The Game of Nine Men’s Morris

A  very simple and ancient game with minimal equipment.

Nine_Men's_Morris_board_with_coordinates,_modified
Nine Men’s Morris gameboard 

Nine Men’s Morris, also known as Mills, is yet another game whose origins are shrouded in time. The earliest possible occurrence we know about is an unmistakable board carved on a slab at the Egyptian Temple at Kurna, dated to 1300 BCE. But, in a familiar problem, it is not clear whether the board was made at the same time as the Temple (perhaps by construction workers) or if it was carved later by Roman tourists. What appear to be the same boards have also been found incised into Bronze Age gravesites in Ireland, and in Bronze Age layers in the excavated city of Troy in Turkey.

The game seems to have been well-known to the Romans: boards are often found carved into stone slabs in homes, shops, and public forums. In Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, there is a mention of what appears to be the same game: “There is another game divided into as many parts as there are months in the year. A table has three pieces on either side; the winner must get all the pieces in a straight line.” The game’s original name seems to have been “Merellus”, from the Latin word for “a game piece”. In some areas the game is still known as Merels, or some variant thereof (though some argue that this name actually comes from an Old English word “mere”, meaning “borders”). Later, this would also be transformed into “Mills”.

A Merels game board has been found in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) carved into the stone steps leading to a Buddhist temple, dating to around the time of Christ. The Viking ship burial at Gokstad, from the 10th century CE, also contained a Merels set.

We know that the Byzantines played Merels, probably through the time of the Crusades. The game was most popular, however, during the Middle Ages, and boards have been found carved into the wooden benches and stone floors of cloisters and monasteries all over Europe. A number of talismans and pendants have been found in gravesites which bear tiny game boards, apparently as a good luck charm and protection against evil.

In many Renaissance villages, large Merels boards were dug into the dirt in the Commons. When Shakespeare alluded to this in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud”), he popularized a new name for an old game. By the time of the American Revolution, it was common for fashionable gaming tables to have both a Chess/Checkers board and a Nine Men’s Morris board. By some accounts, the game was popular among British and French troops during World War One, since it could be easily improvised from common materials found in the trenches.

Because the game was carried through historical times and into the modern era, we know the rules precisely. And remarkably they have not changed much over the centuries: while the number of pieces and the layout of the Morris board have varied from 3 to 12, the basic rules have remained the same.

Equipment: 1 game board, 9 Player pieces of each color

RULES OF NINE MEN’S MORRIS

Player 1 begins the game by placing one of his pieces anywhere on the board at a corner or at the midpoints where the lines intersect. (There are 24 of these spots in total.) Player 2 then does the same. This continues until all pieces have been placed. Once all of both Player pieces are on the board, Players begin moving one of their pieces per turn, one space in any direction along the lines.

If at any time a Player completes a row of three of his own pieces in a row (called a “mill”) along one of the lines (either horizontally or vertically but not diagonally), he can then remove any one of the Opponent’s pieces from the board. This piece is permanently captured and cannot be re-entered. Any Opponent’s pieces that are part of a mill are immune from capture unless all of the Opponent’s pieces are part of a mill—then the Player may capture one of those pieces.

A Player can make a capture any time a mill is formed. For example, if a Player moves one of his pieces away from a mill and then on his next turn moves it back to re-form that mill, he is entitled to another capture.

A Player wins by either capturing seven of his Opponent’s pieces (making it impossible for him to form a mill), or by blockading his Opponent so he cannot make a legal move.

ALTERNATIVE RULES:

—If a Player is reduced to just three pieces, he can move to any open spot on the board regardless of the lines.

—Players may move and form mills along diagonal lines.

—Players may begin moving their pieces immediately at the start of the game—giving them the choice to either place another piece or move a piece that has already been placed on the board.

2 thoughts on “The Game of Nine Men’s Morris”

  1. The game is very widely played here in South Africa, mostly among the black population, where it is known as morabaraba. I remember playing it when I was a kid (learned from black playmates). We called it “cattle”, and the pieces represented cattle, which you could lose (but as far as I remember, not gain, though I suppose that any cattle removed from your opponent could perhaps be seen as yours.) I.e. it was cattle raiding on a board. 🙂

    Boards would usually simply be scratched out on the ground, and we used pieces of stick, and pebbles, as game pieces (or whatever else would make it easy to distinguish your own pieces from those of the opponent.)

    I can, alas, not remember the exact rules by which we played, but they were very similar, or perhaps the same, as what you explain. I do remember though that each player had twelve pieces, not nine.

    It appears no one knows whether the game is indigenous, was introduced here by colonists, or was indigenous but then influenced by introduced western forms. The rules were in any event only recently standardized; I see there is a Wikipedia article on it:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morabaraba

    1. There likely have been different versions all over Africa, some of them indigenous, some of them influenced by European or Arabic traders. Probably versions in Asia too.

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