The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, stands as one of history's earliest known board games, illuminating the sophisticated recreational pursuits of ancient civilizations.

An artifact, dating back to approximately 2600 BCE, was discovered in the early 20th century by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the royal tombs of Ur, a Sumerian city-state in what is now modern-day Iraq. Its discovery, alongside similar game boards found in other locations across the Middle East, attests to the game's widespread popularity in the ancient world.

Let's delve into the history, design, gameplay, and significance of the Royal Game of Ur, exploring its role in ancient societies and its enduring legacy in the study of human cultural and recreational practices.

Historical Context

The Sumerians, known for their innovations in writing, agriculture, and legal systems, also indulged in leisure activities, among which board games played a significant role. The Royal Game of Ur, with its origins in ancient Mesopotamia, was played by a wide range of society – from commoners to royalty. The game's presence in royal tombs suggests it had significant societal value, possibly used for both entertainment and ritualistic purposes.

The rules were unknown until the discovery of a cuneiform tablet by British Museum curator Irving Finkel in the 1980s, which contained instructions for the game, thus bridging a gap of thousands of years and reviving the ability to play this ancient game.

Design and Artistry

The board of the Royal Game of Ur is a testament to the artistic and woodworking skills of the Sumerians. Crafted from wood, shell, and lapis lazuli, the board features a rich mosaic of geometric and floral patterns, as well as depictions of animals and mythological creatures. The game consists of a rectangular board divided into three distinct rows of squares—four squares in the middle row are flanked by two sets of six squares on the outer rows. Each player has seven pieces, and the movement across the board is determined by the throw of four binary lots (often made of tetrahedral dice or marked sticks), which add a fascinating element of chance to the game.

Gameplay Mechanics

The Royal Game of Ur is believed to be the game from which modern day Backgammon was developed.

The objective of the Royal Game of Ur, much like modern board games, is for a player to move all their pieces along the board's path and off the board before their opponent. The path zigzags across the board, starting on one outer edge, moving through the central squares, and then onto the opponent's side before exiting. The strategy involves blocking opponents' pieces while safeguarding one's own from being captured. The game is a blend of strategy and luck, requiring players to make tactical decisions based on the outcome of their dice rolls.

Significance and Legacy

The Royal Game of Ur holds immense cultural and historical significance. It provides insight into the social life of ancient civilizations, showing that games and recreation were integral to human societies thousands of years ago. The game's complexity and design also reflect the sophisticated craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibilities of its creators. Furthermore, the game's resurrection in the modern era, facilitated by the deciphering of its rules, connects contemporary societies with their ancient predecessors, offering a tangible link to the past.

The game's endurance through millennia speaks to the universal appeal of board games as instruments of social interaction, strategy, and chance. Its study offers valuable insights into ancient societies, their social structures, leisure activities, and the human inclination towards games of skill and luck. Moreover, the Royal Game of Ur's revival in the 21st century, where it has been recreated and played by enthusiasts around the world, underscores the timeless nature of gaming as a fundamental human activity.

The Royal Game of Ur is not just an ancient artifact but a symbol of the continuity of human culture through the ages. Its discovery and subsequent study have bridged historical epochs, connecting us with the ancients through the universal language of play. This game, with its intricate design, complex gameplay, and rich historical context, serves as a reminder of the shared human experience across time and space. As we continue to uncover and understand the pastimes of those who came before us, we gain insights into the universality of human culture and the perpetual allure of games as a means of education, socialization, and entertainment. The Royal Game of Ur, therefore, stands as a monument to human ingenuity and the enduring appeal of board games, a legacy that continues to fascinate and engage people to this day.

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Privacy Policy

As an Amazon Associate, this site earns commission from qualifying purchases.