The first civilisation in human history is thought to be that of Sumer located in Southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Boards found in the ancient Sumerian royal tombs at Ur (~2600BC) seem to be some sort of race game. The Sumerian name of the game is not known although it is often referred to as the Royal Game of Ur.
For some time, this was considered to be the oldest known board game but that has turned out not to be the case since significantly older evidence exists for both Egyptian Mehen and Senet). None-the-less, the game-board that is permanently on display at the British Museum is one of the most special gaming artefacts that can be seen in any museum anywhere in the world.
The Non-royal Game of Shahr-e Sukhteh
In 2004, archeologists found an old game board in the 5000 year old ancient Iranian city of Shahr-e Sukhteh (Persian for "burnt city") which is often quoted in the media as the oldest version of Backgammon ever found (an assertion that is without foundation since there is no logical ancestry from this type of game to Backgammon). Dating the finds at this site is apparently very difficult but the likely date for these boards is 2800-2600BC. The find included a rectangular board made of ebony, pieces made from turquoise and agate, and dice. The design of the board features an engraved serpent coiling around itself in such a way as to produce twenty squares in a format matching the Ur boards. If any of the squares once featured symbols or decoration, that information is now unfortunately lost.
The Game of Twenty Squares
The Sumerian boards appear to be the ancestors of boards found at Egyptian sites which are 1500 years younger and on which the Egyptian Game of Twenty Squares was played, possibly in a similar fashion. The boards sometimes came in the form of a box inside which the pieces were held - often these boards had a different gaming pattern on the reverse side - usually a Senet board.
More than one hundred boards of this family are known from ancient sites in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt and Crete.
The pattern for the game is similar to that of "Ur" - at one end a block of 4 x 3 squares lies and extending from the middle, a row of eight more squares. It is as if the Egyptians moved the two blocks of two squares on either side at the other end from the edge to the middle row. The three rosettes are found in the same places on the 4 x 3 block and the other two continue the sequence of one every four squares. H. J. R. Murray initially suggested that the pieces would enter on the short sides and then turn and travel in the opposite direction down the central shared path, reach the tail and then return by the same route. R. C. Bell's later proposal that the path was half the length and the pieces should bear off the end of the tail (as shown on the diagram) has been more popular.
Parlett, in the Oxford History of Board Games makes no mention of the name 'Tau' (which both Bell and Murray give to the Game of Twenty Squares) but instead says that an inscription says the name is "Aseb". The name Tau is controversial and probably incorrect but Aseb is not an Egyptian word and so the guess is that it is derived from Ancient Sumerian.
Astonishingly, a version of the Game of Twenty Squares was played by the Jewish population of Kochi, India until the 1950s.
How to play the Royal Game of Ur
Cuneiform is the earliest form of writing and the British Museum has a huge collection of cuneiform tablets which, for decades, have been in the process of being analysed and deciphered. One such tablet was passed to the inimitable British Museum curator, Irving Finkel, in the 1980s who was surprised to discover that it appeared to be describing the rules for a game. He subsequently published these instructions played on a board of the Game of Twenty form, which are dated at 177/176BC. The rules of the Ur game as it was played around 2500BC might be very different, of course, and much debate has ensued over the years about this earlier form of the game but it is generally agreed, and game historians Murray, Bell and Finkel all believed, that both were race games played in a similar way. The early games found at Ur and some Game of Twenty boards show a variety of
patterns on the board but the consistent factor is that five rosettes always appear on the same
squares on each board leading most people to suppose that only the rosettes are significant. Some boards feature only the rosettes while, as
can be seen from the pictures, other boards feature different symbols that are clearly denoted and artistically
consistent with the rosettes. It seems possible that these other symbols were significant with special rules in some versions of the game whereas boards that feature only rosettes were simpler. Perhaps the boards found in the tombs, being royal, had not only more ornate boards but also more ornate rules to match?
One controversial aspect is the path that the counters take around the board and the venerable games historian H.J.R.
Murray was the first to propose a solution. He suggested that entry is made on the row on the
fourth square from the left (in the top right picture) going left. One player enters on the top row,
the other on the lower. When the counters reach the corner, they move to the middle row and both player's pieces then travel along the central aisle. When they reach the penultimate square in that row, they travel around the outside of the 2 x 3 rectangle before returning
back down the middle row and off the board into the gap whence they entered. This makes a path of 27
squares or 28 moves if you count the move off the board.
A shorter version of this, proposed by
myself, has the pieces departing from the board into the same gap but immediately after the fourth
rosette - a path of 16 squares, the 17th being to bear off. For this and Murray's route, every
fourth square of the path is a rosette which which seems elegant especially as four is the maximum throw of the binary dice.
The second argument for this conjecture is that it matches the Game of Twenty Squares which is also a path of sixteen squares with every
fourth one being a rosette. This seems slightly more likely if one believes the commonly accepted theory that one game derives from the other.
Irving Finkel favours the route proposed by Robbie Bell, an even shorter route of 14
squares (15 moves) which is the same except that it avoids the 2 squares on the opponent's third of
the board although this path means that a rosette is not found on every fourth square.
The nature of the rosettes is also 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. Or some authors have suggested that they are safe squares where a counter cannot be caught
(although this seems inelegant because some rosettes are in
places that the opponent cannot reach, rendering those rosettes redundant...). Another possible idea is
that landing on a rosette gave the player an extra turn. Whatever, the fact that they lie four
squares apart from each other suggests that the number four was important. Since the game was played
with three binary pyramidal lots which give a number from zero to three each throw, many people therefore
believe that a throw of zero would allow the player a move of four squares. So, for instance, if
H.J.R.Murray's path is used along with the idea that landing on a rosette gives another go, it would
be possible by repeatedly throwing fours to get a counter all the way home in one turn.
Other Layout Variations
another relative in this family of extremely ancient board games which is played on a kind of doubled up
form of the Game of Twenty Squares. Only three examples of this board have ever been found and as
with the games above, it is not known how to play it.
Another board type has been identified in the 21st century and, remarkably, a graffiti version of this form existed in the British Museum for decades before anyone noticed it! This has the 'tail' of the twenty squares splitting towards the end forming two separate paths for the last three squares. The board shown exists on the base of one of a pair of enormous winged bull statues at the British Museum that used to guard the gateway in the Neo-Assyrian citadel wall at Khorsabad, dated around 710BC-705BC. It looks like a mistake was made on the top row as it has five squares, not four. One might think that the section that juts out in the middle is another mistake but apparently not because other boards have been found with extra squares that protrude in exactly the same way.
Where to Buy
You can buy versions of the Royal game of Ur from Masters Traditional Games.
The British Museum Shop often has versions of the game, too - generally based on its extraordinary board from Ur.
From around 2019, interest in this, one of the most ancient games in history, has burgeoned with the genesis of an on-line server, tournaments, research, DIY game-boards and a dedicated discussion group.
A free and open-source website, royalur.net exists for people to play against a computer or another human being and learn about The Royal Game of Ur. Hundreds of games are played each week using this great resource which was open-sourced on GitHub by Paddy Lamont in 2019. Since then, many people have joined the RoyalUr.net community and have assisted in its development, troubleshooting, community building, and research.
Numerous 'Ur' afficionados belong to an accompanying discussion group hosted using the Discord, an chat app that ironically, was originally developed primarily for modern video gaming. The RGU Discord community was created to make the communication between players easy, and the exchange of doubts and data about the game (including its computer implementation) fruitful for all RGU enthusiasts. To join the fun, register for free and run Discord on your PC or mobile or just use a browser. The main Discord server is called 'The Royal Game of Ur' and discussions exist for royalur.net development, opponent finding, tournaments as well as areas on history, modern ideas, strategy, rules, DIY projects, similar games and just chatting.
Here's Irving Finkel's seminal paper about the rules for the game but two important things to notice:
- They mainly refer to the Game of Twenty Squares, not the Royal Game of Ur...
- They are based on a cuneiform tablet dated at 117BC, 2500 years after the games found in Ur.