Cyningstan

Traditional Board Games

Nine Men's Morris

Nine men's morris at Beamish museum
Nine men's morris at Beamish museum

Nine men's morris is a classic game of pure strategy. It has been described as "noughts and crosses for adults", as it shares the simpler game's aim for forming rows of three, but weaves that aim into a much more sophisticated game of wits.

Featured in A Book of Historic Board Games

This game is featured in A Book of Historic Board Games, by Damian Gareth Walker.  That volume, available as a hardback or paperback, covers twelve games in depth.  For each game there is an entertaining history, full rules, and a discussion of strategy, all in more detail than you'll see on this site.

The rows of three, called "mills", are not the main aim of the game, they are a means to an end. The board starts empty, and players place their pieces in turn; forming a row of three allows the removal of an enemy piece. When all pieces are placed, they slide from one position to another, still trying to form mills and capture enemy pieces. The aim of the game is to reduce the opponent to two pieces, rendering them unable to form any more mills.

History of Nine Men's Morris

History of Nine Men's Morris
The game of nine mens morris is so ancient that we do not know its origin. From the stones of ancient Kurna in Egypt, to the stone- or bronze-age burial sites of Cr Bri Chualann, in County Wicklow in Ireland, the pattern for the board has been found in many ancient contexts.

By mediaeval times it had spread far across the three continents of the old world. It was the game of choice for many, particularly bored monks and priests, who carved its board into the stones and seats of their magnificent abbeys and cathedrals. In the renaissance it was taken with the settlers to the Americas, and there the natives adopted it as their own.

Before Nine Mens Morris could complete its domination of all the inhabited continents of the world, its popularity declined. But the game is fondly remembered today, and it often makes it appearance in those more adventurous games compendia that look beyond chess and backgammon.

Rules for Nine Men's Morris

Rules for Nine Men's Morris
The rules of the game have undergone remarkably little change since they were first recorded. Rule 5 is perhaps the only contentious one, not being universal, and it does not affect the game greatly, but it gives some hope for that player who is lagging behind his opponent.

1. Nine mens morris is played on the board illustrated, which starts empty of pieces. Each player has his own colour, and holds nine pieces of that in his hand.

2. Black starts the first phase of the game by placing a black piece on any vacant point. White follows suit, and play alternates in this way until both players have placed their pieces. Play then progresses to the second phase.

3. After all pieces have been placed, the black player begins the second phase of the game, in which pieces may move around the board. White follows, play alternating until the game is over.

4. A player may move one of his pieces from its point, along a marked line, to the next point, if that point is vacant. Pieces cannot be stacked.

5. A player reduced to three pieces may instead move one of his pieces from its point to any other vacant point on the board.

6. A row of three pieces of the same colour, along a marked line, is called a mill.

7. A player who forms a new mill is entitled, or in fact obliged, to take one of his opponent's pieces as a capture. Any opponent's piece may be captured which is not itself part of a mill.

8. If all of the opponent's pieces are forming a mill, then no capture is made.

9. Only a newly made mill entitles a player to capture a piece. To use the mill again, its owner must break it and reform it on subsequent turns. A mill left idle, therefore, does not guarantee an automatic capture every subsequent turn.

10. The game is over when one player is reduced to two pieces, making it impossible for him to form a mill. His opponent is then the winner.

11. The game is also over if a player is trapped so that he cannot move at all; his opponent is likewise declared the winner.

Strategy in Nine Men's Morris

Strategy in Nine Men's Morris
The first phase of a nine men's morris game is just as important as the second, possibly more so. It is now that the players can set themselves up for victory or defeat. It isn't enough to try to make mills in this phase, though players have to prevent their opponent from doing so. Players should aim to leave themselves in a such position for the second phase that a mill is within easy reach for them, but difficult for the enemy.

While the pieces are all the same, the positions are not. Each point has two, three or four connections to neighbours, and the more connections a point has, the more options a player has for moving the piece from it. It is common at the start of a game for players to try to occupy the points with four connections first, as they give the most scope for forming mills elsewhere.

There are common ways to set up a forced mill in the first phase, that is, a mill that cannot be stopped if the opponent does not recognise the position till too late. One is to occupy opposite corners of a square; occupying a third corner will guarantee a mill if the opponent has not placed a piece in one of the intervening points.

In the second phase, one of the most devastating tactics is the formation of a "running mill", five pieces placed in such a way that they almost form two mills. A piece from the complete mill can slide to an adjecent point to complete the second mill, and on the next turn slides back to reform the first mill, ad infinitum. In this way the player forms a mill every single turn.

Black, moving first, begins the game with the initiative, and dictates the play. But the white player should always try to make defensive moves which threaten attack; when blocking a black mill, try to threaten the formation of white mills. Black will have to respond to these, and so white has gained the initative and can now dictate the course of the game.

Nine men's morris: try it out!

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