It’s unlikely that you’re going to find The Royal Game of Ur at your local board game cafe. But in the 3rd millennium BCE it was a very popular game among all classes in ancient Mesopotamia.

Although nobody knows how to play the Royal Game of Ur with 100% certainty, it has been reconstructed and interpreted by historians since it’s re-discovery in the early 1920s.

History of the Game Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is considered one of the oldest board games in civilization, along with other ancient games like Backgammon or Senet.

Dating back as far as 2600 BC, The Royal Game of Ur was a popular strategy game all through the Middle East. Eventually, the game was used as a way to make vague predictions about the players futures.

The name of the game came the excavation of the Cemetery of Ur in 1922. This was the first time an actual playable board was discovered, although there has since been many more.

How to Play the Royal Game of Ur

The modern understanding of the Royal Game of Ur comes from a Babylonian tablet dated back to 177 BCE. Although that was a few millenniums after the games inception, historians have been able to recreate most of the games rules through it’s interpretation.

Goal Of The Game

In order to win the Royal Game of Ur, a player must remove all seven of their pieces from the board. This is done by throwing the 4 sided dice and traversing the entire board to reach the final space.

The board is divided between safe squares and combat squares. Safe squares, marked by rosettes on the board, are places a player can land and be safe from capture. Pieces placed on the combat squares can be landed on and captured.

Taking A Turn

On a players turn they must throw the two 4 sided dice and move their pieces according to how many pips show on the dice.

  • 0 pips – Move 4 spaces and throw again.
  • 1 pip – Move 0 spaces and end your turn.
  • 2 pips – Move 1 space and throw again.
  • 3 pips – Move 5 spaces and throw again.

Movement

Movement follows a specific path for each player. Starting with the space just before the gap closest to that player, and then looping around to the final space on the other end of that gap.

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image via a4games (they offer free printable versions of ancient games, they rule, check them out!)

The only way for a piece to enter to board is by moving 5 spaces (a roll of 3 pips).

The game is comprised of safe and combat spaces. If a player lands on another player’s piece on a combat space, that piece is removed from the board and must re-enter by rolling a 5.

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image via wikipedia

A roll that can be used must be used. There is no passing turns unless movement is impossible or a player rolls 1 pip.

Ending The Game

When a piece lands directly on the final space it is removed from the game. First player to do this with all 7 of their pieces wins the game.

Keep in mind there is many theories on how to play The Royal Game of Ur, including some versions that suggest using different movement paths. Given the age of the game, most of the exact rules have been lost. Researchers and experts have done their best to fill in the blanks and figure out as much as they can.

It’s not exactly clear why The Royal Game of Ur fell out of popularity, but historians believe it has to do with the rise of other games like Backgammon. Even today, we’ve seen many great games rise to popularity and then fall of our favor, and that’s just over the course of a few years, so it’s understandable how ancient games could be left to history. It makes you wonder many many other games are lost, forever, to time. How many of the best strategy games will never be played, or how many ancient mechanics have been re-discovered and re-invented in the modern era without anyone even realizing?

If you’re up for a challenge, grab a printable version of Ur, and see if you can interpret how it might have been played.