Oddly enough, no rules for Senet have ever been found, either written on papyrus or painted on a tomb wall. It appears as though the game may have been so popular that it was taught entirely by word of mouth from one player to another, because almost everyone knew how to play it anyway. Still, a number of people have created what they believe are the closest reconstructions of the rules of Senet, based on tomb paintings of the game, references to it in Egyptian writing, and by looking at its descendants: games such as Dublets, Tables, and our modern Backgammon.
The squares are numbered on the first row 1-10 from left to right, on the second row 11-20 right to left, and on the third row 21-30 left to right. The pieces, or Pawns, follow the path of the numbers, left to right on the top row, then right to left on the middle row, and left to right on the bottom row (or in some versions, the reverse of that).
Squares 26 through 30 have symbols on them, as does square 15, which in some variations is the starting point for the pieces. In some sets, square 30 does not have a symbol, but is rather painted a different color.
Each player has between 5 and 10 pawns, depending on the variation and desired difficulty of the game. The movement of the pawns was decided by the throw of four two-sided casting sticks (as shown in the Hesy painting) with a mark on one side and blank on the other, or by the casting of knucklebone dice.
Each player in turn throws the sticks and puts his pawns on the board in squares 30, 29, 28, 27, and 26 according to the number of points thrown (1 point means put a pawn in Square 30, 2 points, Square 29, etc.). Only one pawn may be placed in each square; if there is already a pawn in that square, the turn is wasted.
After the five squares are filled, the game begins. In turn, each player throws the sticks and can either move one of his pawns that number of spaces up the board, or place a new pawn in one of the five symbol squares (Squares 26-30) if any are empty.
If a pawn is moved to a square already occupied by an opponent’s pawn, the opponent’s pawn is removed and must start over at the beginning. This does not apply to the five symbol squares. Any number of pawns may be moved to them, but they may only be placed in empty squares.
The player who manages to get a pawn to Square 1 earns a bonus of five points. That player must now try to get all of his pawns to the odd-numbered squares on the first two rows before his opponent can move all of his pawns to even-numbered squares. When a pawn has reached its finishing square, it is “locked” and cannot be landed on, though it may be moved through by other pawns.
The first player to move all of his pawns to his own squares wins the game and earns 10 points. He gets an additional point for each move his opponent makes while placing all of his remaining pawns.
The Kendall Variant (created by Timothy Kendall)
The winner is the first player to move all his pawns off the board.
Each player receives seven pawns. The pawns of both players alternate along squares 1-14. The fifteenth square is treated as the starting square. Throw the four casting sticks to determine the move: each blank side up counts as one point. If all four marked sides come up, it counts as five points. Move one of your pawns a number of squares equal to the number of points you “rolled.”
If a pawn is moved to a square occupied by an opponent’s pawn, the moving pawn is placed in that square and the opponent’s pawn is placed in the square that pawn started the move from.
Certain squares have special effects on play:
The House of Rebirth – the starting square and the square pawns return to when landing on The House of Water.
The House of Happiness – all pawns finish a move here, even if they threw enough to move past it.
The House of Water – any pawn finishing a move on this square must go back to The House of Rebirth.
House of the Three Truths – a pawn landing here may only leave the board if a three is thrown.
House of Re-Atoum – a pawn landing here may only leave the board if a two is thrown.