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Tabula: a strategic 2-player Roman board and dice game

Picture yourself planning for a Year 8 class in the final period of the day. It’s the second last week of term and everyone has finished their exams and have mentally started their holidays already. The class includes several (loud, influential) students who are not continuing Latin next year. They’ve probably been watching videos all day and I don’t want to contribute more to that. What do you do with them?

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Pieces from the Gloucester Tabula board. Source: [Link]

How about play a strategic ancient Roman board and dice game?

Tabula was enjoyed for hundreds of years during the Roman period. It similar to Backgammon and relatively easy to explain.

For your convenience I have found here a version of Tabula which is playable, fun, and well explained. I’ve also made a printable board for it.

Equipment

  • Game board
  • 3 x dice (3x d6)
  • 15 x game tokens of one colour
  • 15 x game tokens of another colour

Printable Game Board

tabula board anticlockwise

Formats:

I have based this board on the Masters Traditional Games’s version of the rules. Multiple rulesets exist, including ones with different entry points and play direction. Our knowledge of the rules is based partly on speculation, partly on squinting at surviving boards, and partly on deduction from a single Byzantine poem, so we cannot be definitively sure about what is the most authentic version of the game. Just to be safe, I’ve made the editable word doc version of the play board available if you want to fit it to your preferred ruleset.

The Play

Credit to Masters Traditional Games for this explanation: [Link].

Pieces are entered on the board to the player’s near left and travel around the board in an anti-clockwise direction. Players take turns to roll the dice and move the pieces accordingly. Each throw of the three dice gives three corresponding moves. The player can choose to move one piece three times, three pieces once each or one piece twice and another piece once. A player must use as much of the dice throw as possible. Any part of the throw that cannot be moved is abandoned.

If a player has two men on the same point, it is safe from attack and an opposing piece cannot move onto that point. If a single piece occupies a point and a piece from the opposing player lands upon the same point, the single piece is captured, removed from the board and must restart its journey.

Pieces can be borne off the board only once all that player’s pieces are in the final quarter of the board. If pieces have started to be borne off the board and then one is captured, bearing off can only continue once that piece has moved back into the final quarter. A piece on the final point of the circuit can only be borne off with a move of 1, off the penultimate point with a throw of 2 and so on up to 6.

The first player to bear off all pieces wins.

This is not the only possible ruleset for the game. As there is no definitive ruleset, you can add house rules such as “you can only move your pieces once you have placed them all on the board” if you find it more fun that way.

Logistics

If you’re playing this with a class of 20 students forming 10 pairs, you will need:

  • 30 dice
  • 10 copies of the game board (and printouts of the rules)
  • 300 tokens (150 per colour of two colours)

Options for getting 300 tokens include:

  • distributing coloured paper to the students to cut out 15 tokens each
  • Printing out a template of 15 black and 15 white tokens for students to cut
  • sitting at a guillotine and pre-cutting a lot of coloured squares of paper
  • borrowing a lot of checkers tokens
  • stealing a lot of coloured counters from your primary school teacher friends
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My version of the game, with pre-cut tokens

Alternatively, you can have one giant game with your students by projecting the game board picture onto your whiteboard and using magnets as tokens. You will need a lot of magnets (30).

Archaeological finds of Tabula

Playing this game makes me very interested in seeing what the ancient boards looked like. Here are some key finds of Tabula boards and pieces:

Gloucester Tabula Set

Dating to around AD 1100 and discovered in Gloucester at the site of Norman Castle, this board is interesting in having a design that is transitional between Roman and modern Backgammon boards. The “points” where pieces were placed are kind of pointy-roundy like sausages at one end, which is halfway between the square points of the Roman boards and the triangular points of modern Backgammon.

Full board view

Image source: [Link]

More about the Gloucester Tabula Set.

Medieval illustration of Tabula players

This scene is from the 13th century manuscript, Carmina Burana, which contains a collection of poems from 11-13th century. This medieval Tabula board looks a lot like a modern Backgammon board with triangular points.

Carmina Burana Tabula players

Image source: [Link]

Game of 12 Lines board (Ludus duodecim scriptorum)

Not the same game as Tabula, but thought to be direct ancestor of it, the ludus duodecim scriptorum was a game played on a board with three rows of 12 marks, which are presumably places to put the pieces. The ruleset is more or less unknown.

This particular specimen was carved in stone and discovered in the agora of Aphrodisias. I haven’t come across a source for its presumed date.

800px-Roman_Game_of_12_Lines_Board_-_Aphrodisias

Image source: [Link]

Conclusions

If you played this game with your students or fellow Roman enthusiasts, how did it go? I’m still getting used to the strategy for it but I can definitely say this was a good experience. I’m hoping that my students can better empathise with the people of the past and their urge to exercise the mind in strategy games.

About Carla Hurt

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child." - Cicero, Ad Brutum. Carla is a secondary school Latin teacher. In 2013, she finished first-class Honours in Classics, writing a thesis on accusations of impiety among philosophers in Greece and Republican Rome. She loves ancient art, ancient history, theology and pretty much anything to do with the Romans.

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