Watch a Playthrough of the Oldest Board Game in the World, the Sumerian Royal Game of Ur, Circa 2500 BC

They may not sur­prise the aver­age mar­ket ana­lyst, but the gam­ing industry’s fig­ures tell a pret­ty com­pelling sto­ry. New­zoo esti­mates that “2.3 bil­lion gamers across the globe will spend $137. 9 bil­lion on games in 2018.” Ven­ture­Beat reports that mobile games account for over 50 per­cent of the total. Cur­rent­ly, “about 91 per­cent of the glob­al mar­ket is dig­i­tal, mean­ing that $125.3 bil­lion worth of games flows through dig­i­tal­ly con­nect­ed chan­nels as opposed to phys­i­cal retail.”

That’s a lot of vir­tu­al dough float­ing around in vir­tu­al worlds. But this vast and rapid growth in dig­i­tal gam­ing does not mean phys­i­cal games are going away any­time soon—and that includes cards, board games, and oth­er table­top games, a mar­ket that has “surged as play­ers have grown jad­ed with the dig­i­tal screens they toil over dur­ing the work day,” wrote Joon Ian Wong in 2016.

Ven­ture cap­i­tal is flow­ing into board game devel­op­ment. Table­top bars and cafes are pop­ping up all over the world, encour­ag­ing peo­ple to min­gle over Scrab­ble and Cards Against Human­i­ty. It seems the time is just right to revive the old­est playable board game in the world. If some­one hasn’t already launched a Kick­starter to bankroll a new Roy­al Game of Ur, I sus­pect we’ll see one any day now. At least four-and-a-half-thou­sand years old, accord­ing to British Muse­um Cura­tor Irv­ing Finkel, the Roy­al Game of Ur was prob­a­bly invent­ed by the Sume­ri­ans. And it seems like it might still be a blast, and a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge, to play.

“You might think it’s so old that it’s irre­triev­able to us, that we’ve got no idea what it was like play­ing, what the rules were like,” Finkel says in the video at the top, “but all sorts of evi­dence has come to light so that we know how this game was played.” He promis­es, in no uncer­tain terms, to wipe the floor with YouTu­ber Tom Scott in a Roy­al Game of Ur show­down, and Scott, who has nev­er played the game before, seems at a decid­ed dis­ad­van­tage. But watch their con­test to see how the game is played and whether Finkel makes good on his threat. Along the way, he lib­er­al­ly shares his knowl­edge.

For a short­er course on the Roy­al Game of Ur, see Finkel’s video above. It takes him a cou­ple min­utes to get around to intro­duc­ing his sub­ject, the dis­cov­ery and deci­pher­ing of the “world’s old­est rule book.” A con­sum­mate ancient his­to­ry detec­tive, Finkel describes how he decod­ed an ancient tablet that explained a game, but which game, no one knew. So, the ded­i­cat­ed cura­tor tried the rules on every mys­te­ri­ous ancient game he could find, till he land­ed on the “game of twen­ty squares” from Mesopotamia. “It fit­ted per­fect­ly,” he says with rel­ish. See the orig­i­nal board, pieces, and dice from about 2500 BC, and learn how Finkel had been search­ing for its rules of play since he was 9 years old.

For more of Finkel’s pas­sion­ate pub­lic schol­ar­ship, see him demon­strate how to write in cuneiform and read about how his work on cuneiform tablets led to him dis­cov­er­ing the old­est ref­er­ence to the Noah’s Ark myth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

The British Muse­um Is Now Open To Every­one: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour and See 4,737 Arti­facts, Includ­ing the Roset­ta Stone

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (7)
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  • Charles Bame says:

    It looks like a very good game. My wife might even play it with me!

  • Marilyn says:

    I think it looks like a fun game to play! You should def­i­nite­ly make more repli­cas for sale.

  • Philip says:

    My good friend and I have been play­ing this game for years and love it! Of course, it presents a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to nee­dle and curse each oth­er! We have the card­board box British Muse­um Pub­li­ca­tions ver­sion of the games. The rules we learned were a bit dif­fer­ent from those shown in the video. But not real­ly more dif­fi­cult. For instance, one can stack one’s own game pieces on any square which pre­vents your oppo­nent from land­ing on that square. I think we’ve fol­lowed the rules on the inside of the game box. I high­ly rec­om­mend this two-per­son game. Not dif­fi­cult as all as you see from the video.

  • Bill W. says:

    Where can we order this game? Couldn’t find it on Ama­zon.

  • Linda Filer says:

    Yes, make more !

  • Tina Wales says:

    Defi­nate­ly, yes please! With­the hard­er rules too :)

  • Trish E. Matson says:

    I would def­i­nite­ly enjoy play­ing a repli­ca of this game. Please include both the sim­ple rules and the more advanced ones.

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