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Yorkton Boardgamers Guild - Medieval game still has play merit

This week it is time to look at another very ancient game which is still worthy of some play time. Nine Men’s Morris dates at least to the Roman Empire.

This week it is time to look at another very ancient game which is still worthy of some play time.

Nine Men’s Morris dates at least to the Roman Empire. The game is also known as Nine Man Morris, Mill, Mills, The Mill Game, Merels, Merrills, Merelles, Marelles, Morelles and Ninepenny Marl in English, testament to its long history and regional influences.

Three main variants of Nine Men’s Morris are Three-, Six- and Twelve-Men’s Morris.

It is likely most board game players are aware of the Morris family of games. The board consists of a grid with twenty-four intersections or points. Each player has nine pieces, or ‘men’ (at least in the Nine Men’s format), of two distinct colours. Players try to form ‘mills’ — three of their own men lined horizontally or vertically — allowing a player to remove an opponent’s man from the game. A player wins by reducing the opponent to two pieces (where he could no longer form mills and thus be unable to win), or by leaving him without a legal move.

It sounds simple, and in terms of rules the Morris games certainly are, but that does not mean they are easy, at least for the experienced player.

According to R. C. Bell, (the author of several books on board games, most importantly Board and Table Games 1 & 2 reprinted as Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations), the earliest known board for the game includes diagonal lines and was “cut into the roofing slabs of the temple at Kurna in Egypt” c. 1400 BCE, according to Wikipedia. Bell believes the game was “probably well known by the Romans”, as there are many boards on Roman buildings, even though dating them is impossible because the buildings “have been easily accessible” since they were built. It is possible that the Romans were introduced to the game via trade routes, but this cannot be proven.

Again, from Wikipedia, “the game peaked in popularity in medieval England. Boards have been found carved into the cloister seats at the English cathedrals at Canterbury, Gloucester, Norwich, Salisbury and Westminster Abbey.[13] These boards used holes, not lines, to represent the nine spaces on the board — hence the name “nine holes” — and forming a diagonal row did not win the game. Another board is carved into the base of a pillar in Chester Cathedral in Chester. Giant outdoor boards were sometimes cut into village greens. In Shakespeare’s 17th century work A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania refers to such a board: “The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I) …

“In some European countries, the design of the board was given special significance as a symbol of protection from evil, and ‘to the ancient Celts, the Morris Square was sacred: at the center lay the holy Mill or Cauldron, a symbol of regeneration; and emanating out from it, the four cardinal directions, the four elements and the four winds.’”

In terms of game play, it proceeds in three phases:

• Placing men on vacant points

• Moving men to adjacent points

• (optional phase) Moving men to any vacant point when the player has been reduced to three men

Nine Men’s Morris starts on an empty board. The game begins with an empty board. The players take turns placing their men one per play on empty points. If a player is able to place three of his pieces on contiguous points in a straight line, vertically or horizontally, he has formed a mill and may remove one of his opponent’s pieces from the board and the game, with the caveat that a piece in an opponent’s mill can only be removed if no other pieces are available. After all men have been placed, phase two begins.

Players then continue to alternate moves, this time moving a man to an adjacent point. A piece may not jump another piece. Players continue to try to form mills and remove their opponent’s pieces as in phase one. When one player has been reduced to three men, phase three begins.

When a player is reduced to three pieces, there is no longer a limitation on that player of moving to only adjacent points: The player’s men may ‘fly’ from any point to any vacant point. “Some rules sources say this is the way the game is played, some treat it as a variation, and some don’t mention it at all,” notes Wikipedia. “A 19th-century games manual calls this the “truly rustic mode of playing the game”. Flying was introduced to compensate when the weaker side is one man away from losing the game.

A better game, with much the same rules, Twelve Men’s Morris adds four diagonal lines to the board and gives each player twelve pieces. This means the board can be filled in the placement stage; if this happens the game is a draw. “This variation on the game is popular amongst rural youth in South Africa where it is known as Morabaraba and is now recognized as a sport in that country. H. J. R. Murray also calls the game ‘the larger merels’,” notes Wikipedia.

More intriguing still is Ten Men’s Morris invented by Emanuel Lasker, chess world champion from 1894 to 1921. It is based on the rules of Nine Men’s Morris, but there are two differences: 1) Each player gets ten pieces; 2) Pieces can be moved in the first phase already. This means each player can choose to either place a new piece or to move one of his pieces already on the board. This variant is more complex than Nine Men’s Morris and draws are less likely.The great thing is all three versions play on essentially the same board, and are all worth an afternoon or two of exploration.