“Tabula Lusoria” is the ancient Roman phrase for “board games”; often, that is all a game would be called in the histories. This phenomenon is repeated throughout Roman board games’ history – literal descriptions, often of the board or pieces instead of the rules. Because of this, we often have little information about how people played some of these ancient games.
Unlike many other cultures, the Romans were fond of using dice in their games. They also loved “racing games”, and paved the way for modern Backgammon.
The Romans liked complexity in their games. Their predecessors to Backgammon would have three rows instead of two, while early versions of tic-tac-toe would require you to achieve five in a row on a much larger grid.
Many of their games were evolutions of those found in Greece or Egypt and almost all emphasized strategic thinking. Here is the list of the 8 best ancient roman board games:
1. Ludus Latrunculorum
Ludus Latrunculorum, sometimes called “Latrunculi”, is a game that probably resembled something like checkers. This “game of mercenaries” was played throughout the Roman empire, but unfortunately, the rules of the day no longer exist.
We know that the game was a two-player strategic game played on a grid of squares, using black and white pieces that would “trap” each other.
Marcus Terentius Varro, an ancient roman academic and writer, first mentioned the game in his work, De Lingua Latina (“On the Latin Language”), but the most comprehensive written work about the game was found in the first-century work called Laus Pisonis.
In it, the author uses the game as a metaphor for battle, pointing out that the counters were often made of glass and that it was a highly strategic game in which keeping your pieces close together was the best move.
Ludus Latrunculorum has been referred to in the works of Ovid, Martialis, and Macrobius. It was so popular that archeologists found copies in sites as far north as Britain.
Under the name Latrunculi, the game has been referred to throughout the first two millennia as an important influence on chess, rather than checkers. This is somewhat strange, as there is no indication that any pieces have special moves or that the aim is anything other than entire annihilation.
Multiple 20th-century historians have attempted to devise recreations of the game, including renounced archeologist Ulrich Schadler, in 2001.
Schadler later helped identify a newly discovered copy of the game in the tomb of a Chieftain in Slovakia. Called Foederatus, the general was a mercenary for the Roman army around 375 CE.
The board was given the title “the Popgrad game board” and is one of only two wooden game boards that have survived from antiquity.
2. Ludus Calculorum
The term “Ludus Calculorum” technically refers to all board games that used pieces (or stones) on grids, and so “Latrunculi” would be a subset. “Ludus Calculorum” literally means “game of stones”.
However, the term was also used more specifically to refer to smaller games that were not “trapping” games but games similar in some ways to tic-tac-toe.
In these games, players would use a grid of eight-by-ten or twelve-by-twelve. They would take turns putting pieces anywhere they liked on the grid, intending to create a line of pieces five in length.
There were restrictions to make the game more difficult, and the game was expected to be played quickly, with little time to think about your next move.
Tesserae was the word given to Roman dice and a number of the games played with them. These dice were made so that opposing sides would add to the number seven.
They would cast two dice, and whoever could cast the highest number wins. This basic gambling game was popular among soldiers during their downtime.
Tesserae were also used in several other roman games, including as part of the “Ludus Calculorum” games.
Tali was specialized dice that were four-sided (like a small pyramid). There are few written examples of them ever being used in games, but they likely were.
Tali was also used as ceremonial awards or medals for those in battle. Tesserae gladiatoris were made from ivory or bone and given to successful gladiators.
On each side was the name of the gladiator, their patron, the date, and the year. Copies of these four-sided tokens have been found around the Roman Empire.
5. Duodecim Scripta
Duodecim Scripta, or “Twelve Lines”, is an early backgammon version involving both board and dice. The game board was three rows of twelve spaces, in which you would move fifteen pieces along based on the role of the dice.
Ancient Romans used three six-sided tesserae for the game, and examples have been found of boards that label each space with a letter. We do not have the rules for the original game, though many have tried to recreate it.
Duodecim Scripta is mentioned in Ovid’s “Art of Love”. Ovid uses the game as a metaphor for love (one of the first poets to use games this way), writing:
There is another game divided into as many parts as there are months in the year. A table has three pieces on either side; the winner must get all the pieces in a straight line. It is a bad thing for a woman not to know how to play, for love often comes into being during play.
Archeologists discovered a recent example of the game in 2014. The board was found in the remains of ancient baths in Turkey. Other early examples have shown boards graffitied with insults; one even used the game board as a menu for a restaurant.
Duodecim Scripta is closely related to the Greco-Roman game of Tabula/Alea, and there is much discussion about which came first.
6. Terni Lapilli
Terni Lapilli, also known as “Rota” or “Tabla Lusoria”, literally means “Three Pebbles”.
This simple game is played on a round board between two players, using three pieces each. Rota “wheels” have been found all over the Roman empire.
The board has eight “spokes” and a single middle place. Each player takes turns putting down their pieces. Then, once all six pieces are down, you can move any piece to a connected empty spot.
The aim is to have all three of your pieces in a row. While it may seem like the starting player has an advantage (by being able to take the center), this is not the case. However, refusing to leave that position may end in a game that goes on indefinitely.
Because of the simplicity of rules in the game of Rota, computer engineers have used the game to develop machine learning software and test coding skills.
A game so like Duodecim Scripta that historians argue over which came first, this board game was played by the elite of Rome and Byzantium after it. In fact, the earliest description of the game comes from an epigram of Emperor Zeno, written by Agathias Scholasticus during the mid-sixth century. In it, he described how Zeno moved from a position of strength to weakness over a single role.
Tabula was played on a board with two rows of twelve and used fifteen pieces for each player. It had rules very similar to modern Backgammon. The primary differences are in the ways your pieces can come back onto the board, starting with all pieces off the board, and using three dice instead of two.
In Zeno’s Game, the emperor was at a distinct disadvantage because a throw of 2, 5, or 6, would give him eight unique places an opponent could knock pieces off the board. Having pieces this spread out is considered just as dangerous in the modern game of Backgammon.
While it would have been possible for Zemo to win the game, Agathias does not record the result. The epigram, after all, was a reflection of the disadvantageous position Zemo was in as a leader.
8. Nine Men’s Morris
While the game originated during the Roman Empire, the name “Nine Men’s Morris” comes from Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy queen Titania mentions that the board, scratched into a nearby stone, has been defaced – “The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud”. Before this time, however, the game was known as “Merrelles” and “The Mill Game”.
Examples of “Nine Men’s Morris” have been found etched on the top of temples and depicted in illuminated texts. While extremely popular in Europe, examples of boards have been found as far away as China. Examples of the game and its variation have existed since at least 45 CE.
The game involves a square-shaped map that looks a little like a windmill. On it, players take turns placing their nine “men”, attempting to make three-men lines (or “mills”). When you do so, you get to remove a man from the opposing side. The person who wins does so when the other side has less than three pieces remaining or cannot make a legal move.
Unfortunately, much like tic tac toe, Nine Men’s Morris is a “solved game”, and 20th-century game players have developed the optimal strategy to avoid losing every time. Despite this, Nine Men’s Morris is still sold as a fun child’s game.
The ancient Romans were obsessed with pursuing intellectual greatness while accepting the concept of fate. They enjoyed complex, strategic games but were not afraid to risk it all at the roll of a dice. This unique contradiction of values led to some creative games that would then often be explored from a political or military perspective.
Despite expecting deep thinking from many of its games, Romans had little interest in making game rules complex. While we do not know the exact rules played for many of these games, it is clear they were “simple to learn and difficult to master”.
Others, of course, were simply the diversions of soldiers, happy to gamble their wages in the hope of better days. All games had stories and interpretations and would continue to evolve into the games we have today.
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