Despite the onslaught of video games and newfangled technological entertainment, the world’s board games still haven’t lost. In a region that’s home to many of the world’s oldest games, Saudi’s gaming tradition has an advantage: An early cultural cross-pollination, thanks to the magnetizing annual Hajj to Makkah, has woven in several tabletop classics that thrive today as a great way to reconnect socially in cafes and during family holidays like Ramadan — no controller required.
“Board games can develop a lot of intellectual and social skills while the players are having a lot of fun,” says Waleed Jan, owner of TCG Master in Riyadh, one of many game stores across the country that regularly host meetups and tournaments for a variety of games. Here are a few of the classics.
With origins traced to ancient Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago, backgammon is thought to be one of the world’s oldest board games — and is a common sight in coffee houses throughout modern Arabia. (Aficionados can see an exquisite 17th-century Iranian board on exhibit at Ithra, in Dhahran.) As its popularity ascended, religious groups periodically sought to ban backgammon for its gambling element. In the early 20th century, the doubling cube was added, bringing a new dynamic to the game’s strategy.
Today in the bustling port city of Jeddah, much like the tradition of chess in New York City, players post up on the street, awaiting the next challenge from passersby. The best advice for learning to play? “Try playing the game, and you will learn it faster,” Jan says.
Similar to billiards, carrom is a board game that trades pool cues for fingers. Although its exact origins are unknown, it is thought to have originated in the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century. Its popularity grew sharply in South Asia and in the Arabian Peninsula before finally arriving in the U.S. around 1890, spawning many variants, which included altering the size and weight of the pieces.
Most popular in the region of Hijaz, the game is ubiquitous during Ramadan, when there’s plenty of downtime and long nights to play it. Pandemic curfews in 2020 caused demand to surge and carrom boards to sell out across Saudi.
“I grew up playing carrom with my mom and her family,” Nahid Noor, a teacher from Jeddah, told Arab News. “The competition tended to be fierce. A tournament would often materialize in the course of a gathering.”
A variant of draughts, dama also descends from quirkat, an Arabic game that is played on a smaller board. As it hopped to different areas of the world, the game morphed into what many know today as checkers; however, dama has a few important differences.
—Jason Moss is a food and travel writer who has previously written for Taste of Home, Club Traveler and The Ritz-Carlton Magazine.