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Roman Board Games
by Wally J. Kowalski


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 for white.

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 used.

The Rules of Tabula

  1. The board, as illustrated above, can be a backgammon board. Each player has 15 pieces.
  2. All pieces enter from square 1 and travel counterclockwise.
  3. Three dice are thrown, and the three numbers determine the moves of between 1 and 3 pieces.
  4. 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 rule.
  5. 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.
  6. If a player had 2 or more men on a point, this position was closed to the enemy, and these men could not be captured.
  7. No player may enter the second half of the board until all men have entered the board.
  8. 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 Game Cabinet.

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