Rediscover one of the oldest games in the world!
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is a tired cliché attributed to members of the previous generation grumbling about modern production methods. But if you have ever had to replace a five-year-old game system for hundreds of dollars, you are feeling the effect of something they indeed do not make like they used to. Gaming is one of the fastest-changing industries on the planet, with products becoming obsolete within months, whereas the Royal Game of Ur (RG), the oldest surviving game with board and rules known, was played for thousands of years with little or no alteration.
The board is oddly shaped. It has 20 squares (hence the alternate name, “The Game of 20 Squares”), twelve on one side and six on the other, grouped in three rows and connected on the middle track by two spaces. This leaves a gap on either side where the players enter and exit. Like a blocky, imbalanced number “8,” or a shakeweight trapped mid-motion. Decidedly odd.
Boards for RG have been discovered in royal tombs at the Sumerian city of Ur (hence the name) dating back 5,000 years. The first was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. Researchers were dumbfounded. Where did the pieces enter and exit? What did the symbols mean? For about sixty years, there were no answers to questions archaeological gamesters had regarding RG, but in the early 1980s, Dr. Irving Finkel, co-curator at the British Musem and expert in ancient games and cuneiform writing, discovered a Babylonian clay tablet written in 177 BCE among the 130,000 tablets in the museum’s collection. This tablet had not only the rules for the contemporary Babylonian game, but also the astrological significance of the squares. One would make the player “powerful like a lion” while another would provide “fine beer,” a major attribute of Mesopotamian cultures for thousands of years (the number of myths and rituals focused on bread and beer is Brobdingnagian).
Players each have seven tokens they must get from the entry point on the left side of their gap, to the wider end of the board, down the center track where the players can jockey for position, then into the end section where the player exits into their gap. The randomizer is four tetrahedral (four-sided) dice with a blob at two of the ends, making them binary instruments for generating random numbers of 0-4. No blobs are 0, four blobs are 4. The most common roll is 2 (0 and four have a 1/16 chance, 3 or 1 is 1/4, and 2 is 3/8). The players have the option to move a piece currently on the board or enter a new piece on the board with each throw. The final roll to remove a piece from the board must be exact. If there are two spaces left to a piece, it cannot leave with a 3 or 4, but must wait for its proper invitation.
There are multiple squares that feature intricate symbols, but according to the Babylonian tablet, only the five rosette squares have effect. When a player lands on one of the rosettes, one in each player's entrance and exit sections and a “safety zone” in the center, they get another throw of the dice. When a player lands on a square occupied by another player’s piece, that piece is sent back off the board to begin again. Dr. Finkel notes the Babylonians had a “contemptible flick of the finger” to knock their opponent’s pieces off the board. If a piece is on the central rosette, the other player cannot land on it.
Perhaps Dr. Finkel’s most incredible discovery was a picture from a small Jewish community which showed them playing a recognizable form of RG in the Indian city of Kochi. Kochi had been a home for Jews perhaps since the time of Solomon (reference to Jewish people residing in Kochi dates to the twelfth century CE) until most of them emigrated to Israel in the 1950s. The picture he found was in an obscure journal published by an Israeli museum, showing a 20 square board nothing like the Indian games Finkel was familiar with. He tracked down one of the members of the community, Ruby Daniel, and went to visit her in the northern kibbutz where she lived. There he confirmed that her post-diaspora community had kept the game alive when it had been forgotten by the rest of the world.
Compare a board game that survives for 5000 years relatively unchanged to the fact that in a mere four decades Donkey Kong’s “Jumpman” has morphed into a kingdom-saving hero who drives karts, hosts parties, and has whole worlds named after him and even holds a doctorate, if only on paper. Truly, they do not make them like they used to.