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Home School Life Journal ........... painting by Katie Bergenholtz
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Saint Francis DeSales

The Royal Game of Ur

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We have had a wonderful time learning, debating, supposing and playing the Ur Game. We were please by the set we got from Wood Expressions as it accurately replicates the actual ancient game boards found in Mesopotamia. The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, is the name given to several game boards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur. Excavated in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s, the ancient Sumerian name of the game is not known. Examples of the Game of Twenty Squares date from about 3000 BC to the first millennium AD and are found widely from the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to India. 

One of the two boards found by Sir Woolley is exhibited in the collections of the British Museum in London. The gaming pieces for this particular board did not survive, however some sets of gaming pieces of inlaid shale and shell were excavated at Ur with their boards. The boards appear to have been hollow with the pieces stored inside. Dice, either stick dice or tetrahedral in shape, were also found.





The rules of the game as it was played around 2500 BC are not known, and game historians do not agree as to how the game might have been played. Despite the fact that the early games show a variety of patterns on the board, the consistent factor is the five rosettes. Some boards that have been found only feature the rosettes and all boards seem to feature rosettes in similar patterns leading most people to suppose that only the rosettes are significant, but the nature of the rosettes is up for debate. They could be squares to be avoided - maybe they send the counter back to the start or forced a player to pay a fine into a central pool of betting money. Some have suggested that they are safe squares where a counter cannot be caught, but we agree with James Masters and think this is unlikely as the suggested tracks taken by the counters mean that some rosettes are in places that the opponent cannot reach so no need for safe squares. The third likely idea is that landing on a rosette gave the player an extra turn. We also noticed that the patterns of 5 and 4 are clearly in each of the patterns on the board, so we felt that the symbols were more than just decoration. Five squares each have flower rosettes, 'eyes', and circled dots. The remaining five squares have various designs of five dots. The rosettes also lie four squares apart from each other. We also noted that 5 x 4 equals 20, the same number as the total amount of squares; the Game of Twenty Squares
Sets of tokens or pawns were also found: seven white pawns with five black dots on each and seven black pawns with five white dots. The set also had with it two sets of three pyramid-shaped dice, although my reproduction had four instead.
This would be a roll of two.
These are simply binary lots (in that two of the four corners are marked with dots giving a 50-50 chance of getting a dotted side up)- throw three dice and count the number that land with a spotted corner upwards giving a number from 0 to 3 (or, in our case, throw four for a count of 0-4.)
Most versions of the rules people have come up with play the game as a race game, with the goal of introducing the seven pawns, moving them along your designated path, and to be the first to have all the pawns out of the game, similar to backgammon.

The basic rules are as such:

  • Throw the dice to decide who plays first - highest score goes first, if it's a draw, throw again.
  • Players take turns to throw the binary lots and move one of their pieces. 
  • Only one piece may be moved per throw of the dice and pieces must always move forward around the track.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A player must always move a counter if it is possible to do so but if it is not possible, the turn is lost.
  • Exact throws are needed to bear pieces off the board.
    We found, however, that following the rule of sending someone back if you landed on them made the game interminably long, so we changed it to be that if you had another move to make that would not end up with you landing on another's piece, then you had to do that move first, but if the only move you could make resulted in landing on the other player's piece, then you moved there, and sent the other piece back to start.


The designated path is also up for debate. There are three generally recognized paths, but all three say that entry to the board is made into the outer row on the fourth square from the left going left. One player enters on the top row, the other on the lower. The path that we liked best says that when the counter reaches the corner (with the rosette), it moves to the middle row and travels along in the reverse direction. The most commonly used path matches the description of a game played on the same board found on a tablet dated 2 1/2 millennia later. When a counter reaches the final square of the middle row it returns to its starting row, goes one square back and then bears off. This makes a track of 14 squares, the 15th move being to bear off the board and players counters keep can only meet on the middle row. (More detailed descriptions of all three paths can be found at Master's Traditional Games.)


A cuneiform tablet of Babylonian origin that describes this game has recently been discovered by Irving Finkel, curator at the British Museum. The tablet dates from 177-176 BCE but it describes the main elements concerning the course of the game. (At that time people used knucklebones instead of pyramid-shaped dice.)

"The tablet shows the number and the names of the pawns, one of the dice (two knucklebones: one of sheep, one of ox), and a few details concerning the throws. It appears clearly that each of the five pawns owned by the players were different from one another and that a special throw was required to place each pawn at the beginning of the game. Among the twenty squares on the game board, five are generally decorated with a rosette and it seems that those squares are important in the course of the game. The tablet shows that those squares brought good luck, to place a pawn on them gave an advantage. If a pawn did not stop on a rosette, a penalty had to be paid. The scribe has described the fate of each pawn in a poetical way, the wins and the losses corresponding to the same efforts required to win enough food, drink and love." (Lhéte Jean Marie, "Histoire des jeux de société", 1994 Flammarion) 
A description of the movement of the pawns is unfortunately missing. The back of the tablet shows four by three squares with zodiac signs and messages of good and bad luck. Mr. Finkel supposes that this was a simple game and a way to foresee the future and the fate of the players. (Finkel Irving : "La tablette des régles du jeu royal d'Ur", Jouer dans l'Antiquité, cat. exp., Marseille, musée d'Archéologie méditerranéenne, 1991)
We all thought that these later rules brought up some interesting concepts that playing it like a simple race game seems to ignore. The rules that came with the game are a bit more difficult to understand, but seems to want to conform more closely to these suggestions. They say that the object of the game is to place four of your playing pieces on four identical square of any one of the three sets of five identical designs, plus one more of your playing pieces on one of the other squares of a different design. Once the pieces are placed on the board, players can move in any direction, jumping either color piece, but you must finish on an unoccupied space. Each time a player moves a playing piece, he must turn it over. A player cannot play this piece again until all of this playing pieces have been played. If you trap your opponent into a position where he cannot move, then the game is over and you win.
Another idea is that there were several versions of the game and different ways to play that were circulating at the same time.
One feature of my set that I have not seen anyone address is the sets of notches on the sides of the board. There are three sets of eleven notches, two sets of four notches and then one set of 3 and then 6 together. We thought perhaps they were used as a method of keeping score, but we couldn't think of how to implement this idea into the gaming. 
Quentin had an idea that perhaps there were originally some sort of cards with the game that fit in the areas where the board goes in, but we pointed out to him that they had clay tablets then, and not paper, so if there were some sort of tablet cards, they should have remained with the sets, and not disintegrated. It is still an interesting idea, however.
You can see that this simple game has brought up all sorts of interesting debate and conjecture, which has set them thinking in new ways...which is the best learning of all.

You can play The Royal Game of Ur online at The British Museum's Mesopotamia site or at Your Turn My Turn.

sources and inspiration:
  • Wood Expression, Inc. rules to the Ur Game

4 comments:

  1. Wow, what a fascinating blend of history and game mechanics. Your set looks beautiful!

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  2. Natalie could not have said it better :) I concur!

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  3. The board you got is beautiful! Man now I want it just because of how pretty it is.

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    Replies
    1. I got mine on sale at Amazon for $20, instead of its usual $45, so I would watch for it to go on sale again.

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