Royal Game of Ur

How to Play

The Royal Game of Ur provides a fascinating glimpse into ancient Mesopotamian culture, with its rules reconstructed by Irving Finkel from the British Museum, where he works as an Assyriologist. This timeless game, one of the oldest in the world, was first played during the early third millennium BC and has left its mark on history.

The game begins with an empty board and seven pieces in each player's hand. Players take turns rolling the dice, with each die featuring four corners, half of them marked. Movement is determined by the number of marked corners 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.

Royal game of Ur path


  • Each square can hold only one piece at a time.
  • Landing on a non-safe square occupied by an opposing piece sends that piece back to its starting area.
  • Landing on a Rosette square grants an extra roll.
  • If a piece lands on the Rosette square in the middle row, the opposing player cannot remove it from the board.
  • A piece can be removed from the board by a roll matching the exact number needed to reach the last square, plus one to get of the board.
  • If no move is possible, the player loses a turn.


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

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 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 gameplay, a tetrahedral (four-sided) die was used.

The original rules of the game remain unknown, although a number of different scholars have interpreted them based on a cuneiform tablet discovered in Iraq in 1880, now housed in the British Museum (Rm-III.6.b – 33333B). It includes the number and 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 an 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 and is perhaps the most widely used direction, fitting 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 presents 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 keeping up to four pieces at once, some squares turned pieces upside down, etc.

While the boards discovered varied in material, the arrangement of rosettes on each board remained consistent. This uniformity has led some scholars to theorize that squares featuring a rosette serve a specific function, potentially marking squares to be avoided. It is speculated that these squares might either reset the player's counter back to the starting point or impose a fine, contributing to a pool of betting money.

In unraveling the mysteries of the Royal Game of Ur, we journey through ancient boards and archaeological clues, discovering a game that transcends time. As the echoes of this ancient past reach us, we find ourselves immersed in a captivating blend of strategy, chance, and lost traditions. The Royal Game of Ur, with its enigmatic rules and enduring appeal, stands as a testament to the enduring human fascination with games that have spanned millennia, leaving an indelible mark on our shared history.

Bibliographical references

  • R.C. Bell, Board and Table Games of Many Civilisations, 2 vols. London, 1960, 1969 [reprinted with corrections and revisions by Dover Books, 1979].
  • Irving L. Finkel, “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, 2007, pp. 16-32.
  • H.J.R. Murray, A History of Board-games Other Than Chess, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952, pp. 19-21.