Backgammon 101: Ancient Backgammon History and Origin

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The history of backgammon is quite old. It has evolved a long time ago and has a luring and fascinating history. Although the origins of the original backgammon game are unclear, there is evidence of similar games being played throughout time.

It is believed that Ancient Backgammon history originates in Mesopotamia, what is now present day Iraq and Iran, around the time of 3,000 BC.

Archeologists revealed through excavation an old game in 2004 found in the 5000-year-old Iranian city of Shahr-e Sukhteh or in Persian translation: The “burnt city” which numerous people have called the most established form of Backgammon game ever found in antiquity. Dated to 3000BC, the discovery was of a rectangular board made of coal black with sixty markers produced using turquoise and agate, and antiquated dice. The board is illustrated with an engraved serpent coiling around itself 20 times – making the 20 slots for the game rather than the 24 slots used today.

ancient backgammon
The Royal Game of Ur [© Trustees of the British Museum]
Moreover, wooden sheets have been found, probably predecessors to the game backgammon in the illustrious tomb of the Ur al Chaldees in Sumer, which have been dated to around 2600 BC alongside dice and are known as The Royal Games of Ur. Also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, The Royal Game of Ur is an ancient game which dates back to the First Dynasty of Ur, in 2600 BC Mesopotamia.

One of the oldest known probable ancestor of Backgammon is the Egyptian game called Senet.

Senet is one of the main contenders for being the oldest board games in the world with an earliest confirmed date at 3000BC. As indicated by archaeologists who committed themselves in discovering answers to addresses about the root history of ancient games. The Egyptian game Senet, or sometimes Senat, known to the Egyptians as “the game of thirty squares” which was played on a board of 3 x 10 squares with dice and dates back to at least 3,000 BC.  Boards of 3×12 squares, 3×6 squares and other patterns have also been discovered which could be completely different games or variants on Senet.

Historians that specialize in board games say Backgammon originates from Senet. The game involves an element of luck; thus it was thought by the Ancient Egyptians that the individuals who won were blessed by the Gods. Games of Senet were often buried alongside the body in the grave, to be utilized on the perilous voyage to the afterlife. The game can also be seen on a number of paintings in tombs. Although the exact rules of Senet are unknown and have been lost in history, but it is thought to have involved many of Backgammon’s playing principles. For instance, Senet is comparative with backgammon as in like backgammon, this game additionally utilizes dice to coordinate the moves of players.

Ancient Backgammon
New Kingdom ivory Senet board in the British Museum

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, people are hooked with playing Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, a board game that have similar mechanics with backgammon and was most likely derived from Senet

Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum is played on a board of three rows of twelve columns of playing spaces, and its name means “game of twelve lines”. It uses a board that has three rows. The game has a set of 3×12 points and is played with 3×6 sided dice (Each row has twelve points where the checkers move based on the numbers that are rolled in the dice), however, the rules have not been fully established. Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, was possibly replaced by a version of the game that had only 2 rows of 12 points, which by the 6th century was called Tabula. Tabula is a little bit not quite the same as the backgammon game that we know as of today. Tabula means board or table, since at that time, the game is being played using a special board. Tabula is fundamentally the same to the backgammon diversion that we know today, expect for some modest differences. In this game, the players utilize the same board as that of the tabula, and the players are given 15 pieces to go ahead with the game. The main objective of the game is also the same with Backgammon. Players must be able to move every one of their pieces from the amusement board to win. The distinction of tabula from backgammon is that, amid the old times, no single piece is permitted on the game board toward the start of the game. It is only permitted to stay on the board subsequent to rolling a dice. During those times, players utilize three dice as opposed of using two only. The rest of the game rules continue as before.

In Asia, Backgammon was initially introduced as Nard before and no less than 800 AD in South West Asia particularly in Persia or modern day Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Also called as Nardshir, Nardeeshir, and Nard-i-shir. Nard was the Persian name for wood productland is thought to refer to the wooden board. The game was once in a while likewise called “Takhteh Nard” which interprets as “fight on wood”.  It is played with a dice made of ivory and teak. Nard was also related by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in his 11th century epic Shahnameh as being invented by Burzoe aka Buzarjumehr (in English: Great Sun or Great Mithra) back in the 6th century. Ferdowsi described an encounter between Borzouyeh and a Raja visiting from India. The Raja introduces the game of chess, and Borzouyeh demonstrates Nard, played with dice made from ivory and teak. The number of checkers (30) denoted number of days in a month on ancient Zoroastrian Persian calendar, and 24 bases symbolized the hours in each day. The Board denoted planet earth and checkers represented humans, rotating according to fate (roll of dice symbolizing rotation of stars), colliding at times (death) and occasionally reviving (reincarnation and birth).

The Chinese name for Nard is T’shu-p’u, and it is believed that it was invented in Western India and was imported into China during the Wei dynasty (220 – 265 AD) becoming very popular from 479 to 1000AD. A more recent Chinese source, dated to the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960 to 1279) says the game was introduced to China from India between A.D. 220 and 265. T’shu-p’u is a race game played on a small cross-shaped board. It uses rectangular dice, similar to the stick-dice made thousands of years ago, when early people marked the long sides of sticks and animal bones. In japan, the game was called Sugoroko. The game however became illegal in Japan during the reign of Empress Jito (690-697AD) due to problems arising from gambling which have accompanied the game wherever it has been played.

It is clear that there are several games in ancient times which are believed by archaeologist to be the origins of backgammon. Backgammon is a game played by civilized men; a game as old as civilization itself. Consequently, we can obviously see that the interest of ancient people in playing challenging and strategic games affected the development and popularity of backgammon several years later. Backgammon has weathered the ages, and it should probably keep on flourishing for ages to come.