The Royal Game of Ur

Last 29th of April has been International Tabletop day, a day to celebrate boardgames around the world. I love playing boardgames. Computer games are great too, no doubt, but there is something about rolling the dice with your hands, moving figures around in the board, exploring magical dungeons or chasing zombies in a Midwest town. The friends, the socialization, the drinks in between rolls… A lot of fun. And of all the events, all the internet posts and YouTube videos to celebrate this event, the best, without any doubt, is the one I am presenting you today: the Royal Game of Ur play-through with Tom Scott and Irving Finkel, the curator of the British Museum who discovered the rules on a cuneiform tablet.

ur
The Royal Game of Ur (British Museum image 120834).

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, is the name of a game discovered in the Royal Tombs of Ur by one of my favourite archaeologists of all time, Sir Leonard Woolley, in 1928. The Royal Tombs of Ur date to the Early Dynastic Period III, c. 2600 BCE, making this game one of the oldest boardgames ever. It is not clear what is the relationship between this race game and others from the past, such as the Egyptian senet, which predates the Royal Game of Ur up to 900 years, as far as the current archaeological record allows us to know. As it happens many times with ancient boardgames, several sets of rules have been reconstructed for it, some of them differing greatly from each other. However, the discovery of a tablet dated to 177-176 BCE and written by a scribe called Itti-Marduk-Balāṭu has allowed Irving Finkel, the curator of the video, to create the most generally accepted rules. Another interesting fact is that the game seems to have survived with some modifications up to the present day. Among the Jewish communities in Cochin, India, there is a game called Asha that, based on the board and the rules, seems to be the descendant of the Royal Game of Ur. Instead of sticks or the tetrahedron dice they use cowrie shells as pieces dice, which I find very interesting but also somehow confusing with regard to probability calculations.

The video makes a fantastic intro about the rules which makes my explanation unnecessary. I just want to point out to my geek friends the marvellous way of knowing the numbers you have for your moves… that is right! An original Sumerian D4, like the ones used for role-playing around the world. One day I will write about dice in the world, a fascinating topic, but for today, and before leaving you with this great game and great video, I just want to add a personal reflection. It is an old, very old game. Simple rules, not much complication, but see how tension builds up as the game advances! I think it is a fantastic and undoubtedly fun way of learning about the past.

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