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Backgammon - History and Useful Information

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Gaming boards of 3 x 10 squares have been found extensively in ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.  The game was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Game of Thirty Squares or Senet (sometimes Senat).  The exact rules are not known.  Similar boards have also been found consisting of 3 x 12 squares, 3 x 6 squares and other patterns - it's not clear if these are different games or mere variants.  A number of boards have been found which feature Senet on one side and another popular Egyptian game, the Game of Twenty Squares, on the other.

Part of what appears to be a game board that may or may not be Senet has been found in Predynastic Egyptian burials, dated around 3500BC but this is possibly unwise speculation. You will find that some websites (including Wikipedia) claim that it was also seen on the wall of the tomb of Merknera, which would date it at a similar time but this is just rubbish as far as this author can tell. So the earliest confirmed date for Senet is 3000BC which still makes it one of the leading candidates for the oldest board game in the world.

Games Historians believe that Senet is an early ancestor in a long lineage of games that eventually leads to Backgammon. Backgammon is one of the world's most popular games, being played in hundreds of countries locally and competitively to international level. These days it is possible to play backgammon against players all over the world using your computer and a variety of online gaming options.

The picture shows a modern commercial version of the game of Senet from the author's collection.

The Anomalous Oldest Backgammon game

In 2004, archeologists found an old game in the 5000 year old ancient Iranian city of Shahr-e Sukhteh (Persian for "burnt city") which many people have called the oldest version of Backgammon ever found. Dated 3000BC, the find included a rectangular board made of ebony, pieces made from turquoise and agate, and dice. The board features an engraved serpent coiling around itself for 20 times, thus producing 20 slots for the game, instead of today's 24 and there are 60 pieces instead of the current 30 so the game must have had quite different rules to the current game or may have been something completely unrelated.

This board certainly provides a different interpretation to the history of Backgammon than the usual theory that it was descended from Senet because if this is the descendent of Backgammon then Senet presumably is not. On the other hand, there seems to be an empty gap of around 3 millenia between this board and and Romans who were the first people to definitely play a Backgammon ancestor which is difficult to reconcile while the Senet theory does provide a contiguous time-line that lasts the full 5000 years. So perhaps the Senet to Backgammon evolution theory is not yet written off.

What is certain is that this board takes the new record as the oldest complete board game ever found, previously held by the Royal Game of Ur.

Tabula and Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum

Backgammon-type games have been played for thousands of years in all parts of the world and certainly during the Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras.  The Romans left a great deal of evidence of a game they called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, the game of the twelve lines. The game is possibly derived from the Egyptian Senat having a topological set of 3 x 12 points and being played with 3 x 6 sided dice but, again, the rules have never been fully ascertained. In the first century AD, Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum seems to have been replaced by a variant with only 2 rows of 12 points, a game which by the 6th century was called 'Alea'.  Both these games and others were also referred to as 'Tabula', which was a generic game for 'boardgame' and in early mediaeval times was usually used to mean the most popular boardgame, Ducodecim Scriptorum/Alea/Backgammon, in the same way that the generic term 'football' normally means 'soccer' in England today.

Nard / Tables

In Asia, the game of Nard appeared sometime prior to 800 AD, in South West Asia or in Persia depending upon which version of history one believes, and variants are played today throughout the continent. Chinese history gives that t'shu-p'u, the Chinese name for Nard was invented in Western India, arrived in China during the Wei dynasty (220 - 265 AD) and became popular from 479 to 1000AD. In Japan the game was called Sugoroko and was declared illegal during the reign of Empress Jito (690 - 697AD). Nard, in turn, seems to have been introduced into Europe via Italy or Spain following the Arab occupation of Sicily (902 AD).

The first mention of the game in English print was in The Codex Exoniensis published in 1025: "These two shall sit at Tables...". Tables was probably brought to England by men returning from the Crusades. Nard or Tables was played throughout Europe during the middle ages and became very popular in English Taverns, although Chess overtook it as the more popular game in the fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, Tables had, for some reason, become a generic term for any game played on a flat surface or table. Like many games played for money, it became unpopular with the authorities in England and, until the reign of Elizabeth I, laws prohibiting the playing of Tables in licensed establishments were in force.

Modern Backgammon

In the early seventeenth century, however, following some modifications to the rules, the game underwent a revival and it swept across Europe again under a variety of different names which have mostly stayed the same until today:

WBackgammon2.jpg (45104 bytes)
Image is of a board from the author's parents collection.

England - Backgammon

Scotland - Gammon

France - Tric-Trac

Germany - Puff

Spain - Tablas Reales

Italy - Tavole Reale

Czech - Vrhcáby

Israel and Arabic - Shesh Besh

Image is of a board from the author's collection

It is a subject of debate as to whether the term Backgammon is derived from the Welsh 'back' (little) and 'gammon' (battle) or from the Saxon 'bac' (back) 'gamen' (game).

Backgammon underwent another revival before the first World War but waned during the middle of the twentieth century only to recover again in the 1970s to become the popular game it is today. It is still widely played in the Middle East as Tric-trac.

There are a whole family of variants: Chouette (3 or 4 player version), Partnership backgammon, Sixey-Acey, Dutch Backgammon, Turkish Backgammon (Moultezim), Greek Backgammon (Plakato), Gioul (from the Middle East), Acey Deucey (US Forces version of Dutch Backgammon), European Acey Deucey, Russian Backgammon, Tabard Backgammon and Icelandic Backgammon (Kotra).


Where to Buy

You can buy beautiful Dal Negro wooden and leather Backgammon sets and also a nice wooden Senet game from Masters Traditional Games.



Masters Traditional Games also supplies free game rules for traditional games.



A Japanese translation of this page.







Email to jm at tradgames.org.uk

Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.