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Nine Men's Morris: A Board Game for Vandals?!
Head in the Clouds
Updated: Monday, Nov 13, 2017
Hello, Chaz Marler from Pair Of Dice Paradise here. With the hundreds upon hundreds of new board games that were just released at the Essen game fair, I thought it would be nice to pause and look back on an old, obsolete game that no longer gets played. No, I mean even older than that. No, I mean… look, just go to the title card, this is going to take a moment to straighten out.

Today’s historical game comes from a suggestion from viewer Peter A., who introduced me to the ancient Roman game, Nine Men’s Morris, which is also known as Mill, Mills, The Mill Game, Merels, Merrills, Merelles, Marelles, Morelles, and Cowboy Checkers. For the purpose of this video, I’ll be referring to the game as Nine Men’s Morris, but I’ll be spelling it like this.

The Nine Men’s Morris board consists of a grid with twenty-four intersections. One player typically has nine black pieces, and the other player nine white ones. Players try to form “mills”, which are rows of three of their pieces arranged horizontally or vertically. Doing so allows them to remove one of their opponent's pieces from the game. A player wins by reducing the opponent to two pieces, or by leaving him without a legal move.

Nine Men’s Morris has found its way into several historical locations, including illustrations, a reference in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a mention in book three of the Ars Amatoria by the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote, “There is another game divided into as many parts as there are months in the year. A table has three pieces on either side; the winner must get all the pieces in a straight line.” Ovid then went on to postulate, “It is a bad thing for a woman not to know how to play, for love often comes into being during play.” Ugh, oh, Ovid, the middle of a rules explanation isn’t the appropriate for dating advice, buddy. Be aware of your audience, man. Is it any wonder why emperor Augustus exiled you to a life sentence in a remote province in the Black Sea? (ANCIENT CANONICAL ROMAN POET BURN!)

But the most interesting thing about Nine Men’s Morris isn’t that it was apparently the prehistoric version of Tinder, but that it appears in so many unexpected places throughout the ancient world. For example, the earliest known board for the game was cut into the roofing slabs of the temple at Kurna in Egypt around 1400 BC. But there were many others, too. There are boards carved into Roman buildings, carved into the base of a pillar in Chester Cathedral, and carved into the cloister seats at the English cathedrals at Canterbury, Gloucester, Norwich, Salisbury and Westminster Abbey. Yes, it seems no matter where you went in the ancient European world, you were only a stone’s throw from a defaced public structure, ready to play a game of Nine Men’s Morris on.

Any this game wasn’t just etched into the architecture, but also into the mythos of the time. According to The New Game Treasury by Merilyn Simonds Mohr, “In some European countries, the design of the board was given special significance as a symbol of protection from evil; and emanating out from it, the four cardinal directions, the four elements and the four winds.”

Wow. Warding off evil, generating the four winds, and unlocking the mysteries of love. Turns out the game Nine Men’s Morris was about more than just vandalizing government property, after all. That’s why, if you get the chance, carve out some time to give Nine Men’s Morris a try.
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