Nine Men’s Morris is an ancient mill game dating at least from Roman times. It is the most prominent of all the mill games, played all around the world, but particularly in central European countries. Other variations of the game — such as Shax or Morabaraba — are also played in several African countries.
In addition to being a game, the board itself was used as some kind of talisman or symbol; The Merels Board Enigma (p. 330) collects nearly a thousand examples of inscribed mill boards from around the world. Many of these are in vertical positions on walls where they could not possibly have been used for games, and their purpose is at the moment not well understood.
The game (as most mill games) is split into two phases. During the first (placement) phase, the players take turns placing a single piece at a time onto one of the vacant points on the board. Once all the pieces have been placed, the movement phase begins. In this part of the game, players take turns moving a single piece along a line to another vacant point. Once a player is reduced to three pieces, their pieces can ‘fly’ and move to any empty point on the board.
Throughout the game, each time a player forms a mill they remove any piece of their opponent’s that is not part of a mill. If all their opponent’s pieces are in mills, no piece may be removed.
During the movement phase, it is possible to form two mills simultaneously. In this case the player may remove two of the opponent’s pieces from the board.
A player loses the game when they are reduced to fewer than three pieces, or if they are unable to make a valid move on their turn.
When played on a board with diagonals, mills are not usually permitted to be made on the diagonal lines. However, this varies according to location and time.
The game dates from at least the late Roman Empire or Byzantine period, and at the moment we do not have solid evidence for an earlier date.C[p. 3]Sebbane (2000, p. 227) describes a board found in a Byzantine villa in חורבת עקב (Ḥorvat ʿAqav), dated 400–600 CE, while a cache of gaming boards found in a Roman fort at Abu Sha’ar that was abandoned in the late 4th century contained no mills boards.E Earlier dates have often been proposed based upon the existence of boards carved on ancient monuments such as the RamesseumF[p. 144] and the Mortuary Temple of Seti I at Qurna,G[p. 644] but these are not able to be dated definitively—the monument only provides an earliest possible date.This is also discussed at length in Schädler (2021).
The game became popular throughout Europe: a double-sided game board with a Nine Men’s Morris layout on one side was found as part of the Gokstad Viking ship burial (c. 900) which was discovered in Norway.I[pp. 44, 99] Another boat burial (the “Årby boat”) from around the same time also included a Morris game.J[p. 441]
One of the earliest written references to the game is in the 10th century Kitāb al-Aghānī (كتاب الأغاني, ‘book of songs’), a large collection of poems and stories assembled by ʾAbū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī (أبو الفرج الأصفهاني, 897–967). One story describes a club from the time of the poet al-Aḥwaṣ (الأحوص, 660–724), along with the board games it held for the use of its members. According to the book, they could play shiṭranj (شطرنج, chess), nard (نرد), or — most importantly here — qirq (قرق, morris).K[p. 481] The derivation of the name qirq (قِرْقٌ) is uncertain,It may also be related to the Geʽez word ቀርቂስL[pp. 424–5] (qarqis), referring to various games,M[p. 443] or the (Ottoman) Turkish قرق/kırk ‘forty (=many)’.N[p. 989] but it is apparently not originally an Arabic word.O[p. 37]The Imam ʾAbū al-Qāsim al-Rāfiʿī al-Qazwīnī (أبو القاسم الرافعي القزويني, 1160–1226) would later describe qirq as the “chess of the Maghrebis”.K[p. 381] Similarly, Shax is sometimes referred to as “Somali chess”.
Later, Faīrūzābādī (of whom, more below) would identify qirq with suddar (سُدَّر), apparently derived from the Persian se darre (سِهْ دَرَهْ), meaning ‘three valleys’.P[pp. 207–9] However, in other dictionaries suddar is identified with other games such as aṭ-ṭabanu (الطَّبَنُ), which is known as a different game today (modern name aṭ-ṭāb الطاب).Q It is probable that in the past, names of games were more fluid, and often referred to families of games. Even in modern Arabic the name ʾidrīs (ادريس) is used to refer to mill games, but also refers to loosely related games such as Quantik. With that said, a Persian origin for the game does seem likely, given the number of ways that suddar is rendered in Arabic dictionaries.Other versions of the name are given as سِهْ بَرَهٌ (sih barahun), سِيدَرَهِ (sīdarahi), سِدْرَه (sidrah), سَذْ مَرَهْ (saḏ marah), or سِدْ مَزْه (sid mazh).Q
From the Arabic-speaking world the game entered Spain, where al-qirq became alquerque, which has remained the Spanish name for this family of games until the present day.
In France the game was in the past called marelles (from which we get the English ‘merels’), probably deriving from a word meaning “small stone” or “token”.The marelles name currently refers to hopscotch, due to the stones tossed upon the diagram.
In the early 12th century, the game was mentioned in the French Rule of the Templar order (probably written between 1139 and 1147 CER[p. 12]), as the only board game allowed to be played by Templar brothers. It is possible that the order picked up the game through their contact with the Arabic-speaking world:Indeed, a board has been found inscribed upon a stone in Château Pèrelin, a fortress constructed by the Templars in what is now Israel — although it could have been placed there any time since the fortress was built.S[p. 60]
Et sachies que a nul autre jeu frere dou Temple ne doit joer, fors qu’a marelles as queles chascun puet juer se il veaut por desduit sans metre gajeures. As eschas ni a tables nul frere dou Temple ne doit juer, ne as eschaçons.T[p. 185]
And let it be known that a brother of the Temple should play no other game except marelles, which each may play if he wishes, for pleasure without placing wagers. No brother should play chess, backgammon, or eschaçons [an unknown game].R[p. 90]
It is unclear why mill games were permitted by the Templars, but, reading the rest of the passage (not quoted above), the intent of the Rule seems to be to prevent playing games for money — bets were allowed to be placed on games, but only with worthless items such as wooden tent pegs. Viewed in this light, perhaps mill games were considered less susceptible to gambling, and therefore permissible.
In the same century the Bonus Socius series of manuscripts contained problems for the game, alongside other problems for chess and various table games.U[p. 619] Chess historian H. J. R. Murray describes the problems as being of very high quality, and that in fact “they leave a more favourable impression of the ingenuity of the mediaeval composer than is the case with the problems of chess or tables.”U[p. 703]
By examining depictions of the game in artwork, we can understand the attitude towards the game at the time the image was produced. In the manuscript image below (c. 1340), nobles of opposite sex face each other across a game board. Evidently the game was considered worthy of being played by the nobility, and suitable for men and women to play together:
The previous scene is in stark contrast to this German woodcut by Hans Weiditz from Trostspiegel in Glück und Unglück (p. 24) — a version of Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae published some 200 years later in 1572. In this image we can see Chess being played by nobles and Backgammon by ordinary men, but Nine Men’s Morris is evidently only suitable to be played by monkeys:
The board with diagonals seems to appear first in Arabic sources;O[p. 43] it is shown — as the only drawing — in the famous al-Qamūs al-Muḥīṭ dictionary (القاموس المحيط, ‘The Surrounding Ocean’) of Fairūzābādī (فیروزآبادی, 1329–1414), published at the start of the 15th century.W
In later English history the game developed an association with rusticity, often mentioned as a game played by shepherds. In such guise it famously appears — albeit relocated in time and place to a fictional ancient Athens — in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595), where, thanks to a feud between Titania and Oberon (queen and king of the fairies), the natural state of the countryside is upended, and:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The game can be seen in English history through its appearance in visitation records; one instance from the parish of Bitteswell records that in 1634 a certain Robert Lord the Younger was “admonished and dismissed” for “plaieing at nine men’s morrice in the Churchyard on Sundaie”.X[p. 497]
In colonial America, the game began to be played with twelve pieces (exclusively on the board with diagonals) and thus became the standard American form, known as Twelve Men’s Morris.Rules for a game called alquerque de doze, sometimes translated as Twelve Men’s Morris, are given in Alfonso X’s Book of Games, but it describes a game of a different form.
Other English names for the game have included:
- Blind Men’s Morris (LeicestershireY[p. 130])
- BushelsP[p. 204]
- Buttons (played on a slate with buttons in 1890s New ZealandZ[p. 151])
- Figmill (in Clarence, New York, USA)AA (This name derives from an American manufacturer of equipment, but originally might derive from the Swiss term «Figgi und Müli».)
- Morris (CornwallY[p. 130])
- Madell or MedalAB[p. 333]
- Marl (WiltshireY[p. 130])
- MarlinP[p. 204]
- Marrel(’s)AC[p. 416] or MarrellsAB[p. 173]
- MarnullAB[p. 28]
- Maurice or Morrice (NorfolkY[p. 130])
- Mill (DevonY[p. 130])
- Meg Merry-legs (LincolnshireY[p. 130])
- Merils (Essex Y[p. 130]), MerrilsAC[p. 414], or MerrillsAB[p. 173]
- MerellesAC[p. 415]AB[p. 90]Y[p. 130] or Merell(s)AC[p. 416]
- Merls (in Cleveland, England)AC[p. 419]
- Merry Hole (NorthamptonshireY[p. 130])
- Merry Peg (OxfordshireY[p. 130])
- MorelsY[p. 130]
- Murrells (CambridgeshireY[p. 130])
- NinepennyY[p. 130] or Ninepenny Morris (in Gloucestershire – but played with 12 men)AC[p. 416]
- Nine Holes (North of EnglandY[p. 130])
- Nine Mens MoralsP[p. 204]
- Nine Men’s Morrice (in Hampshire or HoldernessAC[p. 419])
- Nine Men o’ MorrisAB[p. 89]
- Nine Men’s WelcomeAD[p. 103]
- Nine Peg O Merryal (North LincolnshireY[p. 130])
- Nine Pin/Penny MiracleP[p. 204]Y[p. 130]
- Nine Pin/Penny MorisP[p. 204]
- Nine Pin MerellsP[p. 204]
- (Nine) Peg Morris (by John Clare, a rustic English poet)AC[p. 416]
- Nine Stone MorrisAB[p. 89]
- Peg Meryll (played in Hargrave with 11 men, and ‘flying’ at 5 menY[p. 133]) or MerrilpegAC[p. 416]
- Puzzle-PoundAB[p. 333]
- Study, in the north of EnglandAE
In other languages it has been called:
- Bangla: ন গুটি (na guṭi) ‘nine beads’, or পাইত(-পাইত) (pāit(-pāit)) ‘get(-ting)’AF
- Chinese: 三棋 (Mandarin: sān qí) ‘three game’AG[p. 102], 捉三 (Cantonese: zuk¹ saam¹; Mandarin: zhuō sān) ‘catching three’AE. In Teochew it can be called 直直 (dig⁸ dig⁸) ‘straight line’,AH and there was a Teochew proverb that “[Chinese] chess is for immortals; straight-line is for beggars” (仙棋乞食直 siêng¹ gi⁵ keg⁴ ziah⁸ dig⁸).AHMuch thanks to Brandon Seah for helping to figure this transliteration out.
- French: le jeu du moulin ‘the mill game’
- Greek: τὸ τριόδι ‘trio’AI[p. 295], or τριώδιον ‘triodium’.P[p. 205]
- German: Neunstein ‘nine stone’ or simply Mühlespiel ‘mill game’. In 1575 Johann Fischart included it in his version of Gargantua as Fickmül.See the Gargantua article for more about Fischart’s list.
- Gujarati: નવ કાકરી (nav kākarī) ‘nine pieces’
- Hindi: नवकंकरी (navakaṅkarī),AJ or नव गोटी (nav gōṭī), both meaning ‘nine pieces’
- Kannada: ನವಕಂಕರಿ (navakaṅkari) ‘nine pieces’, ಒಂಬತ್ತು ಕಾಯಿಯ ಆಟ (ombattu kāyiya āṭa) ‘game of nine nuts (=pieces)’, or generically ಸಾಲು (ಮಣೆ) ಆಟ (sālu (maṇe) āṭa) ‘row (board) game’
- Korean: 곤질(고누) (gonjil(-gonu))Given as kon-tjil in older books.AG[p. 102]
- Mono: yakamaido ‘square game’AK[p. 796]
- Ottoman Turkish: طقوز طاش (dokuz taş) ‘nine stone’, or دقورجین (dokurġin) [something to do with nine?]P[p. 206]
- Swiss: Nüünischtei.AL
- Telugu: దాడి (dāḍi) ‘attack’
- Urdu: نو گوٹی (nau guṭī) ‘nine pieces’AM[p. 145]
With perfect play, the game is a draw.AN
The standard rules can be adapted to play on many different boards. As in standard Nine Men’s Morris, mills must always be in a straight line and may not turn corners.
Babbage also apparently experimented with differently-shaped boards, in both triangular and pentagonal shapes,AO but I have not yet been able to see the manuscript in question.
Twelve Men’s Morris
In other countries or languages Twelve Men’s Morris has been known as:
- Bengali: বারো গুটি (পাইত পাইত) (bārō-guṭi (pāit-pāit)) ‘twelve bead [unsure]’.AM[p. 145]
- Sri Lanka (Sinhala): නෙරෙංචි or නෙරිංචි (nereṁciAlso transcribed as Nerenchi or Niranchy. or neriṁci), possibly named after a plant that has very thorny seeds.AR[p. 16]AS[p. 34]G[p. 577]
- Urdu: بارہ گوٹی (bārā guṭī) ‘twelve pieces’.
Alfonso X’s book of games describes a variant played with dice.AT While it is unclear from the manuscript what the exact rules are, Ulrich Schädler offers the following interpretation:AUThis interpretation disagrees with previous interpretations given in A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess and Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations; see the article for full details.
- During the placement phase, no mills may be made.
- During the movement phase, each player rolls three dice before moving a piece. If they roll any of the special rolls , , , or , they may ‘fly’ a piece from anywhere on the board to complete a mill (or two mills). For any other result, the player moves as normal.
This variant was developed by Emanuel Lasker, who was World Chess Champion from 1894 to 1921. It unifies the two phases of the game into one.
Play is as in the standard game, except that each player has 10 pieces instead of 9, and on a player’s turn they may either place a new piece or move a piece that is already on the board.
Other general references include The Oxford History of Board Games, Math Games & Activities from Around the World (p. 12), Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (vol. 1, p. 93), A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess (§3.5.4, p. 43), Goddard (1901), Notes and Queries (pp. 28, 89–90, 173, 333), and Played at the Pub (p. 150).
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