This board game is at least 4,500 years old
and it was played in the Middle East
by the Sumerians who probably invented it.
And the thing is, you might think that it
is so old that it is irretrievable to us
that we’ve got no idea what it was like playing it
what the rules were like
or whether people enjoyed themselves
but all sorts of evidence has come to light
so that we know how this game was played
and we can play it now with a great deal of excitement.
Sometimes it brings out violence.
Sometimes it brings out savagery.
I have to say that this does occasionally occur.
So we’ve decided to bring in a member of the public.
I can’t remember the chap’s name…
I’m Tom Scott. I make videos about science,
technology and the world…
…who’s never played this game before…
I have never played this game before.
I’m going to give him a very swift overview
of the rules
hope he masters them
and then I’m going to play.
Of course I’m going to play very gently at first
because I don’t want him to get upset.
But if I have the slightest inclination that he’s got the hang of it
I’m going to wipe the floor with him
because it wouldn’t do at all for ME who discovered these rules
and after all it’s MY game and I work
in the British Museum SO THERE!
I HAVE TO WIN!
So there’s not going to be any FUNNY BUSINESS
with some sort of sleight of hand or any of that kind of stuff
Just follow carefully and you’ll see who the superior player is
right from the start.
IRVING: I think we have to start off shaking hands.
IRVING: That’s what one always does under
I have to tell you a few things about this game before we start.
Firstly this is a replica.
TOM: I was going to ask.
IRVING: Otherwise we couldn’t even look at it.
TOM: I was going to say. I was starting to
get a little bit worried about whether I needed
to put gloves on there.
IRVING: Well you should do, but never mind.
OK that’s the first thing
the second thing is is that the original was made in about 2500 BC
so 4,500 years ago or more.
Very smart object.
When it was discovered, they found
pieces and dice
and for a long time nobody had any real idea how to play it
but they made things up and made things up…
And then something interesting turned up which is this thing here.
This is a clay tablet written in cuneiform writing as you obviously know.
This was written in the second century BC so miles afterwards
by a Babylonian astronomer who was best friends were Greek astronomers.
And he wrote this tablet including giving
the rules to how to play it in his day.
All that time afterwards.
So this is the oldest book of rules in the whole world.
That’s one thing.
Second thing is that we can see that in this very late version it’s a very complicated game indeed.
And we’re not going to do that now because if I may put it this way
you are relatively speaking a beginner.
We don’t want to confuse you on the screen.
TOM: That’s fair. That’s fair.
IRVING: So I thought what we would do is start
off with the simple straightforward game
stripped down to the bare minimum.
TOM: I’m still kind of astonished that there
is something that old just sitting there
in front of me.
IRVING: It is quite remarkable, I agree with you.
This tablet was written to explain a complicated version of the game that everybody already knew.
IRVING: Right. It’s the familiar old game
with new rules.
With betting and things like that in it.
Betting for drink and women and other interesting matters.
So they don’t tell you the route, because everybody knows that already.
IRVING: However, on the basis of this thing
itself, anybody who’s played any game like ludo
or anything like that it’s pretty obvious
that it must be like this
that it can’t really be anything else.
So if you make that assumption
you can make a really good friendly normal game like that
but also you can transpose that order under these rules
and also play the more complicated game.
OK so what this is, is the following: it’s a race game.
You have 7, I have 7 pieces.
So this is your route.
You come in here, you turn the corner
and go along there. You come out there
and you come off.
I do obviously the same thing on my side.
And this is the idea. You want to get all your pieces
a) on the board
b) round the track and
c) off the end before I do.
IRVING: What makes it interesting is the following
thing – that here we are at war.
So if you trundle along here calmly and peacefully and put a piece on here
and I get a lucky throw and land on that square
you have to come off again and start again.
Next thing is that these squares here give
you a second throw
and also and that you are safe on this square here
so if you sit there no one can land on it or knock it off.
TOM: And if you roll and land you just can’t move?
IRVING: You can jump over it but you can’t
land on that square whilst someone is there.
Now the dice are something else. Have
People always say they are pyramids, but actually they are tetrahedrons
because they’ve got four sides.
TOM: They are. Triangle based not square based.
IRVING: Exactly. And they have two of the
four corners marked with a white blob.
IRVING: So when you throw four of them, it’s a random number of white blobs
that sticks up and that’s how you get your score.
IRVING: And if you throw four with no white
mark then you lose the turn.
TOM: It’s zero.
IRVING: So the thing is this, it’s quite exciting.
I hope you’re braced for this because it’s like a window on antiquity.
Because this is a two player race game and before chess
and before backgammon came into the world everybody played this game.
It lasted for 3,000 years
and for that reason one imagines it must have been a good game and it is a good game.
And how do we know? Because you never know who’s going to win until the last minute.
So you can come around here think you’re going to be off the end and be the winner
(whooshing sound signalling a death blow)
along I come and you start again.
And that’s a really excellent thing.
And all the games are different, they’re really exciting.
So someone who has never played it before
against someone who has played it for about 47 years?
No disadvantage at all.
TOM: Yes it’s entirely random. It’s the roll of a dice.
IRVING: And of course we have to play speaking
Sumerian. So, your throw sir.
TOM: So, all four?
IRVING: All four at once.
TOM: They’re not quite as easy to pick up as regular dice.
TOM: So do I move 1 stone 2 places?
IRVING: Yes. You can’t subdivide the score like that I don’t think.
TOM: 1, 2.
TOM: All yours.
IRVING: So far nothing to get too excited about.
Same as you.
TOM: That’s a 2.
IRVING: OK, I’ll go here. All yours.
TOM: I’m trying to do the maths now and work out what the probability of getting each number is.
Because it’s presumably more likely…
3. Now do I? Yes, I put another 1 on the board
because then I’m not into conflict with you
IRVING: Good. Of course, alternatively – if
you want to – already adventure onto the main track.
TOM: I could but…
IRVING: You don’t have to get them all out.
That’s not a strategy.
TOM: I could but then you get out first, I’ve
got a chance of landing on you.
IRVING: Exactly. So this is actually an interesting
thing because this is not just a game of luck
there is strategy.
TOM: There is. You’re absolutely right. I
said it was completely random earlier and
IRVING: There is a matter of strategy.
TOM: I kind of went into this thinking it
was going to be mostly random and it’s really not.
It’s like backgammon. There’s a series
of strategic decisions.
It’s the kind of game I love
because you can explain the rules in five minutes and then there are some actually
quite serious decisions you have to make that
affect the game.
IRVING: And you know – the thing about, for example backgammon, everybody plays backgammon today
and the balance between luck and control and skill is about 50/50.
And this game already had some kind of balance.
It’s not quite the same, so backgammon is kind of a better version of this game.
But nevertheless you’ve exactly grasped that. I’m very proud of you. Superb
One of my best students. Go ahead.
TOM: Well the thing about backgammon is that…
How do you pick up those dice?
IRVING: It’s fiddly.
TOM: The thing about backgammon is that it
is made significantly more interesting
by the doubling dice, at the point at which you start betting.
I can’t move that out so OK, let’s sally forth.
IRVING: The fateful step. So I need to get
(counts menacingly under breath)
TOM: Now you’ve got 2 who can land on…
IRVING: I’ve got 2, so if I land here I get
another throw because it’s a rosette.
TOM: Yes, because you’re on a rosette. Oh
I should have moved the other one because
I would have got another throw.
IRVING: This is the moment…
TOM: 3. Unlucky.
IRVING: So I can’t go here, because one’s
here so I’m going to have to go 1, 2, 3,
which in fact puts you in a better position.
TOM: Yep so I need a 1 now.
But any number is good. That’s a 3 – not ideal as nothing will land me on a rosette
so let’s keep 1, 2, 3, that one there.
Because it means you haven’t got two stones about to hit me.
TOM: OK, I’m going home.
IRVING: I hope you’re not taking this personally
or anything like that.
TOM: No, no. I’d be doing exactly the same
HOW DO YOU PICK UP THESE DICE?
There we go. 4.
IRVING: That’s the wasted youth thing.
TOM: 4. So I can immediately go 1, 2, 3, 4,
onto a rosette and get to roll again.
IRVING: See – already a master. He’s pretty good.
TOM: 2. OK let’s go there.
Because that is literally the only possible move I could do with that.
IRVING: Often there isn’t any choice.
That’s a 3. I’m going to go 1, 2, 3.
TOM: Which puts you well outside where I can
IRVING: Well no, if you get a double I’ll
be within reach.
TOM: Oh yes.
So I cut myself off with this earlier. But I was trying to work out what the maths was…
Why didn’t I put another one on the board there?
…what the maths was on probabilities
because you’re essentially flipping four coins there.
IRVING: Yes that’s correct.
TOM: So statistically 0s and 4s are going
to be unlikely
and 2s are going to be most likely I think?
IRVING: I’m going to leave this entirely to
I can read cuneiform, but mathematics is completely out of my reach.
TOM: I’m immediately looking at statistics
and numbers when I play something like this
because – ‘Right, so 2s the most common
thing so I don’t want to have my piece there
because it’s most likely to get knocked off’
– which it appears is absolutely no match
for someone who literally deciphered the rules
to the game himself.
IRVING: Erm. I’m rather intrigued to discover
that my opponent
– who looks like a perfectly civilised person –
is in fact mathematically capable.
Because none of my friends can count beyond two hands or fingers
and I am among them.
When I went to school the teacher wrote to my parents in maths
saying that I needed to be sedated before the class
because I behaved so badly and I’ve never been able
to count above 10 on my own.
TOM: 1, 2, 3.
TOM: That was a terrible move! Wasn’t even thinking on that.
IRVING: OK, 1, 2, 3.
TOM: Because if you get a 1 or a 3 now I’m
IRVING: Well, I’ll have to do my best.
TOM: Phew oh hohohoho.
IRVING: No that one’s already off so I am
coming in with this.
Can you see the difference between the colours clearly?
IRVING: One’s a dull boring grey and the other
is a darker dull boring grey.
TOM: I was wondering: is that historically
accurate or is that just because the stones
have faded over time?
IRVING: It’s just because they didn’t have
the right colours…
TOM: Oh! Nothing!
IRVING: Not a moment for that, really – very
rash move, very rash throw… 2… duh duh duh… ah.
TOM: Despite making some quite poor moves I am…
IRVING: You are getting away with it.
TOM: I have got quite a lot of luck on my
side at the minute it seems
I really have, 1!
IRVING: Nice work…
TOM: That’s a point. That’s not off the board. That is back here isn’t it?
IRVING: That’s one way you can cheat of course.
IRVING: If you are playing with an innocent
and unobservant player…
TOM: I was going to say: the number of ways you presumably know how to cheat about this game?
IRVING: Well you know actually there are lots of games where if you can cheat properly
people admire you.
TOM: Did you just go easy on me?!
IRVING: No, you mean knocking you off?
Oh, actually I did but I…
IRVING: At the moment I am seeing what would
be appropriate as it’s not really fair if
you just slash through the game in the first
thing and they think you are cheating or something
when actually you are just being very good at it.
TOM: So I am on the rosette so…
I am genuinely slightly annoyed that you have gone easy on me there.
I realise I am going to lose desperately whatever happens but…
IRVING: Right well, I won’t do it again, I
won’t do it again.
TOM: 1, uh let’s move that out of immediate danger.
IRVING: No keep that there. Strategically
this is the best square on the board.
TOM: Why is that?
IRVING: Because if I come up here, making
a bid for the end
any time I overtake you I am vulnerable to you knocking me off
and the further up you are to be knocked off the more irritating it is
so I would keep it definitely…
TOM: I keep lucking out – despite you not
going easy on me – I keep lucking out.
IRVING: I won’t go easy on you, don’t worry.
TOM: Oh it’s the number of times you rolled
and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth… 3…
IRVING: It’s early days kiddo, it’s early days.
You wouldn’t waste technique at this moment…
I’m playing a quiet domestic strategy myself
because I don’t think it would be fair to
– as one ought to be really –
and aggressive and shoot for the end.
At this early stage, I am just testing the mettle of my opponent.
He is doing rather well for a beginner.
I have confidence that, in perhaps a few years
he will become a brown belt or something of that kind.
TOM: Oh! Nothing.
TOM: Yeah, I’m going off the board here… yes.
IRVING: The Babylonians, of course, had a contemptible flick of the finger
to knock off their opponents: you will have to get that down in time.
TOM: 1… ah lets go on the board.
IRVING: 1, 2, 3, ok I’ll put that here.
TOM: So the board gets quite crowded, quite quickly.
IRVING: Can do.
TOM: I assume that the numbers are set up…
IRVING: Not for long…
TOM: That was a bit aggressive. I assume the
numbers are set up so that inevitably we will
move towards the end?
IRVING: The thing to do, is do
it before your opponent realises…
so that knocks you off…
TOM: Yep, I just realised that one is not
home is it?
IRVING: This one is not home.
TOM: I just flicked it contemptuously off the board
ah um 2…
IRVING: Tense moment here.
TOM: Let’s get this out of range, it’s unlikely
that you will throw a 4 or two 2s
so I am going to try and get that one home.
IRVING: Sounds like a challenge.
TOM: Well this isn’t looking great, I’ll be honest.
IRVING: 2, so what was that about the other 2?
TOM: 2 was the most likely number to come up there, so…
I’m going to leave that there and come on with this piece.
Nope let’s get one safe, I can do
I’ve moved. I’ve moved.
IRVING: No, that’s the right thing.
TOM: I don’t know though I could have gone 3 here and got a second throw.
IRVING: You might have gotten a blank.
I think getting them home when you can…
It’s like children – it’s always a good idea.
TOM: Irving has already got 1 home,
he’s got 5 on the board
and all his opening 4 spaces are full.
So he’s got to start getting some out, which I guess is good for me
because then I’ll be behind him and can take him.
But I don’t fancy my chances, I’ll be honest…
IRVING: I’m in a superficially winning position at the minute
if you were going to make an early judgement because I’ve got all those pieces on the board
but as my colleague has said they are in
a rather safe position.
TOM: I really want you to start coming out
of that little hidey hole you have got there.
IRVING: I will. I will.
So what have we got here? 2, so I’ll take you.
TOM: Of course you will!
IRVING: You know something nice about this board? When they found the original
it was made of wood and all the wood had rotted,
but they could see that there had been a drawer
in this thick end where all the dice and pieces
had been kept originally.
All stored in a little drawer –
which is also a modern idea.
TOM: But as soon as you move out, I should
be able to hit you as soon as I move out.
IRVING: 1, 2, 3.
TOM: This may not have been a good strategy.
IRVING: This is where the 3 would be particularly useful.
TOM: Yes it would, that would be…
IRVING: I’ll have to give it the extra wiggle
of the wrist in order to see
Actually that’s a shame because…
TOM: Yeah… there’s not much you can do.
IRVING: Confound it man. That’s the last thing we wanted.
If I go there you are going to get a 1 for certain
so if I’ve got 4 I think I’m going to go like this: 1, 2, 3.
TOM: That leaves… I think that’s quite vulnerable there.
IRVING: It is, it is, but I don’t want to,
this is going to sit there for the time being.
TOM: I can’t move that one off. I can’t move
that one on.
I can’t move a new one on, so it’s one of these that has to move 3.
I might as well take you off the board.
IRVING: I would do the same.
Right! I think it’s time we got this game moving…
IRVING: Stage 2.
(80s action film montage music. Think Top
Gun, but the stakes are higher!)
TOM: Irving is significantly ahead of me now.
It is going to take a lot of luck to pull this back.
It’s possible, but this is not looking great.
IRVING: Hmmm. Isn’t that one of your pieces?
TOM: Yes… yes it is right there.
IRVING: 2 ahead, do you know that? And that is a 2.
TOM: That is a… that is a 2…
IRVING: That gives me an idea for an offensive move.
TOM: Yes! VERY offensive move.
IRVING: I hope that you are not taking this
It could seriously happen to anyone.
TOM: I am playing against one of the world’s greatest…
yeah there is only one move…
IRVING: One of the world’s greatest?
TOM: I don’t know! I don’t know!
IRVING: What’s this? What’s this ONE of the world’s…?
TOM: I don’t know what… there are other
curators out there…?
IRVING: This means WAR!!! I heard that!
TOM: I get the feeling that this might not end well for me now.
IRVING: The really good thing about this game is that you can never be complacent
because just when you think you have it in the bag
Bang! Bang! Bang!
and you have to go all over again.
And I think that is one of the good things about it.
So you never know who is going to win until you’ve won
and this is a good message for life.
No one’s actually bled to death playing this game…
TOM: There’s always a first time.
IRVING: People have been murdered with chess boards
ungracious losers for example.
2. I think we’ll take this off.
TOM: 5 versus 3 home – this is not looking
IRVING: The pressure is definitely mounting.
TOM: I need to get something out yep go
there get it safe get another move…
because no matter what I roll I can put another one on the board…
1, that will do, Oh, ummm
yeah let’s put that there.
IRVING: Ok, are you sure?
IRVING: Hahaha, I’m sorry I wasn’t supposed
to do that.
TOM: That one’s safe I don’t need to yet
oh come on!
TOM: 1, 2, 3, 4, I think this is, that’s death blow right there.
IRVING: I’ve made a bit of a row here of successfully manoeuvred pieces
IRVING: I don’t mean to speak disparagingly of
your own smaller row or anything like that.
TOM: No, no that’s fine… let’s put a 2 there.
IRVING: The trouble is I have to get past
all of your pieces to get home.
TOM: You only have to do it once though, all you have to get past those defences once
and with that 4 you stand a very good
chance, particularly if I then get…
Oh there’s a 3.
IRVING: Ah oh, this could be good for you…
TOM: I don’t know… it’s not looking great
that one’s safe.
IRVING: It’s more like an ineffectual 2.
TOM: It is, it is.
IRVING: Now the question is…
TOM: Can you get past all that?
Because you’re not going to roll a double,
and there is no rosette for you to land on and…
TOM: Whatever happens…
IRVING: OK, inching ahead.
TOM: 1 or a 3, 1 or a 3
IRVING: You throw a lot of those. Is it one
of your techniques, is it?
TOM: I do, yeah, it’s not a great technique
I’ll be honest.
IRVING: Not widely followed by punters generally.
TOM: So either I get a 4 or you win.
IRVING: The music should be coming in now I think.
Any minute, any minute, the trumpets…
TOM: I really need a 4. The odds are really slim
because it’s probably going to be a 2.
It’s not going to be anything on the outsides
but I can hope.
IRVING: I never believe in that
‘I want a 4’ thing
because this is a very ancient game and the gods of Mesopotamia
who of course used to watch this game in the past
if you had said that out loud: you wanted a 4
the last thing you would have got would be a 4.
So I don’t think it’s a good idea to
irritate them by making that kind of statement.
You think privately to yourself that you want
a 4 and then you throw the 4
that’s the best way doing it really.
TOM: Come on 4. HO YES!!!!
IRVING: Not bad, under pressure, under pressure…
TOM: I will absolutely take a contemptuous flick for that.
That was a 1 in, 1 in…
IRVING: What do you call that in tennis…
TOM: 1 in 16 chance…
IRVING: Does that make it feel better, does
TOM: A little bit, a little bit…
It has this balancing mechanism
If I’m several stones behind then I stand a much better chance of knocking yours off the board.
IRVING: Unless you throw zeros.
TOM: Unless you throw… yes unless you throw zeros.
IRVING: A very sound move.
TOM: That one’s safe, that one’s safe,
that one’s safe
and you have got to move yours ahead.
IRVING: Statistically then, can you manage a 2?
TOM: Can I do it?
IRVING: See all this statistics stuff is all
very well and good but when it comes to it
where does it get you? That’s my question.
I never use mathematics or statistics or calculations
or anything at all like that
because I can’t do it
so I just hope for the best…
TOM: I’m going to do that because the odds
of you throwing a 1 are slim
and that one is safe…
IRVING: Slim huh? (blows dice).
A bit Bond-like, don’t you think, the technique there?
TOM: Little bit.
IRVING: The cool…
TOM: That’s a 3.
IRVING: I wasn’t concentrating!
You’ve got two chances to kill it now.
TOM: I have and if I knock it out… 2!
IRVING: He’s done it, good! Right, this
is where we have to move hard…
TOM: I just have to get these three off
before you knock me off.
IRVING: It’s a straight race. This is a
classic kind of conclusion…
TOM: 2. Ah, that one is safe let’s get this one out of the way
TOM: 3, ugh! I can’t move!
I can’t move that one off, that one is blocked by that, and that one is blocked by that.
Oh, that was bad choices!!
IRVING: Not necessarily
IRVING: Right this is really…
TOM: This is…
IRVING: This is actually what I mean, it is a damn good game.
TOM: It is, it is… OHHH!
IRVING: 1, 2, 3, 4. This is not a good position.
You are going to get one of these 2s and then I’m sunk.
TOM: Oh, that’s true…
IRVING: Oh you have brought out your powerful
reserve throw when you really need it.
TOM: Signature move, yep!
TOM: That’s a 2.
IRVING: Oh no.
TOM: Well it’s all down to this isn’t it?
1 or a 4.
IRVING: Well it’s 1/2 and 1/2 isn’t it?
I think that is almost certainly the game but…
IRVING: I wouldn’t say so, if I get 4 it’s a waste.
TOM: You need a 3.
IRVING: Any of the others will be helpful.
TOM: That’s a 3!
IRVING: Oh I say, can I just check that?
TOM: Yep that’s a…
IRVING: I’ll just slide this over to join
just a moment
I’ll just put them in neat row as the winner has to do…
IRVING: It’s been a great pleasure and a
great opponent, let me say…
TOM: That was really fantastic. I did not
expect a board game from four and a half millennia ago
to be that compelling.
IRVING: Yeah, it is compelling and I will
tell you something amazing
is that knife edge things are really often the conclusion.
You can have one there who has to get one
and they get 3 and 4 and 3 and 4 and 3 and
4 for ages it works out amazingly.
TOM: So why don’t we play this anymore?
IRVING: Well, that’s a very good question.
It’s a very good question.
What we need is a bit of publicity, in some kind of modern electronic form.
Don’t you think that would be a good idea?
Then people from all over the world will buy one of these boards from the British Museum
and they will go home and there will be new domestic happiness
excitement and all that sort of thing.
TOM: I am not sure about domestic happiness
if it comes that close all the time.
IRVING: It always does. It’s rather extraordinary.
I am really glad we had a game together – Marvellous.
TOM: Yes. Thank you so much.
IRVING: Any time you are passing through of
an evening and you fancy another go.
TOM: I might take you up on that.
You may have noticed that we were talking
about this game using a replica
which really looks like the original
with dice which look like the original,
which is good fun to use and rather exciting.
Well we used to make that replica but actually at the moment
we haven’t got any more, but we are thinking
perhaps we should do a new version so that millions of people all around the world
can enjoy this marvellous game in the correct way and in the correct landscape.
So just as a matter of interest if you thought that was a good idea, tell us in the comment section.