The 5,000-Year-Old Ancient History of Backgammon
Despite its modern popularity, not many know that backgammon is actually one of the oldest board games known to man. The story of backgammon stretches back 5,000 years and around the globe, spanning several continents and countries from Egypt and Iran, to England and even China.
Backgammon is a simple game, consisting of a backgammon board, fifteen white checkers, fifteen black checkers and two dice. There are 24 narrow triangles on the board, called points, of alternating colors, which are grouped into four quadrants of six triangles each. Each player has a home board and an outer board, each made up of six triangles, facing those of the other player.
The goal of the game is for the player to move all their checkers onto their home board before their opponent does. Only then can players begin to take all their checkers off their home board. The checkers are moved according to the roll of the dice and players can “hit” their opponent’s pieces and force them to go to the bar in order to start from the beginning. It is a game of luck and skill that remains popular today.
Backgammon board. (Vastram / Adobe Stock)
Did Backgammon Originate in Ancient Egypt?
It is thought that backgammon first originated in Egypt as a game called senet, also known as the game of thirty squares. This was played with a dice and a board with a pattern that had squares in three rows of ten. The game dates back to 3000 BC, and although the rules for the game have been lost to time, its similarities to backgammon have led many to speculate that the two games are related.
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Similar games have been found from ancient Persia in what is modern-day Iran. For example, many boards have been found for the game of 20 squares, with the earliest board found in Shahr-I Sokhta. The board for this game appears very similar to the ones found for the game of senet. In fact, in Egypt, boards for the game of 20 squares have been found on the reserve side of boxes for playing senet.
Another type of board from ancient Persia has an even closer resemblance to a backgammon board. This board was found at Jiroft, Iran, and has three parallel rows of twelve circular fields, one more row than a modern backgammon board. The board at Jiroft is interrupted in the middle to form two blocks of six fields on each side, as opposed to a backgammon board which has two rows of twelve fields on its two sides. Much like backgammon and senet, this game appears to be a racing game where the goal is to move your pieces from one side of the board to the other before your opponent.
Ludus duodecim scriptorum, a popular game during the Roman Empire and believed to be a precursor to backgammon, discovered carved into a marble slab at Ephesus in Turkey. MehmetOZB / Adobe Stock
Backgammon in Ancient Rome
We know this style of board eventually came to western Europe because similar boards from a much later time can be found in ancient Rome. These boards are from a game that was known as Ludas Duodecim Scriptorum, or “the game of twelve points” during republican and early imperial Rome. It later became known as “dice”.
This board has three rows of twelve points on it. It is thought the game is descended from senet. The game was altered in around 1st century AD when a row of fields was removed. The Roman Emperor Claudius was said to have enjoyed the game so much that he had a board built into his carriage.
Whilst these earlier games shared some striking similarities with backgammon, the oldest game with rules close to that of backgammon is the Greek game tabula. The game is described in an epigram (a short satirical poem) by the Byzantine Emperor Zeno. The aim of the game was the same as in backgammon. There were 24 points, 12 on each side and there were 15 counters per player. Unlike backgammon, there were three dice rather than two. It is thought that this game is a direct descendant of the earlier Ludas Duodecim Scriptorum.
"Buzurjmihr Explains the Game of Backgammon (Nard) to the Raja of Hind", Folio from the First Small Shahnama (Book of Kings) ca. 1300–30. (Public domain)
Backgammon and its Development in the Middle Ages
From the 11th century onwards, board games became extremely popular in Europe. There is evidence of a board game called “nard” being played in England in 1025. This was likely the earliest form of backgammon as we know it today. It is thought the game made its way to England via knights returning from the Crusades. The game exploded in popularity in France at around the same time as in England, so much so that in 1254 Louis IX had to issue a decree prohibiting his officials from playing. Before long, everyone in Europe was playing board games.
Backgammon also began to feature prominently in art during the renaissance period. It is featured in the paintings of many of the Dutch masters such as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and Pieter Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death. It also features in The Cardsharps by Caravaggio.
Many works of literature also mention playing at “tables.” In 1666 it was reported that tables was the old name for backgammon. References to playing tables were made by English playwright and poet William Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as well as his fellow English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales.
A backgammon board features in The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel. (Public domain)
Backgammon in the Modern World
It wasn’t until the 17th century, however, that the name backgammon was coined. The first mention of it comes from a letter by James Howell dated 1635, and it was in 1743 that Edmund Hoyle first outlined the official rules for backgammon in A Short Treatise on the Game of Back Gammon. The game grew and waned in popularity over the years and minor changes were made to rules here and there.
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Backgammon is particularly common in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, and is the de facto national game in several countries including Greece, Egypt and Turkey. It appears that historically it was spread via oral tradition and became popular during the Ottoman Empire.
Backgammon was popularized in the United States following the First World War and later in the 1960s it boomed in popularity again with the establishment of the first major international backgammon tournaments. Today, backgammon is still one of the most popular board games in the world, with international tournaments taking place every year. You also don’t need a backgammon board to play. You can play backgammon online both against the computer and against other players. It is fair to say it has come a long way from its ancient origins in Egypt and Persia.
Top image: Backgammon as depicted from the 14th century Codex Manesse. Source: Public domain
By Mark Brophy
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Harvey, I. 18 April 2017. “One of the oldest board games known to man is the game of Backgammon” in The Vintage News. Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/04/18/one-of-the-oldest-board-games-known-to-man-is-the-game-of-backgammon/
Schädler, U. and Dunne-Vaturi, A. E. 15 December 2009. “Board Games in Pre-Islamic Persia” in Encyclopaedia Iranica. Available at: https://iranicaonline.org/articles/board-games-in-pre-islamic-persia