The Royal Game Ur is one of the more unique games you’ll ever come across here on Bar Games 101, simply because the rules and instructions for playing are neither fully understood nor universally agreed upon.
Dating back over 5,000 years. The game has baffled and intrigued scholars and gaming experts for decades for as long as anyone can remember, and while some have come up with their own theories on how to play The Royal Game of Ur, finding a standard, definitive set of rules can be next to impossible.
Of course, while this does mean that you can pretty much pick and choose from different rule sets and come up with a game that feels right for you, all the different variations can make things pretty confusing.
That’s where we come in.
In today’s guide, we’ll outline the rules and instructions for The Royal Game of Ur as outlined by noted gaming specialist Robert Charles Bell as his tends to be the most popular and widely-played version of the game.
What is the Royal Game of Ur?
First played in early Mesopotamia as early as 3,000 BC, making it one of the oldest known games in the world, The Royal Game of Ur derives its name from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in Southern Iraq where archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley first unearthed the game during an archeological dig.
Upon Sir Woolley’s discovery, nobody knew how to play the game, though since then, numerous experts have put together their own theories based on other archeological evidence and the game’s similarity to other race games such as backgammon.
If there’s one thing most experts agree on, it’s that the overall goal is to move your playing pieces along a set path on the game board, meaning its overall premise isn’t too much different to modern-day board games.
The big disagreement seems to be over which path players are supposed to take, though again, we’ll be using the one outlined by Robert Charles Bell as it’s the one that best matches an authentic description of the game found on a tablet written circa 177 BC.
Without further ado then, let’s get into how the game is played.
How to Play the Royal Game of Ur
What You’ll Need:
The Royal game of Ur is played on a uniquely designed board with each player receiving 14 tokens and using 6 tetrahedron (triangular pyramid shaped) dice to determine their moves.
These days, modern gaming manufacturers have replicated the game in attractive wooden sets such as this best-selling set from WE Games.
Since these sets contain everything you need to start playing, they’re the easiest option for anyone who wants to start playing, but there’s nothing to say you can’t set up your own game at home.
If you didn’t want to use an actual board, you could always draw one out on paper.
The best way to describe how to do this is as follows:
- Draw a 4 x 3 grid
- Draw a 2 x 3 grid
- Draw a 1 x 2 grid (like a domino piece)
- Line up all 3 grids so that the center rows align, with the 1 x 2 grid in the middle.
When you’ve done this, the 1 x 2 grid should align with the middle row of the other two grids so that it creates a shape that looks a bit like a spade or the letter I.
Game of Ur boards has a unique pattern that may seem somewhat familiar to fans of the game Azul.
While these patterns can vary, the commonly accepted layout features five rosettes placed in key positions as follows:
A rosette is placed in the two bottom corners and center top square of the larger grid.
2 more rosettes are placed in the top corners of the smaller grid.
The game uses 7 circular counters per player, 7 light ones, and 7 dark ones to differentiate between each player as in chess or checkers.
The counters have 5 dots on them arranged in the same way as they are in dominoes.
The Royal Game of Ur is also fairly unique in that it uses pyramid-shaped tetrahedron dice.
Although these are a little harder to come by, you might have a few handy if you play Dungeons & Dragons or any number of RPG board games.
Alternatively, you can find them in special dice sets such as this attractive dice package from Ifergoo.
The Royal Game of Ur: Rules and Gameplay
Most experts agree that the aim of the game is to get your counters from the inside square (the starting square) on the larger grid to the inside square on the smaller grid (the finishing square).
To set this up, Player 1 will start in the top inside corner and Player 2 in the bottom inside corner.
In the Bell version of the game, the path from the starting square to the finishing square is pretty simple.
- Players move from their starting square, work their way down to the end of that row.
- Next, they move into the middle row and work their way all the way up until they reach the final square in the smaller grid.
- Finally, they move back into their designated row until they reach the finishing square.
The first player to get all their counters into this finishing square wins the game.
Determining Moves With the Dice
One of the biggest differences in all the variations of The Royal Game of Ur is how the dice determines the way that players move.
In the Bell version, players throw three dice, take the numbers that landed with the spotted side up, and add the total.
This will give you a total between 0 – 3 which determines the moves you can make as follows:
- 0 – Move 4 squares. Throw again
- 1 – Don’t move. Your turn finishes
- 2 – Move 1 square. Throw again
- 3 – Move 5 squares. Throw again.
Players must throw a 3 to enter a new counter onto the board and can choose between doing that or moving an existing piece-in-play.
How to Capture in the Royal Game of Ur
Once players get their counters on the middle row, those counters are eligible to be captured.
Capturing occurs when one player’s counter lands in the same square as their opponent’s.
For example, If Player 1 lands in the same square as Player 2, they capture that counter.
The counter is then returned to Player 2 and can only be returned to the board when they roll a 3.
The Significance of the Rosettes
Another point of contention is the rosettes. Bell insisted that these were penalty squares and if a player lands on one then they have to pay a fine into a pre-established betting pool.
This might also be a good way to play if you’re turning the Game of Ur into a drinking game. Every time a player lands on a rosette, they down a drink.
Personally, this is where we prefer to deviate from Bell’s rules and use the other commonly-accepted use of the rosette squares, which is for safety.
In other words, any counters on those rosette squares are ‘safe’ and ineligible to be captured by an opponent.
Alternatives to Bell’s Royal Game of Ur Rules
Robert Charles Bell’s take on the Royal Game of Ur is largely regarded as the most popular and widely-played version. This is thanks in no small part to its relative simplicity when compared to other versions and is the main reason why we chose to stick to it for today’s guide.
Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least introduce you to some alternatives.
The HJR Murray Path
The first and most notable difference is what’s known as the HJR Murray path, named after famed chess historian Harold James Ruthven Murray who originally came up with it.
Murray’s version is often referred to as the “There and Back Again” path in which players start by moving their counters in a similar path to Bell’s version, except once they cross the “bridge” between the two squares, players loop around the smaller square and journey back towards the starting square.
Once counters return “home” to the starting square, they are taken off the board. Again, the first player to get all their counters off the board wins.
In this version, it’s important that once counters begin their return journey over the bridge, they are flipped over so as not to confuse them with counters on their outward journey.
The Masters’ Path
If that seems a little too complicated, a more recent variation is the Masters’ path, invented by James Masters. This version is a compromise between the Murray and Bell versions.
Again, it follows Bell’s path into the second square to get the counter into that inside finishing square, albeit with the added addition of the loop around the second square from Murray’s path.
The Royal Game of Ur: An Ancient Game With Modern Appeal
One great thing about The Royal Game of Ur is that regardless as to whether you play Bell’s, Murray’s, or Masters’ rules, you’re bound to find it tremendous fun. The unique game design and rules provide just the right balance of challenge and entertainment to make it a great race game for all ages.
The other great thing, of course, is that it’s one of the oldest games in existence. After all, how often in life can you say that you’re playing the exact same game enjoyed by the ancient Mesopotamians 5,000 years ago?
Not often, sure, though surprisingly there are a few examples. If you like your games with a lot of ancient history behind them, you might also like Shogi, Jacks, or Mahjong, all of which we’ve found to be every bit as enjoyable as The Royal Game of Ur.