Game of the Ancients: The History of Backgammon

Backgammon is one of the most well-known board games of all time, as well as one of the oldest and most enduring. In fact, it has not only endured for years, but for centuries and millenniums as well.

Considered as the oldest recorded game in the world, one early prototype for backgammon was the Royal Game of Ur, played more than 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (known today as Iraq). A similar game, Senet, existed in ancient Egypt at around 3000BC, and recent excavations in Iran have uncovered evidence of another variation of the game at about the same time.

Ludos duodecim scriptorum ("Game of Twelve Lines") was one of a number of games played in ancient Rome that had similarities to modern backgammon. Another such game was the Tabula (translated as "table" or "board"), the object of which was for the player to remove all of their 15 checker pieces from the game board.

Nard, the Persian equivalent of backgammon played with a dice made of ivory and teak, was related by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in his 11th century epic Shahnameh as being invented by Burzoe back in the 6th century. Ferdowsi's account told of how Burzoe introduced nard to a visiting Raja from India, in return for the latter's demonstration of chess.

The 11th century also saw the rise of France's own backgammon variation, jeux de tables. The game was such a hit among gamblers that a decree made by Louis IX in 1254 prohibited members of his court from playing it. Despite the restrictions, the popularity of table games would eventually spread throughout Europe; reaching Germany by the 12th century, Iceland by the 13th century, and Sweden by the 17th century. A rule book for dice and table games, Libro de los juegos, appeared in 1283.

When the table games reached English shores by the 16th century, the stringent church and state laws at the time imposed a ban upon them. However, the game of backgammon proved resilient as it had become a favorite game among the clergy by the 18th century. By then, the game had finally earned the name by which it is now known (earliest known usage in 1650), derived from the word "back" and the Middle English word "gamen" ("game" or "play"). As backgammon had been accepted into English society, a book on backgammon rules and strategies, "A Short Treatise on the Game of Back-Gammon," was published by Edmund Hoyle in 1753.

It is a game played by civilized men; a game as old as civilization itself. Backgammon has weathered the ages, and it shall no doubt continue to thrive for eons to come.