Ancient of Games

  • July 24, 2020
  • Posted by David McCord
Post Title

Krishna Many generations ago, some sooth-sayers in China moved tokens around a board, assuming the spirits would guide them to win or lose. Folks in India were using tiny figurines to teach military maneuvers. Guess what? These two activities combined to create Chaturanga - and now, 2,000 years later, it has evolved into what we call Chess. (Pictured at right: Krishna plays Chaturanga.)

Ecclesiastes 1:9 - “There Is Nothing New Under The Sun”

For the purposes of this series of articles, I’m thinking that it would be appropriate to address four broad categories or “epocs” of games:

• 21st-century Games, which reflect the more recent developments in game mechanisms, themes, and components which has grown out of the legacy of previous generations.

• 20th-century Games, which include the “standards” which folks look upon with nostalgic comfort, and provided a rich developmental history that spans generations.

• Classic Games, which are generally over a century old, but not always. Many firms manufacture versions of classic games, but the rules and major components are understood to be in the public domain and available for anyone to duplicate freely.

• Ancient Games, which span the centuries before 1800 and into the farthest reaches of history. The evolution of board games, dice games, card games, and pattern games. These are as old as civilization, with roots in mysticism and devination.

A game that spans all four of these epocs is Nine Men’s Morris, also known as Mills, Mühle, Merrels, and many other names. It’s extremely easy to teach, but has a level of challenge that makes it deceptively sophisticated. People tend to be impressed with its age (several thousands of years), and the fact that one can purchase a finely crafted set made with exotic materials, or simply scrawl the board layout in the dirt and play it with stones and twigs.

Mad According to R. C. Bell (Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, Volume 1, Dover 1979) the earliest known example of the game includes diagonal lines and was "cut into the roofing slabs of the temple at Kurna in Egypt" around 1400 BC.

The game is described in the esteemed reference entitled “Libro de Juegos” commissioned by King Alphonso of Spain in the mid-13th Century. This small publication documented several ancient table games, and recounted some of each game’s history as well. Easily 1,000 years before Alphonso’s book, the game of Mills was being played throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region.

Mills layouts have been found carved into the stones of ancient temples in Egypt and gothic cathedrals in Germany and France, inlaid into Roman mosaics and whittled into benches used in renaissance taverns. There are “cousins” of the game found in Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica, too. (Apparently “three-in-a-row” expresses an archetypal symmetry.)

The colonial Americans in the 18th century brought it with them, and it was popular with all ages. During the American Civil War, soldiers used pebbles and bullets for markers, scratching the game board into the dirt. A letter from soldier Charles Wickesburg, written to his family from a U.S. Army Hospital in 1863, explains that Nine Men’s Morris is among the games he can get from the hospital reading room. Commercial versions of Mills have been around for a couple hundred years. The favorites in my collection was made by the Druke Game Company in the 1950s, and the 1937 Parker Brothers version entitled “The Game of Mill.”

Mills Today there are wood sets available, and plenty of documentation to be found if you’d like to play. It’s especially suitable for a beginner who has grown beyond tic-tac-toe (naughts and crosses), or someone who likes Pente, Kono, or Teeko. And, as with most everything else—there’s an app for that.

Be aware that there are also some “house rules” about repeat moves and first-player handicaps. Some players a third phase called "flying mills" when a player only has three pieces left on the board. Another is called "Lasker Morris" (after the inventor) with 10 pieces per player and no distinction between the place and move phases. There are also variations for “Five-Men’s-Morris” and “Twelve-Men’s-Morris” that are worth a try.

For the “mathletes” in the audience: In 1993, Ralph Morris “solved” Nine Men’s Morris, showing that a perfect game by each player would result in a draw every time. Good luck with that.

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