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Ancient Board Games: The Very Long Story of Backgammon

4 Minute Read
Sep 30 2020
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When discussing ancient games, most mention Backgammon. But how similar is the game we know to the version which existed before the Pyramids of Giza?

Welcome once again to our discussion of ancient board games! The suggestion to discuss Backgammon comes directly from our comment section. So don’t think I never listen to the comments. But only if they are nice comments. …I’m very fragile.

As always, we begin with…

A Little Bit of History

Backgammon is OLD.

“How old is it?!”

Backgammon is so old that when it visits the museum, it recognizes other games it knew personally.

“Boo!”

That’s fair.

But seriously folks, Backgammon is old. So old, in fact it predates more things than you might imagine. In the following graph, in green, are all the ancient board games we’ve covered so far. Normally, I’d make a link list, but it’s starting to get long, so you can look them up yourselves. I believe in you. In orange; a bunch of random ancient world things to give some temporal context.

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Temporal Context is a great band name.

As you can see, Backgammon is tied for Mehen for oldest game, being beaten out by Senet by a mere 300 years or so. Okay, so what’s the deal with Backgammon?

The first Backgammon set found was from around 3000 BC at Shahr-e Sukhteh in Iran, which at the time, was Persia. It was a fairly large Bronze Age city, which died out for unknown reasons around 2100 BC. Spooky!

The original dice made from human bone, because of course they are.
Also found there was the first artificial eye, covered in gold. Seriously. Badass.

Mansour Sajjadi, head of the research team which uncovered the set, said the board features an engraved serpent coiling around itself for 20 times, thus producing 20 slots for the game. “The 60 pieces were also unearthed inside a terracotta vessel beside the board. They were made of common stones quarried in the city, including agate and turquoise.”

So, let’s see this board!

wut?

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Yup. This is the first Backgammon board. What gives? This doesn’t look anything like the Backgammon we know today. Well, things change, buddy! Get used to it! Also, wait, back up. Did I say 60 pieces? I did! Good catch. That’s a long game. So ancient Backgammon doesn’t really resemble anything we know today. Whoops.

Obviously this looks very similar to Royal Game of Ur or Senet, in a way. But the dice make it the more technical precursor to Backgammon. There is still the same elements of having to run your pieces off the board and crossing through a common area in the middle. In all likelihood, all three of these games melded together into the Backgammon we know today. But how??

What? Backgammon is Evolving!

As things do, word spread. This game was fun. Backgammon had spread throughout the ancient Middle East in one form or another, before finally making its way to Rome.

Backgammon had evolved into the Roman’s Ludus duodecim scriptorum, meaning Game of Twelve Lines. The board had rectangled out, but the goal was the game. Roll dice to run your pieces off the board, trying to smush your opponent’s along the way. Thankfully by this time, the number of pieces had dropped to 15 for each player.

An LDS board from the 2nd Century found in the city of Aphrodisias. Sounds like a fun city.

The game is even mentioned in Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria”, which was written around 0. The year, I mean. It also may be related to the ancient Greek dice game of Kubeia, which maybe we’ll cover one day.

Either way, somewhere along the line, the middle row was removed and players were left with 2 rows of 12 columns. Also, the game was played with 3 dice instead of 2, as today. And when I say “Players”, I mean Emperor Flavius Zeno of the Byzantine Empire, who ruled from 476 AD to 491 AD.

Dude legit looks like a cartoon character.
Tell me I’m wrong.

We know this because Zeno may have been the history’s first person to complain about bad dice rolls. After a game of τάβλη (meaning table or board) in 480, he wrote about his bad luck, describing the game with a furious and detailed rage only a true hardcore gamer can understand.

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Zeno was red and threw a 2, 5 and 6. The rules as they are, Zeno’s only moves were to break up his pairs, exposing them for his opponent, which he did and ended up costing him the game. And thus spawned the first ragepost.

And that’s basically where Backgammon stayed. The third die was dropped at some point, but ultimately, the rules haven’t changed too much since somewhere around 5th Century AD. Quite a journey for our little ol’ Backgammon. 2,500 years of evolution paid off with 1,500 years of relaxation. Crazy to think about, really. Kinda puts things in perspective.

Oops…I mean, temporal context.

Thanks for reading!
Are there other ancient board game you’d like to see covered? Let me know in the comments. It works, clearly.

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