Ancient and Medieval Board games

Board games have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and although most of them have been lost to the ages, there are still plenty that have survived either in some physical form, or described. Archaeological finds of various game boards and pieces that we may never know the rules to can be an interesting if frustrating source, but the combination of games that have survived to the modern day, written sources and artwork can often reveal how many of these old games are played. There is evidence to show that all levels of society would have enjoyed gaming in various forms, be you rich or poor, educated or not, old or young.

There are many examples in recorded history of people playing board games, such as Romans sitting in the forum playing Ludus Latrunculorum, Monks in Gloucester Cathedral playing Fox and Geese in their cloister, or even Queen Elizabeth I entertaining her courtiers by gambling with dice games. With all these games, we may know who played them but unfortunately there is little to no word on who designed them. Game design is a very commonly discussed and recorded topic amongst gamers today, but there isn’t really anything of this sort to look at in Historical games. But it is interesting to think how some of these very unique games came to be. A modern game usually undergoes a long process of design, starting with the creator’s first ideas and knowledge of game mechanics, and then going through rigorous testing and redesign. These historical games must have undergone a similar process, as games that are well balanced and play so well don’t get made by accident.

Roman Board games
Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, there is evidence to suggest that Romans had a culture rich in board and dice games. Game boards have been found scratched into surfaces and pavements, and fragments of ceramic and even wooden boards have survived. Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi is the ‘game of little soldiers’. This appears to have been a well-respected game in the early Empire. Unfortunately the game in its Roman form hasn’t really survived, so instead we must look at those related to it such as the Greek game Poleis, which was played throughout the 1st millennium AD in Asia Minor and the Near East. There is also the North East African game Seega, which appears to preserve some of the Roman game’s characteristics. It would be nearly impossible to fully recreate this game now, not least because a game that existed across an area the size of the Roman Empire was bound to have more than a few variations and houserules. Some Roman authors do give some information though, and these can usually be confirmed by the archaeological finds. Varro (116-27 BC) writes that the board was marked by orthogonally intersecting lines where the pieces moved on the squares between those lines. This sounds like a simple grid as you’d expect. Boards of this type that have been found from the Roman period appear to have varying sizes. For example there was a stone block of 9×10 squares excavated in Dover, 8×8 squares discovered in Exeter, as well as on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens and the Basilica Julia in Rome. And a roof tile from Mainz shows a 9×9 grid. So it appears that the number of squares on the board, and perhaps the number of pieces would have varied. Among other writers to mention the game, one anonymous author wrote a poem dedicated to Roman Senator Cnaeus Calpernius Piso, supposedly a famous player of the game. They mention that the pieces used by the two players would be of two different colours such as black and white, and at the beginning of the game “the pieces are cunningly disposed on the open board”. This suggests that the initial placing of the pieces requires some strategic thought, similar to nine men’s morris, and unlike a game such as chess which has fixed starting positions. An isolated piece was captured by flanking it on two sides, but as philosopher Seneca wrote it was still possible to find a way “the surrounded stone could go out”, before it was removed from play.

Another example of a popular Roman boardgame is ‘Five Lines’. It is one of the oldest known boardgames from ancient Greece where it was known as Pente Grammai. The poet Alkaios mentioned the game in one of his poems, and boards in terracotta with five parallel lines typical of the game have been found in graves of the same period. There are also similar boards to be found scratched into the surfaces of marble floors in temples the ruins of other Greek sites. In the time of the Roman Empire we can find more information about the game. Pollux in the 2nd Century AD wrote that “each of the players had five pieces upon five lines” and that “there was a middle one called the sacred line”. Based on other descriptions and archaeological finds, it appears that there would have been larger versions of the game as well.

Anglo Saxon and Viking Board games
As we go further through history, we can see some different games appearing. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings of the early Medieval period both played ‘nine men’s morris’ extensively. The game is much older though, and is one of the longest surviving board games to this day. There are Roman Examples, with boards carved into pavements and clay tiles, and the earliest dated example is a clay board dated to around 100 AD from Mycenae, but there are other boards resembling these from Egypt that may go back as far as 1400 BC. The game also spread through the Roman Empire and even ended up in 9th century India. Examples from the Viking world include those from the 9th century Gokstad ship burial in Norway. The game was also incredibly popular through the medieval period, as such it was recorded in Alfonso X’s ’Book of Games’ in 1283, and many carvings of it have been found in the cloisters of Cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The origin of the name ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ is somewhat of a mystery, but it was possibly first recorded as such in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The most plausible theory for the name is that ‘Morris’ is not actually related to the English folk dance, but comes from the latin merellus, which means gaming counter. The game itself is a fairly simple two-player strategy game where each player attempts to capture their opponent’s men by making rows of three counters. A key aspect to the game is that it is played in two phases, with the first phase being about each player taking turns to strategically place all their men before the main phase starts. There are also many variations of the game with varying rules, inevitable for a game that has lasted thousands of years across multiple continents. Some versions differ in size, such as the smaller three men’s morris, or the larger twelve men’s morris.

Tafll Pieces found in a 9th Century grave in Birka, Sweden

One game that is most commonly associated with the Vikings is the Tafl family of games, most notably Hneftafl. There are many variations of this game, usually of differing sizes, and many examples come from England and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia. Most games date to the typical dates of the Viking period, from around 800 AD, but it could have originated much earlier. All Tafl games are asymmetrical, which is what makes it fairly unique when compared with most other historical games. It is a grid of an odd number such as 13×13, 11×11 or 9×9 squares. This allows for a central square on which a ‘king’ is placed. The concept of the game is that a king and his bodyguards are in the center, and a greater number of attackers on the opposing team surround them on all 4 sides of the board. The Goal for the attackers is to capture the king by surrounding him with 4 pieces, whereas the king’s team instantly wins if he reaches one of the 4 corners of the board. There are two particularly important writings about Tafl games, the earliest being a 10th century Irish gospel book which shows the starting positions for a game called Alea Evangelii, which is an 18×18 variant of Tafl. The second is a Welsh writing from the Tudor period which explains the rules of an 11×11 variant. Other variants of the game include Fitchneal which as a small 7×7 variant taken from Irish written sources, and with some physical examples such as the Balinderry peg-board, which is now at the National Museum of Ireland. Tablut is a 9×9 version which has a written observation of it in play from 1732 by Carl Linnè while travelling in Lapland. Hneftafl is the example that appears frequently in Norse literature and discovered in Viking Age sites. It is a 13×13 board with 32 attackers facing 16 defenders and a king.

Later Medieval Board games
Related to nine men’s morris, which would have still been popular at the time, is a game that is first named in 15th Century English documents, and that is Fox and Geese. Physical evidence for this game goes further back, as there are some carvings of the board in Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th Century. It may be even earlier, as it is also referred to as Marelles, which is related to the other name for nine men’s morris. The name ‘Fox and Geese’ itself is first found in 1633. It is also around this time when the game seemingly saw an increase in popularity. The basic rules are that there is a single ‘Fox’ against a gaggle of thirteen ‘geese’. Players take it in turns, with one moving a single goose at a time, and the other moving their fox. The geese have to trap the fox and prevent it from moving to win, whereas the fox has to remove all the geese, which is done by jumping over a goose if there is an empty space the other side. This means the geese must surround or corner the fox in multiple ranks before they have too few left. Variants of this game mostly include more geese, which may have been an attempt to balance the game. There are also double and triple size versions of the board that come about in the 17th century that increase the number of geese and foxes as well. An offshoot of the game is Asalto from the 18th century, which replaces the old theme for a more military emphasis, it being about two officers facing off against multiple enemy soldiers.

There are many many other board games that I could go into here, not least of all is chess, but that is perhaps the most famous board game of all time, so I needn’t explain it here. I will simple say that chess was originally a 6th Century Indian game known as Chaturanga. It reached Europe by the 10th Century. From the 13th century onwards there were many variants that would seem bizarre to us now such as four-seasons chess, which is a four player version, and there is also courier chess, which is played on a rectangular board, uses more pieces named the courier, counsellor and spy that move differently, and moves are taken in turn but four at a time. From the late 15th Century onwards we begin to see what would become modern chess, and it was fairly recognizable by the 17th Century.

One thought on “Ancient and Medieval Board games

  1. Reblogged this on ManaBurnt and commented:

    Here’s a new post I wrote for our History blog at W.U HSTRY. The wonderful combination of History and Board Games doesn’t get much better!


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