Game of the Month: The Game of Ur

by Dagonell the Juggler and Shahira bint Al-Sammad

Gaming boards found in the royal tombs in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia, (present day Iraq) are probably the oldest board games in the world. They date from about 3000 BC. Ur was a thriving city in the third millenium BC and is mentioned in the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham. Excavations were conducted from 1922 to 1934 by an archelogical team led by Sir Leonard Wooley and sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania.

Five boards were found. They were of the same type though there were variations in the decoration of the individual boards. The simplest was a wooden board with discs of shell with red or blue centers. The most elaborate board was completely incrusted with shell plaques inlaid with lapis lazuli and red limestone divided by lapis lazuli strips. Many of the boards had squares and pieces engraved with drawings of animals.

The boards were all hollow and inside each were seven black and seven white playing pieces and six tetrahedral (four triangular sides) dice with two of their four points dotted with an inlay. Three dice were made of white ivory, three were made of lapis lazuli. Unfortunately, no rules were found. We can only make conjectures at how to play the game.

The board is drawn below. For dice, use 6D4s from a Dungeons and Dragons game. For a pick-up game, use anything that gives you 50-50 results; flipped coins, odds vs. evens on a regular die, etc. If you're making your own set, use blank cubes and draw `jewels' on half the sides.

    Suggested Rules :
  1. Each player starts with a set of three dice and all seven pieces off the board.
  2. Determine which player goes first. Use dice if necessary.
  3. On each turn, the player throws all three of his dice.
  4. The direction of movement is as shown. If a player's piece lands by exact count on a rosette (marked square) he is allowed to start a new piece on the first square.
                     	      OFF   ENTER
                                    ^   |
                          +---+---+ |   | +---+---+---+---+---+
                     +->  |   | X |--   ->|   |   |   |   | X |---+
                     +--- +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ <-+
                          |   |   |   |   | X |   |   |   |   |
                     +--- +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ <-+
                     +->  |   | X |--   ->|   |   |   |   | X |---+
                          +---+---+ |   | +---+---+---+---+---+
                                    V   |
                     	      OFF   ENTER
  5. A player may have any number of pieces on the board but only one piece may occupy a square at a time.
  6. The central file is a war zone. When an opponent's piece is landed on, that piece is taken off the board and must start over.
  7. An exact throw is needed to bear a piece off the board. The first person to bear off all seven pieces wins.

    Remember that these are suggested rules and the actual rules were never found. Feel free to make your own variations.


    UR - Royal Game of Sumer by S & R Games. Selchow & Righter Co. 1977.

    Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations by R. C. Bell. Dover Publications, Inc. NY 1979