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Medieval Board Games

Three of the most popular board games during the Middle Ages were chess, tric-trac, which we now call backgammon and Merrils or Nine Man's Morris.

Playing boards could be simple but most of those which have survived today show elaborate inlaid panels or painted boards and pieces which were skillfully carved. Merrils or Nine Man's Morris was also played but these do not seem to have been afforded the same level of workmanship with either boards or playing pieces.

Tric Trac
Tric-Trac, or backgammon has been played for hundreds of years, as was a game enjoyed by medieval upper classes. Unlike cards, this was a game which could be played by ladies, and we see this in contemporary illuminations.

Shown at right, is a painted and inlaid tric-trac board with gold gilding and rose-and-lily central design. The board itself is hinged but does not have a designated area for bearing off at the end of the game.

Each player starts with a certain number of pieces set out on the board, and the aim of the game is to get all of your own pieces home while hindering your opponant's pieces as much as possible. Two dice determine the number of moves which may be made at any given time.

Modern chess has its history in the far east, but made its way to the European world during the middle ages. Chess was a game which was also popular with female nobility and women in the upper classes.

The pieces were carved out of materials which ranged from simple wood to bone and ivory. Naturally, ivory chess sets were exclusively the domain of the wealthy.

Shown, at left, is a common bone chess set from the 14th century from Scandinavia. It is housed in the Musée National du Moyen-Âge, in Cluny, France. More famous are the Lewis Chessmen, housed in the British Museum which feature beautifully carved pieces of figures.

The set up and starting positions and rules for medieval chess were mostly similar to those which we have today, with only a few variations.

The pieces moved as follows:

- The king moved as normal.
- The rook moved as normal.
- The knight moved as normal.
- The pawns only traveled one square, even on the first move.
- The bishops moved diagonally only two squares but could jump other pieces.
- The queen moved diagonally only, and one square at a time.
- Stalemate and Checkmate were the same as today.
- Baremate also existed if a king was left with no pieces.

Merrils was another popular medieval board game. Sometimes called Nine Man's Morris, it was played on an board with markers, and the aim of the game was to capture all the opponant's pieces.

Unlike other board games, Merrills starts with an empty board and pieces ar eadded to it, unlike chess or tric-trac where the game is started with pieces on the board.

The image at the right from the Romance of Alexander, shows a Lady and a gantleman playing at Merrils.

There are a few variations of the game, and the instructions and rules are found HERE.

Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
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