The word “backgammon” may have been derived from “baec” – “gamen” or “back game” in Saxon or the variant “bac/bach” – “gammon/cammaun”, which means “little battle” in Welsh. But this is 1645, and we get ahead of ourselves, for the game had already been popular by then for thousands of years under a multitude of different names and cultures. Tracing the history of this interesting game requires travelling back in time and space, coming to grips with its many variants, names and formats. Its evolution is also in a way the evolution of cultural attitudes, an insightful look into what both peasant and king found entertaining and how it remained relevant to this very day.
The first ever record we have of the game dates back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iran, Iraq and Syria. Artefacts such as dice made of human bones were found in the area but the game seems to have swiftly travelled south, though little is known about how this happened. Boards in different sizes were found in Egypt with little to distinguish them from other similar boards found between 3000 – 1788 BC. Back in Sumer, Mesopotamia, boards made of wood were found in the royal tomb of Ur al Chaldees dated around 2600 BC. These were known as The Royal Games of Ur and despite also finding dice in the area, no rules for the game as it was played then were ever found. It was only on a cuneiform tablet dated about 177BC, that a set of rules was finally found.
A Roman Legacy
When Rome adopted the game, it helped its spread throughout its vast empire. The first recorded evidence we have of the game was one called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, or The Game of 12 Lines. This format was very similar to that found in Egypt, later replaced by a slightly different variant with 2×12 lines instead of 3×12 lines, morphing it into something which we can more easily recognise and associate with today’s backgammon. It acquired the name “Tabula”, a generic name that made reference to the board it was played on. Tabula quickly became a favourite with the aristocracy and Emperor Claudius himself favoured it, proving its namesake as The King of Games. Claudius even wrote a history of the game but unfortunately this never surfaced. With Rome’s conquest into British territory, so the game spread to Britannia. By the 6th century, despite making it illegal to play except on Saturnalia, the game became known as Alea, “the art of gambling with dice”, a game which swept the whole of Rome into a gambling stupor.
Backgammon in Asia
To speak of Backgammon (or Tabula or Alea or any other name you wish to call it by) and its spread only in the Old Continent would be halving the extent of it popularity. In Asia, Backgammon was known as Nard (wood) or Takhteh Nard (battle on wood) and it was spread through the continent by the Arabs. This version was played with 2 dice as opposed to the three dice played with in the older version of Tabula. Later on, the two-dice version also caught on in central Europe. In Asia, Nard appeared at around 800AD and had different names in every country, though there are doubts as to the provenance or their relation to Nard in the first place. The Chinese called it T’shu-p’u while in Japan the name cited was Sugoroku and it enjoyed popularity up until 1000AD. Nard was also introduced to Europe through the Arab’s conquest of Sicily. A fusion of Tabula and Nard may have occurred at this stage, bringing together two variants of the same game finally under one roof.
Medieval & Renaissance Backgammon
At this point in time, the game was firmly played with 2 dice and it was very popular amongst soldiers and crusaders. So much so in fact, that the church tried to outlaw it – with very little success. The game has the tenacity of a strong hook as it was repeatedly banned or made illegal, only to survive thanks to the ingenuity of man’s ideas. The last time this happened was under the order of Cardinal Woolsey who described the game as “the devil’s folly” and ordered it to be burnt. Naturally, the common folk devised a plan to outwit the cardinal, having the board fold in half and making it look like the spine of a book when put away. This arrangement is how we still find the backgammon board today.
Modern History & Today
In the last century, Backgammon saw spikes and dips in popularity mainly due to the wars and the consequent depressions in different countries. In the 1920s, the doubling cube was introduced by an unknown individual, enhancing the element of skill in the game. The rules of the game were also changed and finalised in 1931, but this was followed by a decrease in popularity which lasted until the 1960s when tournaments were promoted to bring the game back to life. With the advent of poker and the video game, backgammon was once again pushed to the dusty back shelf, untouched until the recent revival of classics in all their forms. The computer as an opponent bolstered the understanding of the intricacies of the game, which is perhaps why the game is still relevant to this day and age.