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How to Play Nine Men’s Morris? Simple Strategy with Ancient Roots

Here’s a quick overview of how to play Nine Men’s Morris, a traditional strategy game that has been around for thousands of years.

It was known to be popular in ancient Roman times, and apparently also had a large following through the medieval era in Europe.

The actual origin of the game is not known, but this strategy game has endured the test of time due both to simplicity of rules and depth of strategy in the gameplay.

It’s easy to set up, the materials are cheap and simple, and the game doesn’t take long to play.

The name “Nine Men’s Morris” seems to be a somewhat recent addition to the game – the first known mention of the name is in the works of Shakespeare.

The oldest Nine Men’s Morris board known is carved into an Egyptian temple dating to 1400 BCE. There’s no telling when the carving was made, of course, but that’s still a long and storied legacy for such a seemingly humble game.

Ready to learn the rules, and see why this game has been played for millennia? We’ll walk you through everything you need to know to play your own game of Nine Men’s Morris.

Simple Strategy with Ancient Roots

Overview and Materials

Depending on your personal preferences, there are countless varieties of game sets you can buy for Nine Men’s Morris. The success of the game through history is at least partly due to how simple the game components are, meaning that in past eras the less wealthy could make their own boards and pieces with ease.

All you need to play a game is:

  • A Game Board: The board is made up of three squares, stacked inside each other. There are 8 points on each square – one in each corner, and one in the center of each side. The points in the center of each square are linked to each other by lines, forming a kind of grid. During the game, players will be competing to place their men on these points – trying to make lines of 3.
  • 18 Men: You will need 9 tokens for each player to represent their “men”, usually split into two colors so you can tell which men belong to which player.

That is the grand total of all materials you need for a game of Nine Men’s Morris. Seriously!

Related: Our Favorite Traditional Pub Games

Goal of the Game

Nine Men's Morris - Replica Medieval Leather Board with Wooden Pieces
Medieval Nine Men’s Morris Leather Board with Wooden Pieces, available on Amazon (affiliate link)

The aim is also straightforward in Nine Men’s Morris. Each player is trying to create Mills, or complete lines of 3 men, to remove the opponent’s pieces from the board.  When one player is either left with no legal moves, or they are left with only 2 men (not enough to create their own Mills), the other player is victorious.

The game takes place over 2 main phases, with an optional final phase sometimes included in the rules.

Phase 1: Placing Your Men

When the game begins, flip a coin to see who gets to place the first man on the board.

That player can place one of their men on any available point on the board. Then the other player has a chance to do the same, and the turns alternate this way until both players have played down all 9 of their men.

During this phase of the game, you can already start completing Mills and capturing pieces. Whenever 3 of your men form a line on the board, you have made a Mill. When you make a Mill, you can remove one of your opponent’s pieces from the board.

A piece that is removed this way is captured, and can’t be played again.

A quick strategy tip for this phase: don’t get drawn in by trying too hard to make Mills during this first phase. The best approach is, instead, to try to set yourself up for good repeatable Mills in the 2nd phase of the game.

Phase 2: Moving Men, Making Mills

Once both players have placed all 9 of their men on the game board, the 2nd phase of the game begins.

In this phase, the players can now move their men around on the game board. You should be trying to make Mills during this phase aggressively, while also keeping an eye on disrupting your opponent’s ability to make their own Mills.

Continuing the turn order from the previous phase, the first player can move one of their men on the game board to any point connected by a line. Then, the other player does the same and the back and forth continues until somebody only has 3 pieces left.

You can break and re-form Mills any number of times during this phase, and each time you re-make the Mill with your move you get to remove one of your opponent’s men again. This is where the importance of that Phase 1 set-up comes in! You could even set yourself up in such a way that you are moving a piece back and forth between 2 Mills, removing a piece every turn.

Also, a quick but important note about capturing opponent’s men: you can’t capture men in Mills unless there aren’t any other options to capture on the board.

At this point, the game could end when one player has no legal moves or if someone is left with only 2 pieces. If you like, though, you can instead move on to a 3rd phase when one player is reduced to 3 pieces.

Phase 3: Fly, Fly Away

When one player reaches 3 pieces, they are in very real danger of losing imminently – and there probably isn’t much they can do about it! You can technically still make a Mill with 3 pieces, but depending on how many pieces remain for your opponent that might not be enough.

To give the player in the losing position a chance, in the 3rd phase the player with 3 pieces gains the ability to fly.

They can now move their piece to any available point on the game board. This probably won’t be enough to save them, but it gives them a shot to fight back against the inevitable.

Winning the Game

Ending a game of Nine Men’s Morris is as straightforward as playing it was. When you’ve captured all but 2 of an opponent’s men, they no longer have the ability to make Mills so the game is over. Congratulations, you win!

You might also be able to ring your opponent in, leaving them with no legal moves. This also would result in a victory for you.

If you’ve never given Nine Men’s Morris a play, what are you waiting for? It couldn’t be easier to set up and play, and it’s a fantastic game for two players to pass some idle time. Join millions of people through millennia of history in enjoying this classic strategy game!

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