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Mehen or the Game of the Snake was a game played by the ancient Egyptians until around 1000BC. It is not known how the game was played and indeed more than most ancient games, theories for game play have varied quite considerably.
A game called ‘The Hyena Game’ was found being played on a Mehen-type board in the Sudan in 1921. This is a game for several players. Each player tries to get their ‘mother’ piece to the centre and back whereupon their ‘hyena’ piece is released. The Hyena piece then also travels to the centre and back but has the additional perk of being able to terrorise and eat the other player’s mothers en-route. In lieu of few clues as to how Mehen was played, most modern reconstructions of the game have used the rules of the Hyena Game as their basis.
A Mehen board was in the form of a coiled snake partitioned into dozens of playing squares along the length of the snake’s body. The head of the snake was often carved into the board and lay in the centre while at the outer perimeter of the playing area the tail was sometimes drawn from the final playing square tapering to complete the board. The number of partitions or playing squares varied enormously depending on the board.
A typical Mehen board came with 3 pieces in the shape of a lion, 3 pieces in the shape of a lioness and 6 sets of differently coloured marbles – 6 of each colour. While the game is accepted as a race game, the accompanying accessories lie at the heart of controversy surrounding gameplay. Some archeologists believe that the marbles and the lions were playing pieces and the game was therefore for up to six players – these theories tend to use the Hyena Game as a model for game-play although some of the inconsistencies are troubling. A more recent viable theory proposes that the marbles were used as dice and that the lions alone were the playing pieces – this would make it more likely that the game was for 2 players. But this theory is belied by the fact that tomb artwork shows at least one instance of Mehen being played with marbles for the playing pieces.