and to meet his older sister, a gladiatrix. Not surprisingly, a good chunk of this adventure is about gladiators and the military, but there’s also a guide to Roman gods, numerals, baths, gardens, and more — and activities and recipes, too. Another really wonderful history book for kids.

  • So You Think You’ve Got It Bad?: A Kid’s Life in the Aztec Age, Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea [Amazon] — The So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? books, produced in collaboration with the British Museum, walk a fine line between engagingly goofy and a bit too irreverent. But I think the series has gotten better as it’s gone on, and this one is genuinely entertaining. There are some big positives with these books: the information seems quite good (you can tell that a museum was involved in the production), and it’s the kind of information that’s both intriguing to kids (what would my life have been like back then?) and truly quite hard to find elsewhere. The books cover all sorts of kid basics: What would I have eaten? What would school be like? What would my house be like? What would I wear? What holidays would I celebrate? I’m never quite sure how I feel about the over-the-top, gross-out tone of the books, but I think many kids would read this front to back. After all, the information inside is fascinating.
  • So You Think You’ve Got It Bad?: A Kid’s Life in Ancient Rome, Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea [Amazon] — This installment of the So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? books is perhaps the funniest (if you like your jokes over-the-top and sarcastic). There’s plenty of eye rolling at grown-ups, gory stuff (gladiators, surgery, and bad emperors), and grossness (toilets and cosmetics), but there’s also a guide to Roman numerals, tours of Roman houses, and a brief overview of children’s games. 
  • So You Think You’ve Got It Bad?: A Kid’s Life in Ancient Egypt, Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea [Amazon] — This is the first book in the series and my least favorite. The series is very sarcastic and a bit biting, but the author was still working on tone here, so some of the passages miss the mark. Kids would still enjoy this one, but if you only read one history book for children about ancient Egypt, I’d go with the Histronauts’ Egyptian Adventure (above).
  • DK Eyewitness: Mesopotamia, Philip Steele [Amazon | Bookshop] — You might be surprised that there are few books for young children about the Sumerians (or you might not be). Though a bit dry, the DK Mesopotamia book gives you something to work with: some text and of course big photos of art and other artifacts. It can be easy to take this kind of book for granted, but I found that children really loved looking at the ancient art and wanted to know about every piece.
  • Tales from Ancient Egypt, Roger Lancelyn Green [Amazon | Bookshop] — This may be the best collection of Egyptian myths and tales for young readers, though that doesn’t mean it’s without its issues. One great aspect of the book is that the stories are mostly interesting and well written. Green also notes where each of the stories can be found in historical records, so it’s easy to look them up if you’d like to compare Green’s version to the originals. (He has done some “cleaning up” to make the tales more appropriate for children, but, as with many myths, you’ll still find plenty of violence and some casual spousal murder.) But this collection is also disappointing in some respects. While some elementary-aged students might well enjoy this, Green’s language makes for rather old-fashioned reading. And the Puffin Classics edition (which is the affordable one) has minimal illustrations, all in black and white. But despite the drawbacks, it’s still rather amazing to sit down and read stories told several thousand years ago. 

  • Ancient Egypt: Tales of Gods and Pharaohs, Marcia Williams [Amazon | Bookshop] — Good news if your kids are too young to enjoy Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales From Ancient Egypt: Marcia Williams’s retelling sticks very close to Green’s book and is likely more engaging for elementary-aged children. Many of the stories are the same, and here they are written as comics — narrated seriously and accompanied by cheeky and humorous comments by the characters. And a secondary comic runs along the bottom of each page: a guided tour, led by a cat, of the history and lifestyle of ancient Egypt. There are so many wonderful little details to notice in the illustrations, and some impressive fold-out pages, too. It’s a brilliant way to get into Egyptian mythology.



  • To make these board games, I suggest printing the board images onto paper and then gluing the image to a thick sheet of cardboard, then cutting it to size. For playing pieces, I suggest using wooden pawns (like these), since their bases are quite narrow and some of these game boards aren’t that big (glass gems work well for some of these, but on other boards those can make it feel quite crowded). I would suggest getting two colors with at least twenty pieces each.
  • If you plan to make the recipes, think ahead, since you’ll probably need to order some ingredients online (like tiger nuts). You’ll also need a lot of honey!
  • You might also find it handy to have a book like A History of the World in 1,000 Objects [Amazon | Bookshop], which features art and artifacts from all of these civilizations.


Games: The Royal Game of Ur

Watch: The Rise and Fall of History’s First Empire

Read: “Land Between Two Rivers,” “Sumerian City States,” “Mighty Rulers,” “The Story of Writing,” “Gods and Goddesses,” and “City Life” 6-17 and “Death and Burial” 20-21, DK Eyewitness: Mesopotamia, Philip Steele [Amazon | Bookshop]

Look: Slideshow with Sumerian art (from the British Museum)


Watch: Young Explorers: A Brief History of Writing
Irving Finkel Teaches How to Write Cuneiform (quite technical, even for adults, but the first part of the video shows you how to play with cuneiform writing using just a popsicle stick and some clay or play dough)
Look: Write Your Name in Cuneiform
And here’s more information about how cuneiform evolved.

Activity: Experiment with writing cuneiform
Following Irving Finkel’s instructions (above), try writing cuneiform in play dough with popsicle sticks.

The Royal Game of Ur

Watch: Tom Scott vs Irving Finkel: The Royal Game of Ur
An extremely helpful explanation of the rules from Irving Finkel, along with a playthrough. For the rules only, you can skip to here.

Look: Royal Game of Ur board

Activity: Play the Royal Game of Ur
You can make your own board using this printable image. If you’d like to play with tetrahedron dice, you can purchase blank d4 dice at places like Etsy (like here) and then mark the tips with permanent marker (which will smudge just a little but will still work) or paint.

Eat: Have a Sumerian-themed snack, with pomegranate seeds, pistachios, and dates.

Listen: Michael Levy’s Echoes of Ancient Mesopotamia & Canaan
Read more about Michael Levy’s album here and download the liner notes here.

Ancient Egyptians

Games: Senet, pentalpha, tic-tac-toe, three men’s morris, and seega

Read: An Egyptian Adventure, Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke [Amazon | Bookshop]
You certainly can read these aloud (and I did), but if you have an eager independent reader, reading them alone is terrific.

Watch: A Day in the Life of an Ancient Egyptian Doctor
The Pharaoh That Wouldn’t Be Forgotten (about Hatshepsut)

Watch: The Egyptian Book of the Dead: A Guidebook for the Underworld (includes information on mummification)
To see this object, you can go here (and click on “related objects”), or look at this image in particular.

Look: Presentation on the development of mummification (from the British Museum)
Presentation: How Were Mummies Made? (from the British Museum)

Activity: Play senet
You can find rules for this in An Egyptian Adventure and also in a video here. Find a printable board here and make the sticks by decorating popsicle sticks.

Activity360 Travel Inside the Great Pyramid at Giza (Interactive video, drag to move perspective)
Who Built the Pyramids?
How the Pyramids Were Built (Pyramid Science Pt. 2!)
ActivityThe Digital Giza Project
An immersive tour of the pyramids from home. Start the tours here.
Watch (optional): Pyramids of Giza Walking Tour

Look: Presentation on reading a papyrus (from the British Museum)

Watch: To hear a bit of what the ancient Egyptian language might have sounded like, you can watch parts of this video. I’ve set it to run right at some examples of the language, but there’s a lot of complex discussion around these examples, so be prepared for that. The whole video is extremely interesting, though at too high a level for most elementary students.

Activity: Play pentalpha
Although now associated with Crete, R.C. Bell notes that a pentagram board was carved into a temple at Kurna, so it’s quite possible the game originated in ancient Egypt. Find the rules here and a printable board here.

Activity: Play tic-tac-toe/noughts and crosses and three men’s morris (three-in-a-row games)
Find instructions for three men’s morris here. In that video, players play with four pieces each, but R.C. Bell gives instructions for three each. (You could try it both ways!) You can get a printable three men’s morris board here.

Activity: Play seega (from modern Egypt)
Traditional seega is played on a 5×5 board, which you can simply draw out. Or you can try it on a 3×3 board. Find the rules here or here.

Eat: Make tiger nut cones or wheat bread from ancient Egyptian recipes
Find the recipes here. If you’re looking for a good source for tiger nuts, I had great luck with these (the small bag is plenty).

Listen: Michael Levy’s The Ancient Egyptian Lyre
Read more about this album here.

Interlude: Mancala Games

According to R.C. Bell, the Romans had mancala, but the game’s origins are debated. For a look at a mancala/warri board from Sierra Leone, go here.

Activity: Play mancala
There are many ways to play mancala, and you’ll often find people fighting about which rules are either original or the best. Feel free to do your own YouTube search. Here’s one variation. And here’s another. To make your own mancala board, simply cut the top off an egg carton, then glue one end of the top to each side (this creates the points pits). Hot glue works best! You can use anything you like for the beads: glass gems, buttons, polished rocks, pebbles, or any other small item.

Activity: Play tchuka ruma
A single-player game from Indonesia with similarities to mancala. Find instructions here. You can make a board out of part of an egg carton (cut it down to one row of five pits, then paint the last one a color) or simply draw it on a strip of paper.

Ancient Romans

Games: tabula and merels

Read: A Roman Adventure, Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Play tabula
This game takes quite a bit of time to play (45m+), but it’s good practice for adding small numbers (since you roll three dice and can combine the numbers or play them separately). You can find a description of the rules here and a printable board here.

Activity: Play merels/nine men’s morris
Find the rules here and a printable board here.

Eat: Cato’s recipe for grape must cakes
You can watch this wonderful video about the recipe and how to make it with kids. You can find the same recipe, almost identical (from her blog), here. And have a look around her site, too, because there’s plenty to enjoy (especially if you’re into culinary archaeology).

Listen: Michael Levy’s The Ancient Roman Lyre
Read more about this album here.

Interlude: Alquerque

Activity: Play alquerque
You can find a brief history of alquerque and a printable board here.


Game: Hnefatafl

Read: A Viking Adventure, Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Play hnefatafl
You can find a video explanation of the rules here. (To watch a hnefatafl competition, go here.) Here is a printable board. If you print this on regular printer paper, it will be a little too small to use with most glass gems. Pawn-type playing pieces with a small base will be your best bet. (We also used a penguin as the king.)

Eat: Barley porridge
You can find this recipe, and a lot of other Viking recipes, here.

Interlude: Fox and Geese

Activity: Play Fox and Geese
Fox and Geese is a game from medieval Europe and Iceland. You can find a comprehensive explanation of the rules and variations here and a printable board here. The Curiosity Show demonstrates an alternate version using a checkerboard here.


Game: Patolli

Read: So You Think You’ve Got It Bad?: A Kid’s Life in the Aztec Age, Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea [Amazon] If, after reading this book, your children are also fascinated by “death whistles,” you can watch demonstration videos here and here.

Watch: A Day in the Life of an Aztec Midwife (mentions beheading)

Watch: The Teotihuacan Fire Ceremony (includes reading in the Aztec language)
For more on the language: What Montezuma’s Aztec Sounded Like – and How We Know

Look: Visit “Sacrifice City”

Activity: Play patolli
You can find a video explanation of the rules here and a written one here. And you can find a printable board here. You can make the bean dice with some beans and a permanent marker, though using tiny black beans as dice is quite tricky. Larger beans would definitely be easier to pick up for each roll!

Eat: Hot chocolate, amaranth cookies, and guacamole
Find these recipes here (from the Getty’s blog post). Make sure to let the amaranth dough cool for quite a long time if you want to add chocolate chips, or you might end up with marbled cookies like we did (though they were still delicious).

Extra Games


Activity: Play Pong Hau K’i (from China and Korea)
Find background here, a video explanation of the rules here, and a printable board here.


Activity: Play Hyena/Hyena Chase

Find a video explanation of the rules here, written rules here, a small printable board here, and a spiral board that will work here.

This site uses affiliate links, and I might earn a small commission if you click through to purchase these books. I only recommend books I have used and love.

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