Playing a 4500 Year Old Board Game

Here is more on the Royal Game of Ur, which was first played in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC. A game board in the collection of the British Museum has been dated to between 2600 and 2400 BC. In the 1980s, curator Irving Finkel at the British Museum translated a cuneiform tablet dated to 177 BC giving the rules as the game was played at the time, referring to an earlier description by another scribe. Based on this, excavated game boards and pieces, and other sources, Finkel was able to reconstruct the rules of the game, which is a two player race involving counters and four tetrahedral dice generating binary values, which combines luck and strategy in a manner similar to backgammon. The ability to “bump” an opponent’s counter off the board and back to the start provides a “sudden death” aspect to the game, especially in close finishes.

The ancient Egyptian game of Senet is of comparable age, but having fallen out of use after the Roman period in Egypt, the rules were lost and to date have not been discovered or reconstructed. Modern versions of the game exist, but the rules are guesses as to how the ancient game might have been played.

Here is a modern version of the Royal Game of Ur, resembling the one in the British Museum. An on-line implementation,, allows you to play for free either locally, against a computer, online against a randomly selected player on the Internet, or with a friend on the Internet; here are frequently asked questions about this version.

In the following video Irving Finkel describes how he figured out the rules of the game.


At first I thought it odd that they would have squares with symbols that have no impact. Maybe aesthetics in games were just as important thousands of years ago.


In the descriptions of the game, it is said that play in the game was used for divination:

At the height of its popularity, the game acquired spiritual significance, and events in the game were believed to reflect a player’s future and convey messages from deities or other supernatural beings.

This is similar to how certain throws in dice games such as craps and poker hands have superstitious significance to players. It may be that the symbols on the board had meaning in this regard like those on Tarot cards.

The fact that the inscriptions on the boxes are symmetrical across the two players’ private sides of the board, however, suggest they may have had some significance not noted in the rules that Irving Finkel derived from the cuneiform tablet which was made longer after the game board in the British Museum than this post is after the end of the Roman Republic. There was plenty of time for the game to evolve over the millennia, and absent another cache of clay tablets, Indiana Jones to discover them, and Irving Finkel to translate them, we may never know all of the variants of the game that were played.

But then, consider how many kinds of poker have been played in the last 200 years. How much will archaeologists be able to figure out the details 45 centuries in the future if all they have are fragmentary card decks and a few clips from western movies to go on?