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Hounds and Jackals, also known as 'Dogs and Jackals', the 'game of 58 holes' and the 'Palm Tree game', is a game first played in Ancient Egypt around the 9th-12th dynasties. The earliest board yet found was unearthed at Thebes dated to roughly 2100 BC and is one of the best preserved, featuring a palm tree and standing on four short legs. Importantly, it is also complete with 10 pieces in the form of five hound pieces and five jackal pieces heads. Other similar boards and pieces have been found in Ancient Egypt right through to the New Kingdom (~1000 BC).

More than 40 boards boards (or fragments of them) have been found, many of them outside Egypt - primarily in Mesopotamia from around 1850 BC through to the Asyrian period (1200-612 BC) , and in Palestine dated to the late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BC). Although these boards were often shaped differently, the overall layout is the same throughout so it is likely that game-play did not vary much over all this time.

The game is one of several games played by the Ancient Egyptians, most of them apparently race games.


Layout of the Palm Tree Game

The basic format is that of two identical tracks of 29 holes joined by a larger target hole or area that is generally agreed to be the goal. Many of the boards including the earliest also feature an extra hole at the assumed beginning of the track that are normally thought to be starting holes (and not counted in the numbering scheme).

Boards normally have holes 10, 15, 20, 25 highlighted as special, in addition to hole 30, the finishing hole. Holes 6 and 8 are also special, usually featuring a link to holes 20 and 10 respectively.


Working Out the Rules for Hounds and Jackals

The rules for Hounds and Jackals are not known. No writings about it have been found and few clues exist apart from the boards, pieces and some counters that were found with a few of the boards. This, of course, is like a red rag to a bull for historians and games experts and many have espoused likely rules including Robbie Bell, Irving Finkel and W. M. Finders Petrie who first announced a find of the game in 1890. The rules were first seriously considered by the archeologist who excavated the wonderful Palm Tree board, Howard Carter and to a certain extent the rules that he proposed have become the defacto standard, despite the fact that they contain one or two dubious interpretations.

I have studied various proposed rules including the Carter rules and a more recent analysis by the archeologist A. J. Hoerth published in 2007. Most reduce the game to one based purely on luck which is not usually a particularly fulfilling activity unless you are a child. Robbie Bell assumed throughout that the game was sustained by gambling and his rules included special features based on that premise. Although this would partially resolve the lack of interest in the basic game, most gambling pastimes that have stood the test of time include at least a small element of skill. None-the-less, Hoerth proposes several conclusions that most including myself would find it difficult to disagree with:

  • The emphasised hole at the top of the board is the goal of both player's pieces, rather than than the start.
  • Each player wields 5 pieces.
  • The links from holes 6 - 20 and 8 - 10 are most likely to be traversed forwards when a piece lands on hole 6 or 8 and backwards when a piece lands on holes 20 or 10. [It is entirely possible that the links were only used in a forwards direction (as Bell thought) or a backwards direction (as Carter asserted) direction but as nothing on the boards indicates any direction, these hypotheses seemed slightly less likely to Petrie and Hoerth and I would tend to agree]

Hoerth also concludes that holes 15 and 25 give the player another turn. These holes on the Palm Tree board were a 'nefer' sign which means "good". So it is an acceptable conclusion that holes 15 and 25 are beneficial in some way but exactly how is unclear.

Hoerth states with great justification that certain aspects can only be guessed at and gives the following examples:

  • What happens when the throw of the lots is greater than the distance of a piece to the goal. [ Carter suggests that the full total should be counted to the goal and then back out again. Hoerth feels it is equally likely that the player's turn was forfeit if the move could not be made exactly. I would add a third option that should also be given equal merit - simply that the piece was allowed to move onto the goal regardless ]
  • How to decide who goes first [ although this is a relatively trivial matter ]
  • How the game was won

On this last point, Hoerth makes an assumption that the game was played as a succession of several 1 versus 1 races. The idea, proposed by Carter was that a Hound raced a Jackal and whichever piece lost was removed from the board. Then the players played a second race and so on. Hoerth was unhappy with the result that one player could win before all pieces had been played - indeed after only 3 races if one player won all three because there would be no point continuing. He therefore proposed that the losing piece be returned to the player to race agin rather than being removed permanently - thus a full 5 races would need to be won before victory was confirmed.

I feel that this overlooks the important point that the game may well not have been played as a series of 1 on 1 races. One obvious alternative idea is that the game was played as a "relay" - each new piece being put into the starting hole as soon as the preceding piece reached the goal. In this case, the game would have been won when the 5th piece reached the goal.

More radically, what about the option that more than one piece was allowed on the track at once? Although there are pitfalls to this approach, it should not be ruled out and indeed this is my favoured proposal for a decent game.

Although Hoerth did a great job in his academic historical analysis of the game, he therefore left the door slightly ajar for someone interested in game play to give the rules further thought. Fruitful areas for examination are:

  • Was more than one piece allowed on the track at once and if so under what conditions and limitations?
  • How many binary dice were used?
  • What are the feasible beneficial results of landing on holes 15 and 25?


Binary Dice

A board found at Nippur came with 3 disks, marked on one side.

Similar discs were found in the ivory hoard at Megiddo that contained 4 Hounds and Jackals game boards and which were considered to be counting devices for the games. HOW MANY?


Holes 15 and 25

The "good" holes.

Petrie - nothing - just counting aids

Carter and Hoerth - another go

Bell - Win a stake


Singular or Multiple piece race

More interesting game if not based on pure luck.

However must be limited.


Ancestor of the Cribbage Board?

There have been poorly justified suggestions over the years that the Hounds and Jackals board is the ancestor of the modern Cribbage board. At first this might seem to stretch credibility somewhat but one should consider the following facts:

  • One side of a cribbage board is a race track consisting of 30 holes on one side and 30 holes on the other. So is a Hounds and Jackals board.
  • A cribbage board is marked every 5 holes to assist with counting. A Hounds and Jackals board is also marked every 5 holes.
  • No other game in Egyptian times featured pegs for pieces and holes for the tracks. Cribbage is virtually the only modern board whose default construction features pegs for pieces and holes for the tracks.

The biggest problem with the theory is the gap of around 2500 years from the last known Hounds and Jackals board until the oldest Cribbage board. While this does reduce the likelihood of the Hounds and Jackals board being borrowed as a card game scorer, it does not entirely rule it out as is proved by the following fact. There is archeological evidence for the Royal Game of Ur, possibly the oldest board game, for more than 2500 years until around the time of Christ. Therefore everyone assumed that it died out 2000 years ago until Irving Finkel of the British Museum discovered that virtually the same board was still being used by Jewish families in Cochin, India until modern times.

More recently, in 2008 the notes and writings of Francis Willughby from the 1660s were published which include instructions for both Cribbage and the game upon which Cribbage is based - Noddy. Wonderfully, Willughby sketched a quick diagram of a typical Noddy board. This board is a decidely closer match to a Hounds and Jackals board and the argument of those who espouse a link is increased for the following reasons:

  • The tracks share a highlighted objective hole.
  • The tracks are both 29 holes with the objective hole as the 30th.
  • The layout of the Noddy board follows a very similar path to the Palm Tree game with the tracks running down either edge of the board and then turning to go up the middle. However, it must also be noted that the objective hole for a Noddy board is at the top of the middle tracks and not at the top of the outer tracks as it is on the Palm Tree board.

The earliest documentary evidence for Noddy is from a 1589 work entitled 'Almond for Parrat': "Let not me take you at noddy anie more, least I present you to the parish for a gamster".



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Copyright 1997 - now by James Masters.