The Origin of Backgammon: The 5,000-Year-Old Board Game

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

Tags:

Ever since I was a little kid, part of my relationship with my dad consisted of the following:

He’d pull out what looked like a little wooden briefcase and say, “Want to play some backgammon?”

“Nah, not really,” I’d say. Then I’d go play Ecco the Dolphin on my Sega Genesis.

But as you get older and occasionally need something to do because the power’s gone out, you find yourself trying things that you once found aggressively dull, like Soviet-era editions of Trivial Pursuit.

Or you might finally try out an even older game. For me this past winter, that game was backgammon. I won’t tell you how to play it, because I already forget, but it’s basically a dice game for two players, where each is trying to get all of their pieces off the board first.

So, why the change of tack? Well, I like old things. And, it turns out, few surviving games are as old as backgammon — which has a lineage dating back 5,000 years.1

That’s, Uh . . . That’s Pretty Old

You’re telling me! For a little bit of context reference, that’s almost 2,000 years prior to the Trojan War.

Backgammon actually had its beginnings not far from Troy (modern-day Anatolia, Turkey). Its earliest ancestor may well have come from ancient Mesopotamia—Sumer, to be specific. If you don’t remember exactly where Sumer was, I’ll throw you a bone: Southern Iraq, to the 21st-century person.

In this 17th-century painting by Jan Steen, you can see how backgammon led to knife fights. Kind of helps explain why the church wasn’t too keen on it.

Speaking of, throwing bones is likely the starting point for backgammon—and all dice games, really. Dice games developed all over the world. Originally, tribal priests would roll dice made from animal bones in order to predict the future. Haruspices in Ancient Rome later did something similar with bird entrails, but that was more of a hassle because you’d have to wash your hands after.

Now, I’m not so sure throwing bones and bird guts have ever accurately predicted the future, but it gave folks something to do to pass the time. For the ancients, truth divination wasn’t for fun, however, and treating it like a game was a stupid thing to do.

But you know what wasn’t stupid? Gambling. So, people would shoot dice and bet on the outcomes for money, rather than f*cking with space-time and pulling back the veil of predetermination.

Gaming dice took many forms, but the six-sided cube dice became the most popular—in part because they were easier to make than 20-sided Dungeons & Dragons dice, but rolled better than pyramidal dice.1

Game Boards and Backgammon’s Earliest Sumerian Ancestor

Look, dice are great, and we all love a good round of “guess a number, then see if you roll that number.” But even the ancients got bored, and boredom is the mother of invention, at least when it comes to creating board games.

“Dice, but more fun” was a common desire across civilizations. Everyone started doing it, and one or more of these early dicey-board games may have been backgammon’s earliest ancestor.

In the 1920s, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was in modern-day Iraq excavating Ur of the Chaldees—the city described as the birthplace of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. Wooley found five artifacts that looked something like today’s backgammon boards, but probably more expensive: wood boards, decorated with mosaics of bone, shell, lapis lazuli (a very blue rock), black limestone, and black paste.

The Royal Game of Ur

Not long after, in another part of ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists found another board, similar to those discovered by Woolley. This one had stacks of pieces under the board: dice as well as player pieces in two colors.1

Ancient Egypt

Skipping ahead a few thousand years, it looks like Egyptian Pharaohs had another game that may have been a precursor to modern backgammon. Sets were found in King Tut’s tomb, one set was found with Queen Hatshepsut’s name on it, and many tomb paintings show both rich and poor people shooting dice over their boards.

The Egyptians even had a mechanical dice box that would roll the dice for you—something later replicated by the Greeks and Romans—to stop cheaters.1

Pachisi

Pachisi—branded in America as “Parcheesi”—is one of the two most famous board games to come out of medieval India. The other is chess, but chess gets plenty of attention, and we’re talking about backgammon here.

The game is similar enough to backgammon to be in the running as a possible ancestor. Both games have the same objective: get your little “men” (that’s the technical term for “pieces”) off the board. Both also require that you first move all your men into your home sector before you can get them off the board. Finally, both pachisi and backgammon have solitary pieces as very weak, and multiple pieces as strong.

Elsewhere in Asia, countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand also had their own similar games.1

Origins in the West

Meanwhile, proto-backgammon games entered western civilization through Ancient Greece, which was just across the Aegean Sea from backgammon’s ancestral home in the cradle of civilization.

This here’s a 13th-century depiction of some sinful folks playing ‘gammon.

Of course, the Greeks made their own version of the game. Sophocles claimed that their version was invented by Palamedes because he was bored to tears during the siege of Troy. Their version even earned honorable mention in Homer’s Odyssey.

Later, the Romans liked the dicing and boarding so much that they decided it was the sport of emperors. They had their own names for it, of course: alea (“dice”), and tabulae (“tables”). Or, if you like longer things with more letters, they also called it ludus duodecim scriptorum—“the twelve-line game”—so named for the twelve points on each side of the board.

Emperor Claudius supposedly had a set installed in his chariot so he could play it on the road. Marc Antony was reported to have played it with Cleopatra. And the infamous Caligula? He’s on record as a cheater, though all that other stuff (sadism, cruelty, perversion, etc.) he did usually get first mention.

Archaeologists found backgammon tables in the courtyards of just about every villa in Pompeii. Those folks might have actually been better of rolling animal bones to see the future, but hindsight’s 20/20.1

Western Europe

Let’s skip ahead another thousand years. Over this period of time, Arabs had adopted the proto-backgammon from their Persian neighbors. So, when European crusaders came to the Middle East for holy war in the 12th century, they were exposed to the game, too.

Earlier versions had been mentioned in Old English records from the 8th and 9th centuries, but backgammon didn’t really take off in Europe until the Crusaders caught the fever. It was so popular with soldiers in the Christian army that playing it for money became subject to strict rules—betting was only allowed for the knightly class and above, and even they had restrictions.

A Roman ludus duodecim scriptorum board from the 2nd century.

The game became especially popular in England, where it was called “tables” by the 1200s. King John liked to play tables with some of his court, and they even placed some modest bets. Unlike Caligula, King John seems to have played nice and fair, noting his payouts in his book of daily expenses when he lost.1

Waxing Popularity

In a class-based society, two things roll downhill: sh*t and trends. If the nobles enjoy something, commoners will follow suit if they can afford it, so backgammon spread across social stratification.

Backgammon—or, rather, “tables”— began to spread like wildfire in Europe, so the church tried to throw a wet blanket on it—mainly because the church doesn’t like gambling. Among the high-horse crowds of the day, tables was considered “dishonest”—unlike chess, which wasn’t subject to ecclesiastical canons. Regardless, the game was ubiquitous. Chaucer even mentioned it in The Canterbury Tales: “They daucen, and they pleyen at ches and tables,” he writes. Man, that takes me back to struggling through Middle English courses in college. Worth every penny.

Despite the church’s efforts, by the end of the 15th century towns across Western Europe were making exemptions for tables, so long as people didn’t bet their farms on the game. Still, students and apprentices weren’t allowed to partake.

Here, we see two 14th-century players. One from House Checkered Lion,
the other from House Checkered Lion (But with No Legs).

The final snag preventing full cultural acceptance of tables appears to be its classification as a game of luck, rather than one of skill, since it uses dice, and that makes it sinful, I guess? Having played a couple rounds, I know that’s not quite true. There is luck, sure, but it is indeed a game of skill because I suck at it.

Whatever the church said about it, the Elizabethans were fans, and it became one of their most popular “sports.” Personally, I don’t think of something as a sport unless you sweat when you play it. But then I consider how many layers of clothing Elizabethans wore all the time, and you know what? Maybe backgammon was a sport back then.1

Someone Finally Calls it “Backgammon”

I hope you haven’t paid too much attention to the fact that, so far, none of these people actually called the game “backgammon.” What’s in a name, anyway?

It wasn’t until 1645 that the term was finally coined. H. J. R. Murray refers to the game as “backgammon” in his work, A History of Board Games Other Than Chess—clearly the literary work of a man who was f*cking sick of hearing about chess all the time.

Murray claimed backgammon was invented in England in the 17th century. He also noted some minor differences in rules and wording between tables and backgammon, so they were slightly different games.

Despite Murray’s trendsetting efforts, the game was still called “tables” by most folks in England in the 17th century. It eventually caught on, though, as we begin seeing the game called “backgammon” in 18th-century literature.

Why “backgammon”? There are a couple possible sources for the word.

One is bach cammaun—Welsh for “small battle.”

Another source that may be more plausible comes from Middle English: baec gamen. This means “back game,” which describes how the point of backgammon is to make your pieces go back home, and then get back off the board. Not the most creative name, but it was a simpler time for entertainment branding. 1

A Game of Luck and Skill, and I’ve Got Neither

What makes a game popular enough to not only survive but evolve across millennia?

I think it’s the combination of luck and skill that makes a game endlessly replayable. If you can strike the right balance, you get something that’s easy to learn, tough to master, but has enough variability that a bad player can sometimes beat a great one.

Of course, that didn’t happen to me when I gave it a shot—I lost and, thus, did not have fun. Suffice to say, I side with the medieval church: backgammon is an evil game that should be burned.

Share this article... your friends will love it too ❤️

Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Jacoby, Oswald, and John R. Crawford. (1970). The History of Backgammon. Retrieved from http://www.bkgm.com/books/JacobyCrawford/HistoryOfBG/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Bray, Chris. (2007, September). Backgammon History. Retrieved from http://www.bkgm.com/articles/Bray/BackgammonHistory/
  • Jacoby, Oswald, and John R. Crawford. (1970). The History of Backgammon. Retrieved from http://www.bkgm.com/books/JacobyCrawford/HistoryOfBG/