Grandfather Game: UR

ur 5Dated: before 2600 BCE
 Origin: Sumeria, modern Iraq
Players: 2
Playing Time: about 15 minutes
Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: high
BGG Page: Royal Game of Ur
Wikipedia Article: Royal Game of Ur

This is the second in what I hope will be a periodic series of feature articles on
“grandfather” or pre-modern tabletop games.

Short Version:
It’s an ancient and abstract roll-and-move game, possibly an ancestor of backgammon.

ur 3

From the silver age of board gaming, when rules were printed on the inside of the box lid.

Play Summary:
Since the rules of the game have been pieced together from limited archaeological finds, interpretations of the complete game play vary widely. However, in the version I was raised on, this is essentially how it goes:

Players alternate turns rolling dice and applying the thrown results to one or more “men” or tokens, moving the tokens along a simple movement track. Most squares through which you move are innocuous, but a select few affect your movement options when you land on them. What limited strategic thinking there is in this game surrounds trying to take advantage of landing on the helpful squares. You repeatedly roll and move until your thrown result mandates the end of your turn, so the number of moves each player might get in a turn is asymmetrical and sometimes wildly imbalanced. The set I have makes use of three specialty six-sided dice, but it would appear that the original game was played with tetrahedral dice (–the dreaded “d4,” as it is known amongst so many D&D players). There is also an element of “capturing” or sending the other player’s men back to the start point by landing on top of them, as most of the movement track is shared by both players. First player to move all their men off the board at the end of the track wins.

Game History ( from the Wikipedia page):
The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, refers to an ancient game represented by two gameboards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. The two boards date from the First Dynasty of Ur, before 2600 BC, thus making the Royal Game of Ur one of the oldest examples of board gaming equipment found, although Senet boards found in Egyptian graves predate it as much as 900 years. The Ur-style twenty squares gameboard was also known in Egypt as Asseb, and has been found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb, among other places. Discovery of a tablet partially describing the gameplay has allowed the game to be played again after over 2000 years, although reconstructions of the detailed rules have differed widely. One of the two boards from Ur is exhibited in the collections of the British Museum in London. A graffito version of the game was discovered on one of the human-headed winged bull gate sentinels from the palace of Sargon II (721–705 BC) in the city of Khorsabad, now in the British Museum in London. Similar games have since been discovered on other sculptures in other museums. 

Where I Come In:
Like our copy of Camelot, this is a game my dad had in his closet, which he taught me to play when I was a kid. This one is a mass-market reprint put out by Parker Brothers in 1977. I remember him telling me about the ancient nature of the game and my fascination with that, and remember really enjoying playing it. Part of that was the perceived allure of this archaeological relic, and part of it was that it seemed challenging–and every kid dreams of beating their dad at games like this. Little did I know at that time how much this challenging and elusive victory depended on luck…

By Today’s Standards:
ur combined
I’d be interested to investigate other variants of the rules that might exist, or even to create a variant myself. As it stands, and based on the version I have, I don’t think the Royal Game of Ur stands up at all. The players’ fate is heavily dictated by luck, and the turn-count ratio can be grossly uneven. One player might literally clear half their men before the other player gets a turn. My personal (and entirely unsubstantiated) viewpoint on this is that the ancient, polytheistic Sumerian players would have been much more comfortable with the idea of “fate” and/or “the gods” being a deciding factor in a game’s outcome, but like I said: that’s just speculation on my part. Even taking the game as a simple abstract or something better suited to gambling, it is surpassed by younger games that still invite more dynamic tactics and deeper calculation, such as backgammon or even craps. We might be able to pass Ur off as something suitable for children, but in this regard, it isn’t even as dynamic as Chutes & Ladders. Kids graduate beyond this limited level of thinking fairly early, and I would suggest backgammon or even Halma as a stronger alternative, and only those if I thought the child wasn’t ready for chess or any number of modern, family-oriented titles. Kids’ processing power is often much stronger than what we credit them.

Having stated all this, while Ur doesn’t offer very much at all to the modern collector as a game, I would nonetheless encourage people to procure at least one copy as an artifact. This is something that belongs in your game room as conversation piece and as décor, and there are some very nice wooden and clay replicas you can get, some of which strongly emulate the original discoveries.

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