The Royal Game of Ur is one of the oldest known board games in the world. It was played in ancient Mesopotamia 4600 years ago. It is called the "Royal Game of Ur" because in the 1920's British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered five game boards during an excavation of the royal cemetery in the ancient city of Ur.
The game sets discovered by Woolley consisted of a board with twenty squares arranged in three rows and eight columns with four missing squares forming a "bridge".
Another way to think of it is as a large section with three rows and four columns and a small section with three rows and two columns connected by a bridge of two squares.
The boards are decorated with many interesting patterns on the squares.
Other variations of the board have been found. Some with mostly squares with the five spot pattern.
Some with mostly blank squares.
Another common variation found commonly in ancient Egypt has a slightly different arrangement with a long tail instead of the small block of three rows and two columns. This variation is usually called the game of Twenty Squares although that name is sometimes also applied to the Royal Game of Ur.
(On many variants, the "Rosettes" are replaced with "X"s.)
There are many other variations of the board. But the one thing that almost all of the variations have in common is that they have twenty squares, and every fourth square (or so) is marked with a Rosette.
Although no one knows exactly how the game was played thousands of years ago, we do have some clues that have descended down through history. Due to it's similarities with games like Pachisi (from India) and Backgammon, we know that it is a racing game.
There are seven white and seven black flat disc-like game pieces, each decorated on one side with five dots and blank on the other side.
The sets also includes special four-sided (tetrahedron) dice. Of the four corners of the dice, two are marked and two are blank, giving two possible results per die, either zero (unmarked corner facing up) or one (marked corner facing up).
The object of the game (like Backgammon or Pachisi) is to move all of your pieces along the path and off the board before the other player. This is a common theme handed down to many modern games like Parcheesi (the American version of Pachisi), The Game of Life, Candy Land, Trouble, Sorry, et cetera. The list goes on and on.
The players take turns rolling the dice and moving their pieces along a path on the board. The exact path used is unknown but there are some very good theories and most researchers agree on certain aspects.
Because of the symmetry of the board and clues from other variations of the board that have been found, it is generally agreed that each player starts their pieces on the four connected squares on either side of the board, starting at the gap and moving toward the large end of the board. When the pieces get to the end of that row they move to the center row and proceed the other way across the bridge towards the small end of the board. What they do after they cross the bridge is the largest point of difference between researchers. In the simplest version (proposed by games historian Robert Charles Bell) they simply continue to the end of the row and then return to their "home" row and proceed back towards the gap and exit the board (known as bearing off, from Backgammon). This creates a path of fourteen squares. I call this the short path.
The R. C. Bell or "short" path for player one.
The short path for player two.
Like most race games, if a piece lands on a square occupied by an opposing piece, the opposing piece is removed and has to start over, unless the piece is on a "safe" square. Many (but not all) of the proposed rules for the Royal Game of Ur treat the Rosette square as a "safe" square.
The problem with "the short path" is a lack of consistency regarding the placement of the "Rosettes". The first Rosette is four squares along the path. The second one is another four squares along. But the final Rosette is six squares further along. This seems odd and out of place somehow.
To account for this inconsistency James Masters proposed that after the pieces cross the "bridge" they turn towards the opponent's side of the board and then follow the edge of the small section around to their side of the board before bearing off. This makes for a path of sixteen squares with a Rosette every four squares.
The J. Masters path.
One interesting aspect about the game pieces is that they are flat, like checkers, and they are different on either side, one side marked with five dots, the other side blank. This brings up an interesting possibility. The pieces could be flipped over to indicate that the piece has achieved some special status. This could be something like in checkers when a checker reaches the eighth row and gets "kinged", or in chess when a pawn reaches the eighth row and gets promoted.
This allows for having the pieces complete two laps of the board before bearing off. In this variation the pieces start with their blank side up. They follow the path normally but instead of bearing off they flip over to the marked side and continue from the beginning of the path. They would then bear off after completing their second lap of the board.
A variation proposed by games historian H. J. R. Murray is that after the pieces cross the "bridge" they make a loop around the small section and return back along the path to their starting position. This makes a path of twenty seven squares. This would require that the pieces be flipped when they reach the eighth column (reminiscent of chess and checkers) so as not to confuse the outgoing pieces with the returning pieces. A very interesting aspect of this idea is that the two squares where the pieces would have to be flipped are marked on the "decorated" boards with a special symbol. I call these squares the "Treasury".
A drawback of this path is that the pieces can get very clogged up in your "home" row (with incomming and outgoing pieces getting in each other's way), which can be frustrating and doesn't really add much to the game play since only your pieces are involved, with no interaction with the other player.
The H. J. R. Murray path.
The pieces are flipped when they reach the "Treasury".
An interesting variation of the Murray path, instead of exiting through your home row, your pieces exit through your opponents home row! Like the Murray path, this path has twenty seven squares. Unlike all the other paths, the four starting squares of this path are not inherently safe.
The path to victory lies through the enemy's home.
A slightly shorter version of the Murray path is that, as the pieces are making their return journey, instead of exiting through their home row, they exit directly from the center row. This makes a path of twenty three squares. Like the "Treasury" squares before, a very interesting aspect of this path is that the exit square is also decorated with a unique design. I call this square the "Gate".
After a lot of play testing, I have come to the conclusion that this path may be the path that the original game designers intended. When you look at all of the evidence it makes a very compelling case:
As a side note, I thought that I came up with this path concept. But after some web searching I have found at least three other people that have put forth this same idea. It seems to be a very popular idea.
The Exit Gate path.
The pieces exit via the "Gate".
When looking at all the different variations of the game board that have been uncovered, one thing becomes clear, the squares marked with the Rosette are special. It is the only square that is consistently marked on all the variations.
So what is special about the Rosette? One common idea is that it is a "safe" square, pieces on this square cannot be captured. This would be similar to Pachisi, in which specially marked squares, called castles, are "safe" squares. While this may indeed be one of the functions of the Rosette, it is unlikely the only function. This is because the first Rosette on the path is within the player's starting area and is already safe from enemy capture.
A second common idea is that landing on a Rosette allows the player to roll again. It's quite possible that the Rosette has both of these benefits.
R. C. Bell suggested that the Rosette had a negative effect. In his version if a player lands on a Rosette they must pay a fine into a betting pool.
"A rose by any other name..." (would let you roll again?)
Some believe that these are merely decorations with no game function. This may very well be the case. The common argument is that since they are not included on later versions of the game, that they must serve no purpose.
Another possibility is that, as the game was handed down from generation to generation it became simplified, either from players forgetting the original rules, or from players disagreeing on the rules that they prefer to play with, only choosing to keep the rules that they enjoy. (Sort of a "lowest common denominator" of house rules.) This would lend itself to the idea that the Rosette is a beneficial square that all players enjoy.
As far as the other squares, I have some theories.
If we were to assume that the "Exit Gate" path, described above, was indeed the path intended by the original game designers, that would clearly give a purpose for the Treasury and Gate squares.
Kind of looks like a gate.
If the pieces do flip from the blank side to the side with five spots when they reach the eighth column, it would imply that the five spots represent something valuable, perhaps money, perhaps royal status. Recall that in checkers a normal man becomes a "king" when he reaches the eighth row, and in chess a mere pawn can become the queen, the most powerful piece on the board. So if the five spots represent treasure, then a square with five spots surrounded with double spikey walls must be a Treasury.
The pieces are flipped when they reach the "Treasury".
That leaves three other squares, which I call the House, Temple, and Market.
In one variation of the board there are only Rosettes and squares with five spots (which I call Houses).
Board with only Houses and Rosettes
This suggests that these squares have no special meaning. In some ancient descriptions of board games the squares are called houses.
The house with five spots.
The five house squares plus the five temple squares make up half of the squares on the board.
Something about those eyes makes me think of an ancient temple. As far as original game function, I don't have a clue. In my "Burglers of Ur" rules I give the Temple squares the ability to grant "Divine Favor" to devout followers. (More on that later.)
According to Wikipedia the Sumerian word for "house" was the same word for "temple".
The eyes of the gods watching you perhaps?
This square only appears twice on the board. And both of those are on the center row where the pieces are in danger of being captured. Gamewise this would be a good spot to put a "safe" square, regardless of the path used. For this reason I chose to make the Market a "safe" square in "Burglers of Ur".
The design reminds me of merchant stalls in a market place.