The archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, working in the Middle East just after the First World War, discovered four game boards dating back more than 4,500 years. Three of the boards were complete, with “dice” and playing pieces. The discoveries came from the “Royal Cemetery” in the city-state of Ur in Mesopotamia, which is located about 100 miles northwest of what is now Basra in Iraq.
Although the boards had been made of wood and were falling apart, careful archaeological work permitted one of the boards to have its playing surface preserved in its original configuration before it was moved. Similar boards have since been found throughout the region dating back to 2,000 B.C. Some of these later boards were actually scratched into paving stones by those who couldn’t afford the “royal” version of the game.
The Royal Game of Ur
The game is now known as The Royal Game of Ur. Its board is made up of three rows of eight squares, with two squares, the fifth and sixth on the top and bottom, left out. The games found in Ur’s Royal Cemetery had pyramidical dice, each one with its corners shaved flat, and each with two of the four corners marked or inlaid in such a way as to make them stand out. Thus, when a player rolled the dice, each die had a fifty-fifty chance of coming up “marked” or “unmarked.” The game had two players, and each player used three dice. A player could have four possible outcomes by rolling the dice. One marked corner indicated a move of one space, two marked corners allowed the player to move two spaces, three marked corners permitted a movement of three spaces. If no marked sides came up, the player could move four spaces and get another roll.
Each player gets seven playing pieces (five in some versions) that are moved around the board according to the way the dice are thrown. The winner is the first to get all the pieces off the board. Clay tablets written in cuneiform dating back to the third century B.C. have been the source for most of the rules for the game. However, these tablets doe not explain the direction of travel, so the game’s modern followers still get into lively discussions about proper way to play.