Brädspel, a Swedish Backgammon variant, this board being recovered from the Regalskeppet Vasa, sunk in 1628

Backgammon is one of the oldest board games played today, and can be most clearly traced to the ancient game tabula, which appears in an epigram of Byzantine Emperor Zeno (AD 476–481).[1]

The ancient Egyptians played a game called senet, which resembled backgammon,[2] with moves controlled by the roll of dice. The Royal Game of Ur, played in ancient Mesopotamia, is a more likely ancestor of modern tables games. Recent excavations at the "Burnt City" in Iran showed that a similar game existed there around 3000 BC. The artifacts include two dice and 60 pieces, and the set is believed to be 100 to 200 years older than the sets found in Ur.[3]

The ancient Romans played a number of games with remarkable similarities to backgammon. Ludus duodecim scriptorum ("game of twelve lines") used a board with three rows of 12 points each, and the pieces were moved across all three rows according to the roll of dice. Not much specific text about the gameplay has survived.[4] Tabula, meaning "table" or "board", was similar to modern backgammon in that a board with 24 points was used, and the object of the game was to be the first to bear off all of one's checkers. Three dice were used instead of two, and opposing checkers moved in opposite directions.[1][5]

In the 11th century Shahnameh, the Persian poet Ferdowsi credits Burzoe with the invention of nard in the 6th century. He describes an encounter between Burzoe and a Raja visiting from India. The Raja introduces the game of chess, and Burzoe demonstrates nard, played with dice made from ivory and teak.[6]

The jeux de tables, predecessors of modern backgammon, first appeared in France during the 11th century and became a frequent pastime for gamblers. In 1254, Louis IX of France issued a decree prohibiting his court officials and subjects from playing the games.[7] While it is mostly known for its extensive discussion of chess, the Alfonso X manuscript Libro de los juegos, completed in 1283, describes rules for a number of dice and tables games.[8] By the 17th century, tables games had spread to Sweden. A wooden board and checkers were recovered from the wreck of the Regalskeppet Vasa among the belongings of the ship's officers.[9]

Edmund Hoyle published A Short Treatise on the Game of Backgammon in 1743; this book described the rules of the game and was bound together with a similar text on whist.[10] The game described by Hoyle is, in most respects, the same as the game played today.

In English, the word "backgammon" is most likely derived from "back" and Middle English "gamen", meaning "game" or "play". The earliest use documented by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1650.[11]


  1. a b Austin, Roland G. "Zeno's Game of τάβλη", The Journal of Hellenic Studies 54:2, 1934. pp 202-205.
  2. Hayes, William C. "Egyptian Tomb Reliefs of the Old Kingdom", The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 4:7. March 1946. pp 170-178.
  3. "Iran's Burnt City Throws up World’s Oldest Backgammon." Persian Journal. December 4, 2004. Retrieved on August 5, 2006.
  4. Austin, Roland G. "Roman Board Games. I", Greece & Rome 4:10, October 1934. pp. 24-34.
  5. Austin, Roland G. "Roman Board Games. II", Greece & Rome 4:11, February 1935. pp 76-82.
  6. Wilkinson, Charles K. "Chessmen and Chess", The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. New Series 1:9, May 1943. pp. 271-279
  7. Lillich, Meredith Parsons. "The Tric-Trac Window of Le Mans", The Art Bulletin 65:1, March 1983. pp. 23-33.
  8. Wollesen, Jens T. "Sub specie ludi...: Text and Images in Alfonso El Sabio's Libro de Acedrex, Dados e Tablas", Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 53:3, 1990. pp. 277-308.
  9. "Vasamuseet — The Swedish-Tables Association", The Vasa Museum. Retrieved on August 12, 2006.
  10. Allee, Sheila. "A Foregone Conclusion: Fore-Edge Books Are Unique Additions to Ransom Collection". Retrieved on August 8, 2006.
  11. "backgammon", The Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989. Retrieved on August 5, 2006. (Subscription required)