In Roman antiquity this game was known
as alea, meaning 'gambling', but came to be called tabula,
'board' or 'table', since it was played on a board. Alea
dates back to several centuries BCE and appears to have evolved
directly from Duodecim Scriptorum,
the game of Twelve Lines. Tabula bears some similarity to Egyptian
Senet, which dates back to at least 3000 BCE.
Popular with soldiers, Tabula reached Arabia
by Roman expansion into the Mideast in the first century.Tabula
spawned a series of games throughout Europe, such as Ad Elta
Stelpur in Iceland, Taefle and Fayles in England (1025), Sixe-Ace
in Spain (1251), and Tourne-case in France. The Arabian game
Nard appears to be a slightly modifed version of Tabula, perhaps
incorporating aspects of Egyptian Senet. Nard spread to the Far
East in about 220 and became widely popular. Chinese tradition
attributes the invention of Nard to western India. The considerable
diversity of these types of games, called race games by Bell,
all center around common themes of play, and therefore parallel
development and mutual interchange of ideas over the millennia
may preclude assignment of absolute credit.
The general principles of these race-type
games are well known, and detailed explanations exist in Medieval
documents for some of the European variants. Our knowledge of
the rules of Tabula, however, comes primarily from the record
of a game played by the emperor Zeno in 480, which is illustrated
above. Zeno found himself in such a remarkably untenable position,
that the details of the game have been preserved by posterity.
Zeno, playing white, threw a 2/5/6 with the dice and was forced
to break up his three pairs, as his men were blocked across the
board. No other moves were possible, and the result is ruinous
Tabula is the gambling game of which the
Emperor Claudius was most fond. Around the year 50, Claudius
wrote a history of the game of Tabula which, unfortunately, has
not survived. His imperial carriage was equipped with an alveus,
a Tabula playing board, so that he could play while travelling.
Tabula is also the game which was primarily
responsible for the gambling mania which swept Rome prior to
its being declared illegal under the Republic. The fine for gambling
at any other time except the Saturnalia was four times the stakes,
although this law was only weakly and sporadically enforced.
The gaming pieces used in Tabula were evidently
the same as the bone roundels used in other games such as Duodecim Scriptorum and Calculi. The colors seem to have
been mostly black and white, or blue and white, but some other
colors have been found. Occasionally colored glass pieces were
The Rules of Tabula
- The board, as illustrated above, can be
a backgammon board. Each player has 15 pieces.
- All pieces enter from square 1 and travel
- Three dice are thrown, and the three numbers
determine the moves of between 1 and 3 pieces.
- Any part of a throw which could not be
used was lost, but a player must use the whole value of the throw
if it is possible. Zeno's fatal situation resulted from this
- If a player landed a piece on a point
with one enemy piece, the enemy piece was removed from the board
and had to re-enter the game on the next throw.
- If a player had 2 or more men on a point,
this position was closed to the enemy, and these men could not
- No player may enter the second half of
the board until all men have entered the board.
- No player may exit the board until all
pieces have entered the last quarter. This means that if a single
man is hit, the remaining pieces may be frozen in the last quarter
until he re-enters and catches up with them again.
Romans played the Egyptian game Senet as
well, but it was probably played less than the homegrown version
Tabula or Duodecim Scriptorum. An excellent description of Senet
with sets of reconstructed rules is available at The