In 1926-27, the British archeologist Leonard Woolley, while excavating in the royal tombs of Sumer (modern Iraq), discovered four game boards and a number of playing pieces.
The tombs were in the city of Ur (in red on the map on the left), once the capital of Sumer about 2500 B.C., and the legendary home of the Biblical Abraham. This area is in the "fertile crescent", south of Baghdad and Babylon. There are many references to Woolley's discovery, complete with a number of colorful photographs such as the one below. Woolley's finds are now held by the British Museum.
H.J.R. Murray in his book, "Board Games Other Than Chess", Oxford, 1952, pages 19-21, indicated that this game is similar to the Egyptian game of Senet, though it is a variation of the Egyptian game in that there are a reduced number of cells on the Ur board. Both game boards contain a drawer which holds the playing pieces and binary lots which are used like dice are used in a contemporary board game to determine the moves of the pieces. As do some of the Senet boards, some of the Ur boards include conical rather than flat pieces. Throw-sticks or lots were included as a chance device in both games.
It appears to be a game for two players who alternate their moves on the board. Various markings on the board (such as the "rosettes") appear to have had some consequence in the play of the game if a piece lands on one of these squares - sort of like in a contemporary board game - "loose one turn", "go back three spaces", etc.
There are contempory playable reproductions of this game. Purchased in 1977 from a shop in Munich, Germany, the box (illustrated to the left) lid is 29.6cm square x 3.3cm high, and the box bottom is 29.3cm square x 3.5cm high. The lid has the game name in English, German, Italian, Dutch, French, and a brief description of the game in each of these languages on the bottom of the box. Within the box, a molded plastic platform holds the game board and playing pieces. The painted wooden board is 36.1cm long x 14.9cm wide x 1cm high, and is two pieces which fit together with dowels.
There are 20 wooden playing pieces, 3.5cm diameter x .5cm high. Ten pieces are of a light wood, and ten of dark wood. All pieces have 5 circles stamped on both sides. On one side of each piece the circles are painted red, and on the other side they are painted blue. There are two standard wooden die, each 1.8cm square, each numbered from one to six. The game was manufactured by Otto Maier Verlag, Ravensburg, Germany. The following information and instructions are included with the Ravensburg game:
No rules for the game were found. However, various factors, such as the shape and construction of the board, indicate clearly that Ur is an ancestor of the backgammon group of games. We have selected the most appropriate and challenging rules from among the various suggested reconstructions. Once enjoyed by royalty, Ur can now be a "royal" pastime for all.
While the game of Ur can be classed as a dice game, it can hardly be considered a simple game of chance. Clever placing of his men can greatly enhance a player's standing. The players gradually introduce their men onto the board. The men are moved in the direction of the player's home cells and remain on the board throughout play unless carried off as a captive. The real battle takes place in the middle row of cells where the men meet up with their opponent’s men. If a player's man lands on a cell occupied by his opponent, he can take this man captive by placing his man on top of it. He continues on his way to his own goal, taking his captive with him. His opponent can rescue his man if he manages to catch up with his enemy before he reaches safe territory. If the latter escapes unscathed, however, and reaches his home cells, he delivers up his captive, who is thus removed from play. This is, in brief, how the game is played. The winner is the player able to capture all his opponent's men.
One player takes the dark-colored men, the other the light-colored men. The players throw the die and the player with the higher score begins. He throws the die again and moves a man onto the board according to his score. Only the scores 1 to 5 on the die count. If a player throws a 6, he misses that turn. The players throw the die and move in turn. If a player cannot move the number of cells he has thrown on the die, he must miss that turn.
The direction the players move in is as follows: Player A moves from cell A 1 through A 4, then across the middle row of cells to his "home" cells, A 5 and A 6. Similarly, player B moves from cell B 1 through B 4 across the middle cells to his safe territory, cells B 5 and B 6. Neither player can enter the first four cells belonging to his opponent and can enter his opponent’s last 2 cells only as a captive. The player's can introduce a new man into the game at each turn. When doing so, the first cell, A 1 or B 1, is always counted in the move. Thus if a player threw a 5 and brought a new man into play, this man would land on the first of the middle row cells. The men begin play with the side with the blue spots showing. Men with blue spots must move in the direction of their home cells.
On route to their respective goals, the players try to capture as many of their opponent's men as possible. They can do this by landing on a cell occupied by their opponent; keeping in mind they must move the number they throw on the die. The player moves his man onto the other man and thus takes him captive. The captive can now be carried off by this man as he continues on his way to his home cells. A player is not forced, however, to take such captives with him and may sometimes find it unwise to do so. Towers: Players are not allowed to pile up more than 5 of their own men on top of one another in each of their home cells. There is no limit set for the number of men standing on the other cells at one time. The man at the top of the "tower" determines who is in control of the other men and thus who may move from this cell. This arrangement allows either player to capture several of his opponent's men at one blow or, conversely, rescue several of his own while also taking captives. If a player has several of his own men on top of one another these cannot move together as a tower but must move off individually. If the tower is made up of both players' men, the player at the top can only move off that section of the tower down to his next man in one turn.
Reaching Home Cells:
Players can move into their last home cells with and without captives; they must, however, reach them with a direct throw. If they throw too high a number, they move some other man if possible or, if need be, miss that turn. The cells A 5 and B 5 are simply safe cells for player A and B respectively. Any captives brought into the ultimate home cells (A 6 or B 6 respectively) are set aside and are no longer in play. The player then turns over his own man or men so that the red spots show. Men with red spots have the advantage over blue that they can return to the middle cells and there move back and forwards (one direction per throw) capturing the opponent's men. Since they can capture in both directions, these "red" men are obviously a greater threat to the opponent. Once they take a captive, however, they lose the privilege of being able to move in 2 directions and must return home to deliver up their captive. These "red" men can be taken captive themselves in the usual manner - so the opponent is not entirely defenseless.
The winner is the player who has captured all of his opponent's men - either while on his way to his own home cells or later through captures made by his "red" men.
Last update January 5, 2010