Traditional Board Games

Three Men's Morris

Three men's morris, from Libro de los Juegos
Three men's morris, from Libro de los Juegos

One of the simplest board games in the world is three men's morris. Each player has three pieces, and the board is a grid of nine points, in three rows of three. Players enter their pieces one at a time, in turn, trying to form a row of three. Once all pieces are on the board, players move their pieces along the marked lines until one player or other has a row of three, that player winning the game.

History of Three Men's Morris

The game is of unknown antiquity, but is assumed to have been known in the ancient world. Circular patterns etched into Roman stonework are often thought to be a variant of three men's morris. Similar diagrams are found in Egypt, Greece, Sri Lanka and China. In China, 21 books on the game were written around the end of the sixth century.

Three men's morris did not come to Britain until the Norman conquest in the eleventh century. After that time it is found across the country, and a number of examples have been found carved into the stonework of cloister seats. It was documented in Spain in 1283, when it was demonstrated that the first player has a forced win. It was recorded in Ireland in the seventeenth century under the name cashlan gherra, and became popular in the nineteenth century.

Today, it seems to be little played, but its degenerate descendant, noughts and crosses (or tic-tac-toe) is much better known. Three men's morris is a better game than noughts and crosses. Both games are suitable for teaching the rudiments of tactics to children, but unlike noughts and crosses where a draw can be forced, in three men's morris the forced outcome is a little less obvious and the game can therefore entertain for a while longer.

Rules for Three Men's Morris

Rules for Three Men's Morris
1. Three men's morris is played by two players, with pieces placed on the points of the lined board shown in the diagram.

2. The board starts empty, each player holding all his pieces in hand.

3. At first, each player in turn puts one piece on the board, at any vacant point.

4. Once all pieces are on the board, a player instead moves one of his pieces along a marked line to an adjacent empty point.

5. If a piece placed or moved as in rules 3 or 4 forms a row of three along a marked line (called a mill), he wins the game.

Strategy in Three Men's Morris

The standard game can be won by the first player, as pointed out in the Libro de los Juegos, or "Book of Games", of 1283. There are two possible victories, depending upon the second player's moves, the first being: 1. b2, a3; 2. b1, b3; 3. c1, a1; 4. b1-c1, any; 5. b2-c2. The second is 1. b2, b3; 2. a1, c3; 3. a3, a2; 4. a1-b1, any; 5. b1-c1.

To avoid these predictable conclusions, in France an extra rule has been adopted: the first player is not allowed to take the opening b2. While the second player can take it, the presence of a piece of the first player already on the board prevents this rule from transferring the same forced victory to the second player.

Three men's morris: try it out!

This version of three men's morris lacks the diagonals. This version therefore does not have a known forced win for the first player. The lack of diagonals not only prevents diagonal movement, but also prevents diagonal lines from winning the game.


Nice article. I thought you might be interested in the variation I know. I have always played with the diagonal line board and always started with the pieces already on the board in the home position. i.e. a straight line in front of each opponent. The object then being to move to get a straight line elsewhere or stop your opponent being able to move. Either wins. Being elderly, I cannot remember who taught me how to play.

peter Harrop - 19:45, 27/04/2015

Can you send me the source code for the three men morris . I will be very grateful to you.

zahid baig - 07:00, 01/05/2016

Thanks for asking, Zahid.  The source code comes from jocly at the site  Look at the "Apps and Tools" section and you'll see "Embed and create games" there which is a good place to start.

Damian Walker - 11:18, 08/05/2016


"4. d1-b1, any;" should read "4. a1-b1, any;"

SGB - 22:29, 10/09/2017

Typo: In the first strategy, "3. c1, a1;" should read "3. c3, a1;"

X - 23:01, 23/11/2021

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