Roman board from the 2nd century, Aphrodisias.
Board games have existed for millennia in Ancient Egypt and Southwest Asia. The ancient Egyptian game senet was excavated, along with illustrations, from ancient Egyptian royal tombs. The Royal Game of Ur, played in ancient Mesopotamia, may also be an ancestor of modern-day table games. In the modern Middle East, backgammon is a common feature of coffeehouses.
Backgammon is one of the oldest board games for two players. The playing pieces are moved according to the roll of dice, and a player wins by removing all of his pieces from the board before his opponent. Backgammon is a member of the tables family, one of the oldest classes of board games in the world.
Although luck is one of the determining factors in the outcome, strategy plays a more important role in the long run. With each roll of the dice, players must choose from numerous options for moving their checkers and anticipate possible counter-moves by the opponent. In variants that originate from early 20th century New York, players may raise the stakes during the game. There is an established repertoire of common tactics and occurrences.
Like chess, backgammon has been studied with great interest by computer scientists. Owing to this research, backgammon software has been developed capable of beating world-class human players.
Excavations at Shahr-e Sukhteh (Persian شهر سوخته, literally “The Burnt City”) in Iran have shown that the game existed there around 3000 BC. The artifacts include two dice and 60 checkers, and the set is believed to be 100 to 200 years older than the sets found in Ur. On the board found at Shahr-e Sukhteh the fields are fashioned by the coils of a snake.
Touraj Daryaee (2006), on the subject of the first written mention of early precursors of backgammon, writes: The game of backgammon is first mentioned in Bhartrhari’s Vairagyasataka (p. 39), composed around the late sixth or early seventh century AD.
The use of dice for the game is another indication of its Indic origin, since dice and gambling were a favorite pastime in ancient India. The rules of the game, however, first appeared in the Middle Persian text Wızarisnı Catrang ud Nihisnı New Ardaxsır (Explanation of Chess and Invention of Backgammon), composed in the sixth century during the rule of the Sasanian king Khosrow I (530–571).
The text assigns its invention to the Persian sage Wuzurgmihr (Persian) Buzarjumihr/Bozorgmehr, who was the minister of King Khosrow I.
According to the historical legend, the Indian king Dewisarm sends his minister Taxritos to Persia with the game of chess, and a letter challenging Sasanian King Khosrow I to solve the riddle or rationale for the game.
Khosrow asks for three days to decipher the game, but initially no-one in the court is able to make any progress. On the third day, Khosrow’s minister, Wuzurgmihr, successfully rises and explains the logic of the game. As a reciprical challenge, Wuzurgmihr constructs the game of backgammon and delivers it to the Indian king who is unable to decipher the game.
In the 11th century Shahnameh, the Persian poet Ferdowsi credits Burzoe with the invention of the tables game nard in the 6th century. He describes an encounter between Burzoe and a Raja visiting from India. The Raja introduces the game of chess, and Burzoe demonstrates nard, played with dice made from ivory and teak.
Today, Nard is the name for the Persian version of backgammon, which has different initial positions and objectives. H.J.R. Murray details many versions of backgammon; modern Nard is noted there as being the same as backgammon and maybe dating back to 300–500 AD in the Babylonian Talmud.
The ancient Romans played a number of games remarkably similar to backgammon. Ludus duodecim scriptorum (“Game of twelve lines”) used a board with three rows of 12 points each, and the checkers were moved across all three rows according to the roll of dice. Little specific text about the gameplay has survived.
Tabula, meaning “table” or “board”, was a game mentioned in an epigram of Byzantine Emperor Zeno (AD 476–481). It was similar to modern backgammon in that the object of the game was to be the first to bear off all of one’s checkers. Players threw three dice and moved their checkers in opposing directions on a board of 24 points.
Chess is believed to have originated in Eastern India, c. 280 – 550 CE, in the Gupta Empire, where its early form in the 6th century was known as chaturaṅga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्गक्रीडा), literally four divisions [of the military] – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.
The earliest evidence of chess is found in the neighboring Sassanid Persia around 600, where the game came to be known by the name chatrang. Chatrang is evoked in three epic romances written in Pahlavi (Middle Persian).
Chatrang was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–44), where it was then named shatranj, with the pieces largely retaining their Persian names.
In Spanish “shatranj” was rendered as ajedrez (“al-shatranj”), in Portuguese as xadrez, and in Greek as ζατρίκιον (zatrikion, which comes directly from the Persian chatrang), but in the rest of Europe it was replaced by versions of the Persian shāh (“king”), which was familiar as an exclamation and became the English words “check” and “chess”. Murray theorized that Muslim traders came to European seaports with ornamental chess kings as curios before they brought the game of chess.
The game reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000 it had spread throughout Europe. Introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century, it was described in a famous 13th-century manuscript covering shatranj, backgammon, and dice named the Libro de los juegos. Another theory contends that chess arose from the game xiangqi (Chinese chess) or one of its predecessors, although this has been contested.