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Traditional Board Games

The Game of Twenty Squares

The game of 20 squares, c. 1550-1295 B.C.
The game of 20 squares, c. 1550-1295 B.C.

This is a race game, most popular in ancient Egypt but spread, and probably originating, all over the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. The board is set out in two sections: a block of three rows of four squares at one end, and an 8-square extension of the middle row.

It is supposed that two players each started their pieces on one of the short rows, and moved them onto the middle row in a race to the far end of the board. The rules would have been similar to, if not identical with, the Royal Game of Ur which this game resembles closely.

History of The Game of Twenty Squares

The Game of Twenty Squares is usually, like senet, associated with ancient Egypt. It was played there from the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C., and is often found on the underside of senet boards. Its name is unknown, but one Egyptian tomb inscription calls it "aseb". This is not a native Egyptian word, and suggests that the game was an import.

This is supported by its resemblance to the much older Royal Game of Ur. The Royal Game of Ur also has 20 squares, with the same block of three rows of four squares at one end. The markings on Egyptian boards are laid out much like the rosettes on the Ur game, each special square being four positions distant from the last. In this, the Egyptian board looks like a version of the Ur game with its course somewhat "straightened out".

The 20-square game in its Egyptian form was played elsewhere too. It was played in Cyprus, though Cyprus fell within the Egyptian empire. It was found in Mesopotamia, in the new form as well as the old, and as far east as India, from where it may have originated.

Rules for The Game of Twenty Squares

Rules for The Game of Twenty Squares
These rules are almost identical to those of The Royal Game of Ur.

1. The Game of Twenty Squares is played on a board of 20 squares, arranged in 3 rows of 4 with an 8-square extension to the middle row (as shown in the diagram). Five of the squares are marked.

2. Each player starts the game with five pieces in hand, the board being empty.

3. Players each have a knuckle-bone or four-sided die, giving values of 1, 2, 3 or 4 when thrown.

4. Players decide at random who begins.

5. The path of a player's pieces starts on his side of the board, in the large block, four squares from the end. The piece moves toward the corner with the rosette, before moving to the adjacent square on the middle row and continuing in the opposite direction till it reaches the far end.

6. In his turn a player first throws his die.

7. If none of his pieces are in play, then he must enter a piece on the first, second, third or fourth square on the board, according to the score of the die.

8. If he has pieces already on the board, then instead he may move one of his pieces along its path by the number of squares indicated on the die.

9. If a piece is moved so as to land on a marked square, then the player may roll and move again.

10. A piece must bear off by an exact throw. For example, if a player's piece sits on the final rosette of its path, a 1 is required to bear off; if on the adjacent square, a 2, and so on.

11. Only one of a player's pieces may sit in a square at once; pieces cannot sit together in the same square.

12. If the roll of the die gives no valid move, then the turn is lost and the opponent's turn begins. In this case no further roll is granted, even if the die shows four.

13. If landing on an opponent's piece, that piece is removed from the board and must begin its journey again.

14. The first four squares in a piece's path are safe, as the opponent's pieces never land there.

15. The first player whose pieces are all borne off the board has won the game.

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