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The Ancient Greek Board Game of Five Lines

Updated on May 8, 2015
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

The Parthenon as it would have looked
The Parthenon as it would have looked

Five Lines: A history

Five lines is the modern name for a board game that comes from Greece but we have no record of it ever having a name. Pollux mentions the game in his Onomasticon but does not give it a name. The earliest written reference to the game is from 600 BCE in a verse by Alkaios. The earliest examples of actual game boards comes from grave goods dating back to the 7th century BCE. This doesn't place it anywhere near the oldest known board game, but it is still old.

It is interesting to note that this is a game that is frequently ignored by history and game scholars alike. Very little information is available about the game beyond the game board finds. Any attempt to recreate the rules is purely speculative, that being said, let's speculate.

Example Five Lines Board

This is a five lines board I created. The decoration is made using wood burning techniques.
This is a five lines board I created. The decoration is made using wood burning techniques. | Source
How a five lines board game looks and the path a player takes.
How a five lines board game looks and the path a player takes. | Source

How to play

The game consists of ten men usually rocks or stones of two differing colours, five each, the board, and one die. Five lines is a two player game, each player starts out with five men that are placed one man on their side of each of the lines. The men move counterclockwise around the board, and the goal is to get all of your men on the sacred line. The players take turns tossing the die and moving their pieces the number the die turns up. Only one man can be moved per turn, and a man can only occupy the sacred line or an empty space. The player that gets all five of their men to the opposite sacred line at the same time wins. If a move can be executed it must, therefore if you have a man on the opposite sacred line but when you roll your only valid move open to you is to move that man off the sacred line to an empty spot, you must do so. The only time a player can skip a turn is if they have no valid moves.

Double Variant

The game can also be played with eleven lines (and eleven men each) the only difference in game play is that the third sixth and ninth lines are sacred lines. It is presumed that when playing double that two dice are used and the player may choose to move either two men (one moves the number die one shows, the other moves the total die two shows), or one man for the total of the two dice.

The Badge of the Avacal Games Guild
The Badge of the Avacal Games Guild | Source

© 2014 Jeff Johnston

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