The Royal Game of Ur

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How to Play

This version of the game is based on the rules proposed by Irving Finkle (from British Museum).

The game begins with an empty board and seven pieces in each player's hand. Players take turns rolling the dice and moving their pieces. Each die has 4 corners, half of them are marked. Players can move their pieces along the path according to the number of marked corners of the dice facing up. On a roll of 0, a turn is missed. The first player getting all their pieces of the board wins the game. The players move along the path as shown in the diagram below. The middle path is shared by both players.

Rules

  • One square can hold only one piece at a time.
  • If you land on a non-safe square occupied by an opposing piece, that piece is returned to it's starting area.
  • If a piece lands on Rosette square, you get one extra roll.
  • If a piece lands on Rosette square on the middle row the opposing player can't knock that piece of the board.
  • The piece can be removed of the board by the exact roll of dice required to move it to the last square plus one of the board.
  • If no move is possible, then player loses a turn.

History

The Game of Ur is one of the oldest games in the world, that was first played in ancient Mesopotamia during the early third millennium BC. It derived its name from the place where it was first discovered.

The English archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavations of the Royal Cemetery at Ur between 1926 and 1930 discovered five game boards of this game. Later other archaeologists have also found copies of the game in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Cyprus and other places throughout the Middle East. In Tutankhamun's tomb four game boards with a similar resemblance to the Royal Game of Ur were also discovered.

The game was popular among all social classes. It is uncertain what contributed to the gradual demise of the Game of Ur during the late antiquity. One hypothesis suggests that it developed into backgammon.

The game was designed for two players, as two sets of playing pieces (black and white) were found with it. For a gameplay a tetrahedral (four-sided) dice was used.

The original rules of the game remain unknown, although a number of different scholars have interpreted them on the basis of a cuneiform tablet discovered in Iraq in 1880, which is now housed in the British Museum (Rm-III.6.b – 33333B). It includes the number and the names of the pawns and some information regarding the throws.

British Museum curator Irving Finkel in the early 1980s reconstructed the basic rules of how the game might have been played in the second century BC based on this tablet. The tablet contained almost complete set of rules. Unfortunately the original route the players should follow is still unknown.

There have been a few proposals by different researchers as to which path the players follow across the board. I will introduce four specific adaptations to the rules: R.C. Bell/I. Finkel, H.J.R. Murray's, J. Masters, D. Skiryuk.

R.C. Bell / I. Finkel

path proposed by R.C. Bell

This path is the shortest of these four versions. This is perhaps the most widely used direction and fits the description of the game found on a clay tablet.

H.J.R. Murray

path proposed by H.J.R. Murray

H.J.R. Murray assumed that the rosette squares gave an extra move. The distance between the rosettes was equivalent to the maximum points of the dice.

J. Masters

path proposed by J. Masters

Game board maker, J. Masters, offered a compromise between the rules of Murray and Bell.

D. Skiryuk

path proposed by D. Skiryuk

D. Skiryuk gives another alternative with the exit of the board from the middle left square (it has a unique ornament on the board). He also believes that some squares had specific functions. The "4 eyed" square allowed to keep up to four pieces at once, some squares turned pieces upside down, etc.

All boards found differed in material but the arrangement of rosettes on the board was still the same. It has caused some scholars to believe that only squares with a rosette have some function. They might be the squares to be avoided. Maybe they return the counter back to the start or require a player to pay a fine into a pool of betting money.

Bibliographical references

Bell 1960, 1969:R.C. Bell,Board and Table Games of Many Civilisations, 2 vols.London [reprinted with corrections and revisions by DoverBooks, 1979].

Finkel, Irving L. “On the rules for the Royal Game of Ur.” In Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum Colloquium, with Additional Contributions. London: British Museum, pp. 16-32. 2007.

Murray, H.J.R. A History of Board-games Other Than Chess, pp. 19-21. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.