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5 Ancient Strategy Games All Men Should Play for a Healthy Mind
16 · 10 · 2019

5 Strategy Games for a Strong Mind

Written by Gavin Humphreys

These five ancient games have helped kings clear the head, and calmly take history-changing decisions.

Great generals carefully moved these pieces, in preparation for battle.

Even creative geniuses mulled over these boards, when they weren’t writing novels, inventing, or composing music.

But why, and what did they get from it?

While it might at first seem like a frivolous waste of time, there are very good reasons why you, too, should pick up one of these ancient games as a hobby.

We will look at five, mind-challenging, games, each with ancient origins, which should definitely be sitting on your (modern-day) coffee table: Chess, Backgammon, Hnefatafl, 9 Men’s Morris and Go.

First of all, I want to mention some of the benefits that you can expect to gain.

Benefits of regularly playing these games

Testing the mind by playing strategy board games has been proven to have many benefits.

Playing strengthens these 10 Brain Powers: Exercises both sides of the brain, Develops creativity, Develops problem-solving skills, Improves spatial skills, Improves the memory, Stimulates dendrite growth (dendrites conduct signals between the neuron cells in your brain, so dendrite growth increases the speed and quality of neural communication throughout your brain), Raises your IQ, Helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease, Increases neuroplasticity (how flexible the brain is in changing itself), Increases productivity

These 5 Social Skills: Teaches you how to win, ...and lose, Improves leadership and understanding of power, Gives an opportunity to socialize, build bonds, and interact, Motivates you to be proactive and stimulate social change

These 13 Personal skills: Relieves stress, Helps forget your worries, Promotes eustress (that good type of stress when you are excited), Promotes happiness, Builds confidence, Helps you finding inner-calm and composure, Stops burnout, Pushes you to new challenges, Increases concentration and focus, Encourages staying present, Teaches planning and foresight, Teaches discipline, Requires perseverance


French thinker Blaise Pascal described chess as “the gymnasium of the mind.”

Most of us have played chess. In fact, chess is played at least once a year by 15% of Americans.

Although, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, most of us don’t play it enough!

This is a game of two armies, fighting against each other, with the final goal being to capture the opponent’s king. Glorious!

While the game’s plot is simple, the strategies, tactics, and calculations needed to win are anything but.

The origins of the game go far back into history. We can trace it at least 1500 years, to India and Persia, but it was probably around long before then.

It spread to further east to Arabic speaking countries, who brought it to Europe. By the 12th Century, far from India, the Vikings were playing chess. Their Lewis Chessmen, from that period, are possibly the most famous chess pieces in the world.

As Europe went through a boom in creativity (from architecture, to literature, to warfare!) the mental workout that chess gave the thinkers of the time was highly valued.

Movie director Stanley Kubrick was a big fan of chess’s virtues. He said, “Among a great many other things that chess teaches you, is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing. And to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.”


Backgammon is recorded even further back in history. Archeologists have found backgammon boards dating to 5000 years ago in, what were, Mesopotamia and Persia.

Backgammon Board

The objective is to move your checkers off the board. There is an element of luck, as you need to move on the roll of a dice. However, strategy and planning are also essential in this game. You will have to engage counting skills and think about probability in order to get ahead in this game.

Players of backgammon also have to learn to be patient, and calm, because their tactics might not pay off, depending on the dice. Nevertheless, if a good player perseveres, eventually he or she will win more than they lose.

There’s a lesson to be learned in that, however. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “With most men, life is like backgammon - half skill and half luck.”


This is often called ‘The Viking Game’.

It was indeed played above all in the Viking realm of modern-day Norway, Scotland, and down to Ireland. It was almost lost to history, though, and had to be rediscovered by following clues from archeology and Viking Sagas - and now available to buy ‘in all good retailers’.

The board is similar to chess, but the battle lines are different. You are not two equal armies facing off across a field. Instead, you are in the midst of a battle, with the king in the center of a melee. His soldiers look outwards to their attackers - who are more numerous, and going for the kill.

Battling to the end seems part of the Viking mindset - never give up, even when the situation looks difficult.

So: “Shield wall!”

Viking warriors put great value in this game, and were even buried with it. Being a capable Hnefatafl player was linked to how good you were leading men into battle.

This game will increase your ability to control a situation and lead a team confidently.

Hnefatafl involves many of the same mental exercises as chess, such as strengthening problem-solving skills and creativity. Strategy and tactics are a huge part of being able to win this game.

9 Men’s Morris

9 Men’s Morris is another game whose origins are foggy, but this game went viral in medieval England.

Shakespeare even talked about it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The Nine Men’s Morris is filled up with mud,” says Titania. That was a reference to ‘life-size’ boards which were etched in the village greens (the town centers of the time).

This game was popular partly because of its simplicity - boards were drawn everywhere that people stopped to rest. Churchgoers sketched boards on cloister seats in several English cathedrals.

It is easy to set yourself up for this game too. You can print off a board from the internet - or draw it on a piece of paper, or cardboard. You could use chess pawns for the pieces, or even bottle tops!

9 Men's Morris Board

You place your pieces on the board strategically, and then move them around to form lines of three. When you achieve this you can ‘take’ one of the opponent’s pieces.

Playing games like 9 Men’s Morris in your spare time not only helps brain skills, like spatial awareness, and gives you a chance to interact with others but, when you finish playing, you will be more productive reapplying your brain to business.

It’s an ideal distraction from the stress of the day-to-day, which might not be quite as mentally challenging as the other games in this list. However, the more you play this game, the more your mind will get working and you will develop your strategies. Plus, your focus will strengthen: one lapse of concentration and ouch, there goes the match!


Go was described as “a worthy pastime for a gentleman” in the Analects of Confucius.

It is a complicated game, no hiding it. It involves placing white and black stones one by one on a board (each player has 180 pieces!). You try to dominate or surround the other player’s stones, in order to ‘capture’ or ‘kill’ them.

It is a game which will challenge your brain, your focus, and might have you spending lots of time with your gaming partners!

The Far East is famous for great philosophers, great creativity - and great warriors. It’s no surprise that board games have long been central to Asian society.

In English, it is often known by the (simple to remember) Japanese name - Go. In China, where the game has its origins, it is known as Weiqi.

In China it was established as one of the Four Arts of the Scholar Gentleman, and was even part of the exam to get into civil service!

Go will help you disconnect and leave the stress of your daily life behind. Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty, wrote in the 12th Century: “At the Weiqi board we forget worries, and enjoy life.”

According to legend, the game was created by the Chinese Emperor Yao over 5000 years ago. In a dream he met a mystical being who was playing Weiqi to prepare his mind for a great battle. He then recreated it from memory, and when his son, Danzhu, showed no interest in traditional studies, he used the game to teach him discipline, concentration, and composure.

You can hope to strengthen these three traits with Go, and pretty much all the ‘upgrades’ to your brain mentioned above!

So take up the challenge

Enter magnificent battle with your nearest and dearest, your neighbor, or even that dude you met in the bar!

There are also groups all around the country of people who play these games. Some are super serious, and others more accessible for the beginner.

These are five great examples, but you might also consider Alquerque, Senet, Chaturaji, Mahjong, Checkers, Othello, and the list goes on.

Invest in a board. When you have the temptation to turn on the TV in the evening, why not give it a second thought? Pull out the game and do something that will improve your brainpower, your social power, and your personal skills. Play.


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