Refining the Royal Game of Ur
Saturday, 27th June 2015
Some years ago I published a leaflet on the Royal Game or Ur as part of my Traditional Board Games series. Recently I've been re-examining my own rules in a quest to satisfy both authenticity and good game-play. While I don't intend to revisit the leaflet series itself, I might change my conclusions in future writings about the Royal Game of Ur.
In putting together the rules in the leaflet I drew on a number of sources: mainly books. I looked at some web sites and some computer implementations for inspiration, but the end product drew from the books in the hope that they'd contain the best research. You can read the rules I came up with at http://bit.ly/1JfKCZ6.
The fact that the Royal Game of Ur is a race game is beyond doubt, and that in one form it used seven pieces and three binary dice (each giving values of 0 or 1) per player. But other things are assumed: borrowed from other games or based on "internal evidence": the path the pieces moved, rules for capture, and the function of the "rosette" squares.
It is generally agreed that the Royal Game of Ur is equivalent to the Game of Twenty Squares, the latter being a "straightened out" version of the former. Twenty Squares has a more obvious path. Each player takes in sixteen of the squares, the first four being safe havens for each player; in addition, the path includes a marked square once every four steps. Translated to the Ur board, an equivalent path would curl around the end block of 2x3 squares in the shape of a question mark. Many books do not follow this, but the solution seems so neat and obvious that I can't help but believe it to be true in light of the lack of contrary evidence.
The rules of capture for most race games are that a piece landed on is removed from the board, and has to begin its journey afresh. This is the rule that I adopted for Ur. An alternatives is the one often adopted for senet: that the captured piece is knocked back to the position its captor started from. I've only ever seen this one applied to senet, not to other similar games.
As for the rosettes, there are a number of different suggestions. The one that I went with was that these are "safe" squares, and that pieces resting there cannot be captured. The alternative is that the squares allow another throw.
This creates a fun game with a bit of tactical thinking. Players take advantage of their own home row, entering pieces there and advancing by choice only when it is safe to do so. Players aim to secure the middle rosette; not only is a piece safe there, but is in a position to leap out onto those that pass. If the dice do not allow landing on the rosette, then pieces sprint across the "bridge" to relative safety on the other side. They can be left there if no enemies are nearby to threaten them, allowing the player to concentrate on other priorities.
I've been happy to play this game, but one nagging thought tells me that it still needs improvement. The rosettes are protective squares, but what use are the ones on each player's home row? The whole row is protected, so the markings are redundant: but they're there on every extant board.
So a month or two ago a friend and I tried playing with the alternative interpretation of the rosettes: they're not protected squares, but instead give another throw. The rule about having another throw on a throw of 4 no longer applied.
I was concerned that this would remove too much tactical thinking from the game, and reduce it to a game of snakes and ladders with multiple pieces per player. In the game from the leaflet, one had to think about when to advance a piece from a rosette. In the revised game one should do so at the earliest opportunity; that would be as soon as landing there if no other piece was in danger. And apart from the home rows, the different parts of the board no longer have their special characteristics. There's just a gradual change as one progresses: there is more to lose further along the board if a piece there is lost, but this was still the case with the game in the leaflet.
Overall I'll still use the new rules, with the rosettes granting another throw, in the future writings on the Royal Game of Ur. Though I think this version of the game loses something, the fact that all five rosettes now have the same function makes it more likely to be authentic.