The Ancient Greek Game of Pente Grammai

Pente Grammai (“five lines”) is a board game that was played in ancient Greece.

board
Pente Grammai Gameboard

History

This game board has been found carved onto floors and stone slabs all over ancient Greece. The poet Alcaeus of Mytilene alludes to it in a verse from around 600 BCE, when he speaks of “having moved the stone away from the sacred line”, and Epicharmus and Sophron make similar references over a century later. Plato, in his Book of Laws, refers to “game-pieces from the sacred line”.

We do not know what the actual name of the game was, but it has been dubbed Pente Grammai (“Five Lines”) from the configuration of the game board. It may be a distant ancestor of Backgammon.

There is no complete description of the game rules, so they have been reconstructed in several different ways by scholars. The rule set used here is the simplest one that gives good balanced game play.

Equipment

The game board consists of five parallel vertical lines with a game space at each end. (The Roman version used five long rectangles instead.) The board is divided into two halves by a horizontal line. The center vertical line is the longest. The side of this line closest to you is your Home, and the side of this line directly opposite your Home is your Sacred Line (which is also your opponent’s Home). Pente Grammai is a “racing” game, and the object is to get your pieces from your Home around to the other side of the board and gather them into your Sacred Line.

Each player has five game pieces.

Moves are determined by a single six-sided dice.

To Play

The game is setup by placing the Player pieces onto the Home spaces closest to you, with the first piece on the game space at the end of this line.

Each Player then takes turns rolling the dice. The pieces move around the track counterclockwise, by moving one piece per turn according to the dice roll.

When your first piece leaves your Home, it will leave an empty game space behind. When subsequent pieces leave the Home spaces, they are first slid up to the open game space at the end of the line, and then move from there. If however another piece already in play lands on this space, your Home is blocked and none of your pieces may leave until that piece vacates the game space and opens the way.

Similarly, your pieces must reach the Sacred Line on the other side of the board by exact count before they can be taken off the track. This means that if this space is occupied by another piece, your pieces cannot enter.

Whenever a Player’s piece does land on the Sacred Line, that piece is moved inwards to the storage spaces, leaving the playing space open. The Player then gets to roll again. If there are still opponent’s pieces there on your Sacred Line that have not yet left their Home, both Player pieces are lined up in the storage area next to each other.

If you land on your own Home space, you get to roll again.

There are no captures in this game. No piece may land on a game space that is already occupied by another piece, whether friendly or opponent.

If a roll results in a Player being unable to move any of the pieces currently in play or to move a piece out of Home, but it is possible to move one of the Player’s pieces out of his Sacred Line storage area and out onto the game track, then he must do so.

If no move is possible anywhere, the Player loses that turn and play passes to the next Player.

The game ends when either Player gets all five of his game pieces gathered in his Sacred Line on the other side of the board.

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2 thoughts on “The Ancient Greek Game of Pente Grammai”

  1. Seems like a rather boring game, seeing as no skill seems to be involved. Still, I wonder if there might be a small market for computerized versions of some of these ancient games you describe here every now and then…

    1. There is strategy involved, as far as which piece is best to move, blocking an opponent, etc. They’re not as exciting as modern video games though. 🙂

      Many ancient board games are already available as computer games, most of them online for free.

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