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Royal Game of Ur

British Museum Royal Game of Ur

Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is an ancient game represented by two game boards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq and date from before 2600 BC. The rules of the game, are known based on the discovery of clay cuneiform tablets from Babylonian dating from 177–176 BC. The rules show that it was a form of a racing game similar to and an early predecessor to the present-day backgammon.

The Royal Game of Ur was played with two sets of seven markers, one black and one white, and some tetrahedral dice which are composed of four triangular faces, so unlike modern dice with six sides this game had tetrahedral dice with four faces.

The game is also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, and a graffiti version of the game was discovered on one of the human-headed winged bull gate sentinels from the palace of Sargon II (721–705 BC) indicating that soldiers or guards played the game during less busy periods at the palace gates. Similar games have also been discovered on other ancient sculptures, suggesting that this game had broad appeal and was not just for royalty.

Ur was founded c. 3800 BC and was an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia.  Ur was once a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf. However, the coastline gradually  shifted with the passage of thousands of years, and the location of the city, which was abandoned by 500 BC, is now well inland, on the south bank of the Euphrates

The Royal Cemetery at Ur was discovered at an archaeological site in modern-day southern Iraq. The first excavations at Ur took place between 1922 and 1934. The cemetery at Ur incorporated over 2,000 burials. Amongst these burials were sixteen tombs identified as “royal” based on their size and the richness of grave goods as well as the existence of ritual artefacts. The Royal Game of Ur was discovered in one of the Royal Tombs of Ur by the famous British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s.

Reflections on the Royal Game of Ur

  • Graffiti version of this game has been discovered on many ancient sculptures, indicating broad popularity. What is the most popular board game today?
  • Do we today play more or fewer games than in the past?
  • Would rulers be allowed to always win by their subordinates in a highly hierarchical power structure?
  • Would the ruler of four thousand years ago loose face if he lost in such a game?


Royal Game of Ur also known as the Game of Twenty Squares

  • Title:                 Royal Game of Ur also known as the Game of Twenty Squares
  • Created:         2600–2400 BC
  • Culture:          First Dynasty of Ur
  • Place:               Ur in current-day Iraq
  • Materials:      Wood, shell
  • Discovered:  1920’s
  • Dimensions: H: 2.4 cm, W: 11 cm; L: 30.1 cm
  • Museum:        The British Museum


“A dog which is played with turns into a puppy.”
– Sumerian Proverbs


Photo Credit: 1) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons;  Content: Content from Wikipedia articles on the above subjects is license