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Game of Ages — Nine Men's Morris

The game that I share most often is Nine Men’s Morris, a.k.a. Mills, Morrels, and a few other names as well. It’s extremely easy to teach, but has a level of challenge that makes it somewhat sophisticated. People tend to be impressed with its age (several thousands of years), and the fact that one can purchase a finely crafted set made with exotic materials, or simply scrawl the board layout in the dirt and play it with stones and twigs.

The game is described in the esteemed reference entitled “Libro de Juegos” commissioned by King Alphonso of Spain in the mid-13th Century. This small publication documented many ancient table games, and recounted some of each game’s history as well. At the time that work was published, Mills was already extremely ancient and was being played throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region.

Mills layouts have been found carved into the stones of ancient temples in Egypt and gothic cathedrals in Germany and France, inlaid into Roman mosaics and whittled into benches used in renaissance taverns. There are “cousins” of the game found in Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica, too. (Apparently “three-in-a-row” embodies an archetypal symmetry.)

The colonial Americans in the 18th century brought it with them, and it was popular with all ages. During the American Civil War, soldiers used pebbles and buttons for markers, scratching the game board into the dirt. A letter from soldier Charles Wickesburg, written to his family from a U.S. Army Hospital in 1863, explains that Nine Men’s Morris is among the games he can get from the hospital reading room.

Commercial versions of Mills have been around for a couple hundred years also. One of the favorites in my collection was made by the Druke Game Company in the 1950s, and the Milton Bradley version called “Swords and Shields” (ca. 1970) with plastic pieces depicting medieval shields in red and baby blue. Another popular version was the 1937 Parker Brothers “The Game of Mill.”

Today there are wood sets available, and plenty of documentation to be found if you’d like to play. It’s especially suitable for a beginner who has grown beyond tic-tac-toe (a.k.a. naughts and crosses), or someone who likes Pente, Kono, or Teeko. And, as with most everything else—there’s an app for that.

Be aware that there are also some “house rules” about repeat moves and first-player handicaps. Casual players may not mind so much, but there are occasional “Morris Tournaments” where these rules need to be made clear. There are also variations for “Five-Men’s-Morris” and “Twelve-Men’s-Morris” that are worth a try.

For the “mathletes” in the audience: In 1993, Ralph Morris (!) “solved” Nine Men’s Morris, showing that a perfect game by each player would always result in a draw. Good luck with that.