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The Royal Game of Ur

Updated on November 28, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

Ur.... where or what is Ur

Ur was an important Sumerian City State in ancient Mesopotamia located in modern day Iraq. The city dates from as early as 3600 BCE and is considered by some Biblical scholars to be the city of Ur Kasdim the supposed birthplace of Abram. The city seems to have lasted until 500 BCE when there ceases to be any archaeological evidence the area was inhabited, probably due to change in river patterns which resulted in a drought in the area.

From 1922 through to 1934 Sir Leonard Woolley investigated the royal tombs of Ur. During this time he opened more than 2000 tombs dating back to around 2600-2500 BCE. Amongst the many wonderful finds in the tombs of Ur is a board game, the oldest complete board game ever discovered. This has now become known as The Royal Game of Ur.

The History of the Royal Game of Ur

The rules as it was played 5000 years ago has long since been lost to the mists of time, but many people have devised reasonable reconstructions of what the rules could possibly have been. It is assumed that the game is a chase game much like senet, and is probably an early precursor to the backgammon family of games. The reconstructions are not based completely on fantasy, there is in fact a tablet which is presumed to contain the rules to the Royal Game of Ur dated 177 BCE, although the rules are in cuneiform and not entirely translated and incomplete. For the recreation I am using I have blended a variety of different sources to come up with what I believe to be the most enjoyable variant of the rules.

Game of Ur Board with the standard accepted travel path
Game of Ur Board with the standard accepted travel path | Source

How to play

The game is played on a board of 20 squares. A centre row of eight squares; the top and bottom four squares, a gap of two squares then two more squares. On the image below the path of the black pieces is shown on the board, the white pieces mirror the path.

Each player starts with 7 men in hand, and the board is empty. Traditionally each player had three pyramidal die with four corners as well, two of which would be marked. Instead of pyramidal dice it is common to use “casting sticks” with one side plain and the other painted.

There does not seem to be a standard for who goes first, so the players may decide amongst themselves, a casting of the dice or casting sticks is a common way to determine who goes first. Each player takes turns casting the number of marked sides or corners shown is the number of spaces he can move, if no marked sides turn up the player moves four squares. If there are already men on the board the player may choose to move them or place a new man on the board. If a piece lands on a rosette, a marked square (on the board above the squares with flowers), then that player gets another turn. A man cannot occupy an already occupied square, however if an opponent’s man is on a square that your man can land on you can land on that square and return your opponents man to them to start over. If there are no valid moves then the turn is lost.

The goal is to get all of ones men moved around the board and off. An exact roll is required to move a man off the board.

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

© 2014 Jeff Johnston

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