Three Men’s Morris is an ancient mill game game for two players.
Each player has three pieces, in contrasting colours. The aim of the game is to arrange all of one’s pieces in a line, either horizontally, vertically or diagonally. The first player to do this wins.
There are two ways to begin the game: either players take turns placing a piece on one of the empty points, or the pieces are lined up on two opposite sides of the board. If played with the pieces on the board at the start, then a player cannot win by lining their pieces up in their original position.
Starting the game by playing to the centre of the board is a forced win for the first player, so usually this move is banned.A[p. 737]
After placing all their pieces, if no one has already won the game, the players then take turns moving a piece from one point to another.
History & Nomenclature
As evidenced by the many boards carved into stone walls and seats in cathedrals and monasteries, the game was played in England over a long period — MurrayD[p. 41] dates it from after the Norman conquest in the 11th century, and states that it was “well established by 1300.” However, the game seems to have declined until in the 19th century it was not well known in England; English visitors to Ireland during this period describe it as an Irish game.
In 19th century Ireland, it was described as ‘universally’ played by the peasantry and named caisleáin gearrHydeE[p. 211] wrote this as “cashlan gherra”. ‘short castle’,F[p. 171] or ‘top castle’.G[p. 257] Other old names in the United Kingdom come from areas such as Galloway (‘corsi-crown’)H[p. 142] and Cumberland (‘copped-crown’).E[p. 211]
H. J. R. Murray also claims that a distinct game called ‘Nine Holes’ existed,D but I don’t believe that it was a separate game to Three Men’s Morris, as all the references seem to track back to a single entry in Robert Nares’ Glossary.I[p. 345] To me, it is the same game only played on a board that doesn’t show any lines. In any case, it is recorded as being played on the Isle of Man in 1674, when a man was presented in Malew for “playing nine holes on Easter day before evening prayers”,J and again in 1699 when two men were presented in Lezayre for “Makeing Nine holes with their knives upon Sunday after evening Prayer”.KTheir punishment being “to acknowledge their fault, and promise Reformation.”
A game that appears to be Three Men’s Morris appears in Alfonso X’s Book of Games under the name Alquerque de Tres; however, this is in fact equivalent to Tic-Tac-Toe, since the game described there does not permit movement after the pieces have been placed.L[p. 600] In modern Spanish the game is called tres en raya ‘three in a line’, castro ‘fort’, or pedrería ‘little stones’.D[p. 41] In Catalan it is apparently called marro.M[p. 204]
In Italy it has been called riga de tre ‘line of three’,N[p. 35] smerelli, mulino, semplice mulinello, filo, filetto, or tavoletta.D[p. 41] In France, it has been called mérelles, marelles,O[p. 381] or carré chinois ‘Chinese square’.P[p. 279]
The game is known as Tapatan in the Philippines,Q[p. 6] or 六卒棋 (luk⁶ zeot¹ kei⁴ ‘six man game’) in southern China.R[p. 648]Note that Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations confuses its sources here and claims that Hyde states that “Luk Tsut K’i” was played in the time of Confucius.
Writing in 1694,E[p. 211] Thomas Hyde said that it was called “Che-Lo” in Chinese (i.e. 直六 Mandarin: zhí liù ‘straight six’), and “Hugjurè” in Persian (هجوره, probably not a native Persian word?), but he also stated that each player has 6 pieces.
The game is popular throughout India: In Bengali, it has been called তাঁত ফাঁত tā̃t phā̃tGiven as tant-fant in older works.T[p. 167] (‘loom-[foom]’, possibly meaning something like weaving?), তিন গুটি পাইত পাইত (tin guṭi pāit pāit, ‘getting three pieces’), or simply তিন গুটি (tina guṭi) ‘three pieces’, and is played with the pieces starting on the board.
In Hindi it is called तीन गोटी (tīn gōṭī) ‘three pieces’; in Tamil கட்ட விளையாட்டு (kaṭṭa viḷaiyāṭṭu) ‘square game’ (although this is also used for other games).U[p. 59]
In Malayalam it is called നിര (niṟa) ‘line’, പടവെട്ടു (paṭaveṭṭu) or പട (paṭa) ‘battle’, or കല്ലുകളി (kallukaḷi) ‘stone game’ (although this is usually used for knucklebones).V Pieces can either be placedV or start on the sides of the board.W
It is also played across Africa: in Madagascar it is called fanorona telo ‘three-Fanorona’;D[p. 42] in Nigeria (Urhobo) epelle;D[p. 42] and in Somaliland carabawg.D[p. 42]Is this name possibly the same as kubbadX[p. 99]/kurobodoY[p. 87]/koruböddo/korkabödZ[p. 506]?
Circular Three Men’s Morris
In this version the game is played on a circular board with ‘spokes’, meaning that mills can only be made across the center point. Zaslavsky Q[p. 4–5] calls it Shisima, and says it is played in Kenya.The original reference for this seems to be African Games of Strategy: A teaching manual by Louise Crane, but I haven’t been able to view this work. It has also been published as ‘Tri-Pin’ (Louis Marx & Co.).
See Heimann (2014) for an analysis of the game.
X-ceter-O (Endless Games, 2009) — originally in German X-für-O (Milton Bradley, 1985) — has 6 pieces numbered #1–#6, alternating between sides. The pieces must be placed or moved in order (and can leap to any unoccupied square), looping back to #1 after #6 has been moved.
King (Jim Wilkinson, 1985, Paradigm Games) is a straightforward commercial implementation of the game. No first play to centre, and pieces may move on the long diagonals.
In Chung Toi (Reginald Chung, 1994, multiple publishers), each player’s pieces are octagonal, and have a cross incised upon the top. After the placement phase, a piece can move one or two squares (jumping is allowed) in any of the four directions that the cross is pointing, and may also then rotate so that its cross is facing a different set of squares.
A piece may also rotate without moving instead, as long as it changes orientation (i.e. passing without changing the board is not permitted).
Achi is often mis-described as a three-men’s-morris game (e.g. in Tic Tac Toe and other three-in-a-row games from Ancient Egypt to the modern computer), based on a misreading of the description in A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess.
Picaria is the same game played with additional diagonals on the board.
Micklethwaite, J. T. (). ‘Notes on the abbey buildings of Westminster’. The Archaeological Journal vol. 33: pages 15–48.
Micklethwaite, J. T. (). ‘On the indoor games of school boys in the middle ages’. The Archaeological Journal vol. 49: pages 319–328.
Carey, John (). ‘Top-Castle’. The Gentleman’s magazine library: pages 256–258. Edited by George Laurence Gomme. Elliot Stock: Paternoster Row, London, UK.
MacTaggart, John (). The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia (2nd edition). Hamilton, Adams and Co.: London, UK.
Nares, Robert (). A Glossary. Rivington & Co.: London, UK.
Golladay, Sonja Musser (). Los Libros de Acedrex Dados e Tablas: Historical, Artistic, and Metaphysical Dimensions of Alfonso X’s Book of Games. PhD thesis, University of Arizona: Arizona, USA.
Brunet y Bellet, D. José (). El Ajedrez: Investigaciones sobre su origen. L’Avens: Barcelona.
de la Borde, Léon (). Notice des émaux, bijoux et objets divers, exposés dans les galeries du Musée du Louvre volume 2. Vinchon: Paris.
de La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, Jean-Baptiste (). Dictionnaire Historique de L’Ancien Langage François volume 7: ‘H–MYT’. Paris.
Datta, Jatindra Mohan (). ‘A few types of Sedentary Games of Lower Bengal’. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal vol. 29: pages 167–170.
பாலசுப்பிரமணியம், இரா. [R. Balasubramaniyam] (). தமிழர் நாட்டு விளையாட்டுகள் (2nd edition). International Institute of Tamil Studies: Chennai.
SPARCO TECH (). ‘Interesting Game | Nira | Padavettu | Kallukali | Mind Game | Nostalgia | Old Memmories’ [archived]. YouTube.
HAAN Associates (publisher) (). English – Somali Dictionary & Thesaurus / Qaamuus iyo ‘Tesooras’ Ingiriisi – Soomaali. HAAN Associates: London. ISBN: 1-874209-02-2.
de Larajasse, Évangéliste (). Somali-English and English-Somali dictionary. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.: London.
Marin, G. (). ‘Somali Games’. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland vol. 61: pages 499–511.
Niebuhr, Carsten (). Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern volume 1. Nicolaus Moͤller: Copenhagen.
Kraitchik, Maurice (). Mathematical Recreations (2nd edition). Dover Publications: New York.
Heimann, Florian (). ‘The loop within circular Three Men’s Morris’. Board Game Studies vol. 8: pages 51–61. Associação Ludus: Lisboa, Portugal.
Zaslavsky, Claudia (). Tic Tac Toe and other three-in-a-row games from Ancient Egypt to the modern computer. Thomas Y. Crowell: New York, NY, USA. ISBN: 0-690-04317-1.