The Royal Game of Ur

Did Abraham play this Royal Game of Ur?

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares or simply the Game of Ur, is a two-player strategy race board game that was first played in ancient Mesopotamia during the early third millennium BC.

British Museum Royal Game of Ur.jpg
One of the five gameboards found by Sir Leonard Woolley in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, now held in the British Museum

This is an ancient game represented by two gameboards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. The two boards date from the First Dynasty of Ur, before 2600 BC, thus making the Royal Game of Ur one of the oldest examples of board gaming equipment found, although Senet boards found in Egyptian graves predate it as much as 900 years. The Ur-style Twenty Squares gameboard was also known in Egypt as Asseb, and has been found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb, among other places. Discovery of a tablet partially describing the gameplay has allowed the game to be played again after over 2000 years.

The Game of Ur was popular across the Middle East and boards for it have been found in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and Crete.

The boards found at Ur have been accompanied by small round counters, each with five white dots on them, seven light and seven dark. Also found have been six pyramidal dice each with two dots on two of the four corners.

Anyone want to make one?

The Game of Ur is a race game and it is probably a direct ancestor of the tables, or backgammon, family of games, which are still played today. The Game of Ur is played using two sets of seven checker-like game pieces. One set of pieces are white with five black dots and the other set is black with five white dots. The gameboard is composed of two rectangular sets of boxes, one containing three rows of four boxes each and the other containing three rows of two boxes each, joined together by a “narrow bridge” of two boxes. The gameplay involves elements of both luck and strategy. Movements are determined by rolling a set of four-sided, tetrahedron-shaped dice. Two of the four corners of each die are marked and the other two are not, giving each die an equal chance of landing with a marked or unmarked corner facing up. The number of marked ends facing upwards after a roll of the dice indicates how many spaces a player may move during that turn. A single game can last up to half an hour and can be very intense.

Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum, translated a clay tablet written c. 177 BC by the Babylonian scribe Itti-Marduk-balāṭu describing how the game was played during that time period, based on an earlier description of the rules by another scribe named Iddin-Bēl.

Diagram showing board with arrows showing the direction of play
Diagram showing the most likely direction in which the players race to move their pieces off the board, with “safe” spaces shown in blue and “combat” spaces shown in green.
Less likely, but possible, course in which the players double back over four squares of the middle section, thus making the game longer.

The object of the game is for a player to move all seven of their pieces along the course (two proposed versions of which are shown at right) and off the board before their opponent. On all surviving gameboards, the two sides of the board are always identical with each other, indicating that the two sides of the board belong to each player. When a piece is on one of the player’s own squares, it is safe from capture, but, when it is on one of the eight squares in the middle of the board, the opponent’s pieces may capture it by landing on the same space, sending the piece back off the board so that it must restart the course from the beginning. This means there are six “safe” squares and eight “combat” squares. There can never be more than one piece on a single square at any given time, so having too many pieces on the board at once can impede a player’s mobility.

When a player rolls a number using the dice, they may choose to move any of their pieces on the board or add a new piece to the board if they still have pieces that have not entered the game. A player is not required to capture a piece every time they have the opportunity. Nonetheless, players are required to move a piece whenever possible, even if it results in an unfavorable outcome. All surviving gameboards have a colored rosette in the middle of the center row. According to Finkel’s reconstruction, if a piece is located on the space with the rosette, it is safe from capture. Finkel also states that when a piece lands on any of the three rosettes, the player gets an extra roll. In order to remove a piece from the board, a player must roll exactly the number of spaces remaining until the end of the course plus one.[4] If the player rolls a number any higher or lower than this number, they may not remove the piece from the board.[4]

These are simply binary lots – throw three dice and count the number that land with a spotted corner upwards giving a number from 0 to 3.
 0 – move 4 squares  1 – move 1 square  2 – move 2 squares  3 – move 3 squares

The Royal Game of Ur was played with two sets, one black and one white, of seven markers and four tetrahedral dice. It is generally agreed that the Royal game of Ur is a race game – the aim is to get all 7 pieces around the board to the finish point first.

1. Throw the dice to decide who plays first – highest score goes first, if it’s a draw, throw again.

2. Players take turns to throw three binary lots and move one of their pieces.

3. Only one piece may be moved per throw of the dice and pieces must always move forward around the track.

4. If a counter lands upon a square occupied by an opposing counter, the counter landed upon is sent off the board and must start again from the beginning.

5. If a counter lands on a rosette, throw the dice again (and again if another rosette is landed upon). The same piece need not be moved on the additional throw.

6. Pieces can be moved onto the board at any stage of the game as long as the square that is moved to upon the first turn is vacant.

7. A player must always move a counter if it is possible to do so but if it is not possible, the turn is lost.

8. Exact throws are needed to bear pieces off the board

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