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I recently watched “Outlaw King,” a movie set in Medieval Scotland about King Edward II’s defeat by Robert the Bruce. Though I enjoyed this film, it made me wonder if our ancestors played board games during this period, and if so, which ones.
People played board games in Medieval times. They helped stave off boredom and sharpen mental skills. Some of the games that people played during this era are Nine Men’s Morris, Fox, Geese, Backgammon, Chess or Shatranj, Alquerque.
The Medieval period was a tough time-so people needed ways of relaxing and what better way than playing board games. This article covers the history of Medieval board games and describes the most popular ones, some of which are still played today.
Board games have a long history that dates back to 3000 BC. The era’s intellectuals designed these games to challenge their wits and intelligence. These challenging games developed into board games. But they weren’t available to ordinary people.
Kings and nobles had access to these games, and they spent time playing these in their free time. So, the games evolved and made their way into the Medieval Era.
Checkers, Fox and Geese, and Nine Men’s Morris could be drawn anywhere to play. Villagers constructed playing surfaces on greens to play them. In the Medieval Era, board games got popular among the people.
When the pubs opened in Europe, they had board games available for people to play. Along with the new games, older board games also evolved with new rules and methods.
Board games were one of the best methods to compete against each other. Commoners often challenged those claiming to be intelligent in these games. And many new players demonstrated their wits.
The medieval era had several board games that people still play regularly. These games overcome the boredom that people have faced in their lives.
Some of the games that people played in the Medieval era are Nine Men’s Morris, Fox, Geese, Backgammon, Chess or Shatranj, Alquerque.
Nine Men’s Morris:
Nine Men’s Morris is an ancient board game; the earliest rendition of the game was found carved into the stones of an Egyptian temple that dates back to 1400 BCE. The game has been called by many names, including Mill, Windmill, and Merrel’s, which is derived from the Latin word merellus, meaning “gaming piece.”
Some historians speculate that the Nine Men’s Morris moniker came from the Shakespeare play Midsummer Night’s Dream. Regardless it became widely popular in 14th century Europe and continues to be played today.
A Nine Men’s Morris board consists of a grid with 24 intersections and is played with black and white pieces over a board. Peasants would often dig out the game board in fields or the village greens.
Two players play the game with nine pieces or men each. The players form mills to line three of their pieces horizontally or vertically. This allows the player to remove the opponent’s piece from the game.
Fox and Geese:
Fox and Geese was another popular board game in the Medieval era. Unlike other board games in this period, the sides have unequal pieces. Fox and geese come from the ‘Tafl.’ Tafl was played on a cross-shaped board.
The game had 32 holes in a cross shape and is a two-player board game. The player in the fox role had only one piece, and the player on the geese side had 19 pieces.
The fox moves in a straight line in any direction to try and jump over the goose. If the fox is successful, the goose is removed from the board. But if the geese surround the fox, then they’d win.
Chess is one of the most popular board games. The game originates from the 7th century. Some historians claim that Chinese or Indians invented the game, whereas others argue that Middle Eastern Arabs invented it.
At first, historical records claim that there were 4vplayers; 2 players for each team. But later on, this converted into two players playing against each other. Chess had slightly different rules in medieval times; instead of the queen, it had Vezir.
The Vezir could move one space and Bishop two spaces diagonally. A pawn could move one space and be converted only for a queen upon reaching the other end.
Alquerque is the ancestor of the modern board game draughts or checkers. This game was quite popular in the Middle East during the medieval era. When the moors came to Spain, they introduced the game to Europe. Here, it gained the name of Alquerque.
The game’s board has 25 points. Each player has 12 pieces that they place on their sides. Usually, it has white and black teams.
The objective of this game is to eliminate all of the other player’s pieces. To eliminate a piece, one player can jump over the other player’s piece and remove it. Once all the player pieces are removed, the other player wins.
Some Medieval board games survived the wear and tear of time and are with us now. Although the rules have changed, they still have the same basic strategy.
One of the most notable games is Chess. Although Chess originates from 7th century Asia, it has traveled worldwide. Now, Chess is one of the most popular games in the world.
Apart from that, Alquerque, originating from the Middle East, has made its way to the modern age. Although its mechanics didn’t change that much, it still has almost the same rules it had when invented.
Checkers and Senet are the oldest games. Both of them are older than 3000 BC. Most historians seem to agree that Senet is older. It dates back to 3500-4000 BC.
Timothy Kendall and R. C. Bell had to reinvent the game. They made new rules following the transcriptions found in the pyramid’s walls.
Historians investigate the history of board games by examining drawings, artifacts, and texts. With these, they learn about the cultures and nations in which these games flourished. This helps them understand how these board games move from one country to another.
According to historians, there are no records of any board game first introduced to America. When the Europeans came, they bought their board games with them.
Ships carrying sailors to America played board games in their free time. And when European powers established their first colonies in the USA, this ensured that their games stayed there.
No board game is officially the first to make its way to America. But historians claim that Checkers and Nine Men’s Morris are some of the first board games in America. That is because checkers and Nine Men’s Morris were quite famous at the time.
During the 19th century, with the advances in lithography and printing presses, games began to produce commercially. As America had terrible relations with England, board games originated from England.
That’s when we get an American board game that every historian agrees on to be the first one. The Travellers’ Tour through the United States was invented in 1822 by F. & R. Lockwood.
Chess is the most realistic medieval game. For example, checkers or Nine Men’s Morris use rocks or pieces to play. Whereas in Chess, you have different pieces that relate to different roles of medieval history.
The King piece symbolizes the leader of a nation or the team in Chess. At the same time, the Queen or Vezir, in some variations, represents the advisor.
The Bishop symbolizes the religious leader. Knight represents cavalry and has a unique L-shaped movement. The Rock symbolizes the castle. And Pawns symbolize the soldiers of the Medieval era.
The medieval era had people with no other means to entertain themselves. That’s why they often turn their faces to board games. These board games allow them to forget their busy and dull lives and enjoy the moment.
These board games weren’t just lines drawn on board with pieces; they were carefully designed. The pubs in the medieval era allowed these games to gain popularity and spread around Europe.
When you look at the board games people played in Medieval times; you can see some familiar ones played today. That is because these games were challenging and fun enough to survive.