Backgammon has long been enjoyed as a classic board game by people from all over the world. But how old is it?
Backgammon is thought to have been invented around 3,000 BC in the ancient Mesopotamian Sumerian civilization in what is now southern Iraq. Over the millennia, forms of the game became widespread throughout the Middle East and Europe.
Read on to find out more about the history of backgammon.
History of Backgammon
In the 1920s, the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was conducting excavations in southern Mesopotamia and found five dice game boards that resembled the layout for the modern-day game of backgammon, likely dating back to 3,000 BC.
These were ornate game boards made out of wood and decorated with lapis lazuli, shells, and bone, along with animal and floral motifs. It is believed that dice were first invented for divination purposes, evolving from a practice whereby shamans would throw animal bones on the ground to tell the future.
People then carved these bones into dice, with six-sided dice rolling well. It was not long until people started using these dice for entertainment, with dice games like backgammon.
Close to the site where Sir Woolley found the ancient Sumerian boards, another board was found with two sets of playing pieces and dice underneath it, showing that they were used to play the game.
Backgammon boards have also been found in ancient Egypt, dating back to 1,500 BC, equipped with a device used to roll dice to prevent people from cheating as the game was likely used for gambling.
A form of the game known as nard became popular in ancient Persia, where, according to the Persian poet Ferdowsi, a 6th-century Persian physician introduced it to an Indian raja, who in turn introduced the physician to chess.
Forms of the game were also popular in the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire, helping to spread the game into Europe. It was known as tabula in Latin and tavli in Greek, meaning tables, with this still being the word used to describe the game in Greece.
It is the Roman form of the game that is the descendent of backgammon as it is typically played today.
Forms of Backgammon
Forms of the game are also believed to have spread into East Asia, where it was known as shuanglu in China and ban-sugoroku in Japan, before being replaced in popularity by games like xiangqi and go. Pachisi, which developed in India, may also be a descendent of backgammon.
As backgammon spread in Medieval Europe, it was swiftly banned in some countries like 13th-century France for its associations with gambling. Despite this, records of the game are widespread, found in the 13th-century Spanish Libro de los Juegos, in paintings like the 16th-century The Cardsharps by Caravaggio, and even onboard the 17th-century Swedish shipwreck of the Vasa.
Although it was banned in Elizabethan England, it soon became widespread in Great Britain too, with the name “backgammon” likely coming from Middle English “back” and “gamen” meaning back game or back play, perhaps a reference to the aim of the game being to travel around the board and pair off one’s pieces.
As Europeans took the game to their colonies, it spread even further around the world, but it was not until the 20th century that it would have another worldwide resurgence in popularity, with further variations to the game being made.
The doubling cube rule was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, while the World Backgammon Club was founded in the 1960s by the Russian-American socialite Prince Alexis Obolensky, given the nickname the “Father of Modern Backgammon”. This association published an official set of backgammon rules, with major international competitions starting in 1964.
It quickly took off in popularity throughout the United States and led to a resurgence in global backgammon. However, forms of the game have been widespread in much of the Middle East and Greece for thousands of years.
When Was Backgammon Invented?
In short, backgammon is thought to be one of the oldest board games in the world, with game boards found dating back to ancient Sumer in 3,000 BC. However, this is not to say that it was definitely invented at this point as earlier versions of the game could exist, such as the ancient Egyptian game senet, likely played even earlier than 3,000 BC.
While senet may be related to backgammon, the rules are still a matter of debate.
Having changed as it traveled around the world, it is hard to definitively say when it was invented, and the current version played today was only invented in the 1920s and codified in the 1960s. The roots of the game are much older, perhaps unknowably so.