The Royal Game of Ur: a Blueprint for Better Games?

This is a guest article by Namir Ahmed, a Masters Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Western University, London ON. He’s also the Project Coordinator for the Sustainable Archaeolgy Animation Unit, where he does really fun stuff related to the digitization and visualization of cultural heritage. He doesn’t have a blog but has a twitter: @namir

“Wait. How old is the game?” I asked.

“About 4000 years, it’s from the city of Ur…”

I was talking to John* from the British Museum at a conference only tangentially about archaeology, honestly I’m not even sure how the topic came up. But I’m glad it did.

Dr.Irving Finkel, British Museum
Dr.Irving Finkel, British Museum

John told me about Irving Finkel and the Royal Game of Ur. He told me about Finkel’s obsession with board games, and his later discovery of a manuscript outlining the games rules. He also told me about Finkel’s realization the Royal Game of Ur wasn’t all that Royal after all. A 2700 year old version was found scratched into a limestone block from Assyria. Turns out Assyrians got bored too. Very cool.

That night I found an online version and immediately lost two hours of my life. Eyes bleary I went to bed still seeing the board and pieces when I closed my eyes. No wonder it lasted. The Royal Game of Ur was strangely addictive. But why? What makes a good game good and a great one last thousands of years?

Interesting Decisions

Sid Meier of Civilization fame is very clear where he stands, “A game is a series of interesting decisions.” Those decisions according to Meier often involve a trade-off of some kind, in Civilization creating units means trading valuable resources, risking much for potential rewards.

Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo seconds the idea in, “The Difference Between a Good Video Game and a Bad One”. Referring to Tetris, Totilo writes:

Sid Meier at the 2012 GDC Conference

“Each falling piece presents the opportunity for some basic but almost always-interesting choices: Where will I put this piece? Can I rotate it fast enough? Should I drop it swiftly? What is the next piece coming? … The choices come quickly. The choices are always clear. The consequences are sometimes immediate, sometimes delayed. They are always clear.

The game isn’t really about falling blocks; it’s about a cascade of chances to make decisions.”

That sounds fair, every game I’ve ever played, and liked, has always presented meaningful and interesting choices, but does the Royal Game of Ur? First, let’s lay out how the game works.

How The Game Works

The game of Ur has a few versions, none of which are wildly different. All seem to operate in the same basic way with the same basic set of rules and are all fundamentally ‘Race Games’ ie. first person to cross the finish line wins.

1. Each player has a set number of pieces.

2. Rolling defines the number of squares a piece can move.

3. Landing on an opponent’s piece sends her piece back to the start.

4. Landing on a special square provides immunity and a roll-again.

5. An exact roll is needed to get your piece to the last square.

It’s basically a racing game!
It’s basically a racing game!

That’s essentially it. I’ve left out some specific details but stranded on a desert island knowing these rules, you can play the Royal Game of Ur using coconuts and the beach.

Decisions Decision

Every decision made in the game is based on a single question: given the situation which piece should I move? Different answers provide wildly different results and for the player could ultimately mean winning or losing. Perhaps the risk of a certain move is worth the reward, perhaps not.

Every single decision then becomes one of Meier’s ‘interesting choices’ and the rules make those decisions worthy of some thought, “If I move this piece I put it at risk if my opponent rolls a 4 … should I move a piece on the board already or move another into play?” The answers aren’t always obvious. Similar descendent games, Backgammon, Chess force players to ask the same questions. Indeed, Finkel introduced the game to Russian Chess Champion Garry Kasparov who then proceeded to play it for a solid weekend against France’s Chess Champ (Kasparov lost 36 games to 29).

So what does all this mean? I don’t know for sure, but here’s what I think. If we’re designing games to be used in a classroom

The easiest thing to do is not do anything at all…
The easiest thing to do is not do anything at all…

setting or as context for knowledge transfer then we need to make sure those games are centred on interesting and engaging decisions that must be made. I’ve seen quite a few ‘educational’ games where no one wins, where risks have no rewards or worse still, there are no risks at all! One might argue that not all games operate on the risk / reward principle. Take Beatles Rock Band for example, though under debate whether Rock Band is a game at all … for argument’s sake let’s assume it is. The risks are all over the place, deciding to play ‘Revolution’ on Expert is a risk worthy of a slap in the face, but play it all the way through and I defy you not to jump up and pump a fist in the air. The reward is incredibly satisfying.

The Game of Ur, though simple, understands this dynamic well.

Perhaps the Royal Game of Ur has something significant to teach us when it comes to game design. Or perhaps the game is more relevant as a reflection of life in Mesopotamian Sumer. Either way, it’s undeniable that today’s games operating on the same basic principles have a pull that keep us coming back.

Sid Meier may be teaching a lesson we already learned 4600 years ago.

*last name forgotten due to idiocy


Photos courtesy of Flickr CC licensed

Game of Ur: Some rights reserved by Ian Davis

Sid Meier Photo: Some rights reserved by Official GDC

Racing Game: Some rights reserved by puuikibeach

Sign Post: Some rights reserved by Matt From London

Irving Finkel :All rights reserved Irving Finkel


1 Comment

  1. Never thought of games in this way. Your description of Ur could easily be a description of so many other classic contemporary board games, with minor variations- Trouble, even Trivial Pursuit. Risk and reward, steps closer to keeping the fun in educational gaming.

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