Royal Game of Ur Essay


 During this assignment I will be discussing the problems encountered in tweaking the dynamics and game mechanics in The Royal Game of Ur and how I overcame them, whilst also referring to the readings undertaken during the “Critical Games Studies” module of the “Computer Games Design" course at University Campus Suffolk.

The Royal Game of Ur is one of the earliest recorded games, first discovered in the excavations of the tombs of the City of Ur (hence the name) by Sir Leonard Woolley between 1926-1930. This first game board dates back as far as 2600 BC, and for a long period after its discovery the rules were unknown. The rules were first discovered and translated from a Babylonian Tablet by a historian at the British Museum named Irving Finkel. These however are not necessarily the original rules of the game, and it is still argued by some that the game could have been a divine ritual practice, performed by priests (Becker, 2008, p 13). There are two known versions of the board, with historical rules only corresponding with one. Both of the boards have 20 squares; hence the game adopting the name The Game of 20 Squares”. The Royal Game of Ur is merely a name given by the discoverers, the original name is not known. There are many references to the game throughout popular culture, for instance the television series Lost references the discovery of the game when John Locke explains the origins of Backgammon to Walt in the episode "Pilot, Part 2".

Play Testing and the Iterative Process

The original board discovered by Woolley is composed of a set of twelve squares and a set of six squares linked by a bridge of two squares (Fig. 1). They are all covered with geometrical designs on the original board. The second version is covered in different animals fighting, and rather than two separated sets of squares there is only one set of twelve, with an extension of eight squares like a ‘sprint to the finish line’ (Fig. 2). The latter corresponds greatly with the rules translated by Finkel.

(Fig 1) - Original Board

(Fig 2) - 2nd Century BC Board

In order to begin iterating this game, I first needed to understand the rules; and what better way to understand a game than to play it? After four or five games with one of my colleagues on each of the game boards, we decided the competitiveness that the ‘sprint to finish’ style of the 2nd century board was more entertaining (Fig. 2). The rules that we adopted for play testing were the rules translated by Finkel and found in the book “On the Rules for The Royal Game of Ur”.

With these rules thoroughly understood and our chosen game board at the ready, we began to really Play the game – and have an amazing time doing it. After the initial thrill of the game, it became clear to me that this board could have easily been used as a form of divination and Becker’s theory may well be true. Many ancient games have been used as some form of divination as I discovered whilst looking for different divination games and found Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1995, ‘Divination and board-games: Exploring the links between geomantic divination and Mancala board-games in Africa and Asia’. Which specifically mentioned Mancala, which is ever so slightly similar to The Royal Game of Ur in that it is a ‘race game’, each player must race to collect the most pieces. Andrea Becker and Irving Finkel both state that there have been many game boards for The Royal Game of Ur discovered all over the world.

Boards for the Game of Twenty Squares become increasingly common throughout the second and first millennia BC and over one hundred samples are now known from Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt and Crete.
Finkel, I. (2005) Games: Discover and Play 5 Famous Ancient Games. British Museum Press p. ??

The game Alea Evangelis was a metaphor for the pilgrimage of Jesus through Jerusalem; and the Stanway Game discovered in Colchester (Essex) was supposedly played before wars as a form of prediction (Games Britannia - Dicing with Destiny, BBC, 2009). So I decided to follow the theme of these historic games and imagine the game as a precursor of the future in order to involve my own mechanics in a way that would have still been accepted way back in history. The point that Becker makes about many boards having been discovered all over the world shows that the game was playable by many different social types, and understandable universally – it was important that my iterations of the mechanics and dynamics did not lose this aspect and over complicate the game (possibly leading to boredom or frustration).

The first iteration that came to mind was something to increase the pace, as (fun as it may have been) each game had taken a rather long time. To eliminate the possibility of illegal moves the rule was added:

1.     If token lands on another token owned by the same player the tokens then ‘stack’ and become one entity (but still two tokens), the newly ‘stacked’ tokens can then move as one, or separate using moves. The stacked tokens are treated as one in relation to all other rules.

For example, previously if I rolled and received two tipped edges I would be able to move one piece, two spaces. However with this rule it is possible to have multiple tokens ‘stacked’ and use these two moves to allow one token to move forward two squares, or both tokens to move forward two squares simultaneously. This introduced a whole new aspect of skill and prediction, in that by ‘stacking’ your tokens they can all be ‘captured’ at once – creating a good emotional response in the player (a risk factor - Aesthetics).

After playing a few games with this new iteration, it was clear that the game had become slightly more nerve-wracking! The competitiveness of both my colleague and me increased significantly and it became more of a heart-pumping race to the finish. One slight problem with this iteration was that it was often a long time before either of us would get free of the safe zones, after using each of our moves to put new tokens onto the board (within the safe zones) and merge them with other tokens. There was a couple of occasions when we both had all seven tokens 'stacked' and we were relying entirely on the roll of the dice to either overtake our opponent or capture all seven of their tokens - returning them all to the start. With this in mind, it did not make the game any less entertaining! There were still shouts of triumph and moans at every dice roll, the fun factor was definitely improving and it became apparent that the random aspect of the dice roll could be manipulated more to increase "funativity" (Noah Falstein, Gamasutra: Natural Funativity, 2004).

We can apply the Bell Curve (Braithwaite, 2009) in this newly created situation (Fig. 3).
(Fig. 3)

By introducing a rather large aspect of risk (stacking), but balancing it with the possibility of a reward (winning faster/easier) it has made the game a much more enjoyable experience!

The second iteration took slightly longer to come up with, but I had already decided that I should continue with the idea of the game being a form of divination. So what tactical possibilities were there for conflicting armies? When a group is 'attacked', they didn't just stand there and get wiped out - they fought back! So with this in mind, I came up with a new rule:

2.     If a 'stack' of tokens is under attack, and the quantity of tokens is higher than that of the attacking 'stack' of tokens; then the victim receives a chance to defend themselves - i.e. The victim and attacker must both roll a dice, and the player with the highest roll must return their 'stack' to the beginning.

Now this rule was slightly more complex, meaning it was important that it was followed as it added yet another layer of depth to the game. It was also important that the rule aspect of "and the quantity of tokens is higher than that of the attacking 'stack'" was included as this gave the attacker (the player that is behind the victim) a bonus - positive feedback when losing. This aspect not only coincided with the relevant divination methods, but it also provided the losing players with a reason to continue whether they were behind or not, without feeling as if all is lost. (Mark LeBlanc, Salen and Zimmerman's The Game Design Reader p438 - p459). After several plays with this new rule it was clear that this was a much-needed addition; not only did it add an opportunity for the losing player to fight back more effectively, but it also prevents the possibility of boredom within the losing player; preventing such phrases,  "That's not fair!" and "These rules are ridiculous!". The randomness of the die mechanic added to the heart-pounding effect and despite some ‘bad’ rolls it was easy to use the first iteration rule to spread the moves and provide for a more strategic method of play.


With comparison to Finkel's rules I feel as though my iterations have improved the game in a way that makes it more fun to the modern gamer. With more movement possibilities and strategic conflicts the game has become even more of a prediction of war, which is the idea I wished to stick with from the start. I believe that the game could still of been used as a form of divination with these new iterations, which was the main aspect that I did not want to lose. By focusing on this single aspect from the start I have managed to keep the mechanics that made The Royal Game of Ur engaging, entertaining and most importantly FUN! I have tweaked the Dynamics and Mechanics of The Royal Game of Ur with minimal problems; the second iteration rectified the issues with the first, keeping the game balanced and interesting.

Finkel, I. L. (2008) “On the Rules for The Royal Game of Ur” in Finkel, ed. Games: Discover and Play 5 Famous Ancient Games pp. 16-32.
Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1995, ‘Divination and board games: Exploring the links between geomantic divination and Mancala board games in Africa and Asia’
Finkel, I. (2005) Games: Discover and Play 5 Famous Ancient Games. British Museum Press
Games Britannia - Dicing with Destiny, BBC series, 2009
Noah Falstein, Gamasutra: Natural Funativity, 2004

Game Rules (According to Finkel):

       Each player begins with 7 tokens.
       Each player starts on opposite sides of the board.
       Players decide which of them starts first, with any desired method.
       The player who starts rolls four d4 die, each coloured on two tips.
       The player moves a single token forward according to how many coloured tips are rolled.
       If a players token lands on a “Rosette” square (Rosettes on the original board, stars in both Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) they get another turn.
       The purpose of the game is for each player to get all of his tokens off of the board, following the pathway shown in Fig. 2.
       If a player’s token is moved on top of the opponents token as a result of the die, the token that was first on that square is returned to it’s player. This is referred to as ‘Capturing’.
       A token on a “Rosette” square is considered to be in a safe zone, and cannot be ‘captured’. These squares are often called ‘Refugee’ squares.
       If a player cannot move on that turn (legally), then the turn is lost.


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