Nine Men’s Morris is an ancient game, popular in Ancient Rome. This game is known by many names, such as Mill or Windmill, most probably, because the shape of the board looks like a windmill, and Merrels, from the Latin word merellus, which means “gaming piece”. The name Nine Men’s Morris seems to have been originated by Shakespeare in his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene I), in which Titania refers to such a board by saying, “The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud”.
Nine Men’s Morris is a strategy game, which has been described by some who have played it as a complex tic tac toe for adults. That’s because, much like tic tac toe, one theme of the game is forming rows of three on the board. However, unlike tic tac toe, it doesn’t have a single “winning” strategy. Instead, it’s a complex game where winning depends on the ability of the player to truly strategize and adjust to the other player’s moves.
Each row of three in Nine Men’s Morris is called a mill. They’re a way to achieve the removal of the other player’s pieces. Even after all of the pieces are placed on the board, the players try to move them from one position to another, in order to form more mills. The end goal is to remove enough of the opposite player’s pieces until they can no longer form a mill under any circumstances—i.e. to reduce their pieces to no more than two.
Nine Men’s Morris: History
This game has been around so long that its origins have been lost to history. Not only is it an ancient game, but it appears to be incredibly widespread. The pattern for the board used to play Nine Men’s Morris has been found in Egypt’s ancient city of Kurna. It’s also been found in Bronze Age sites in Ireland’s Cr Bri Chualann in County Wicklow. With such widespread and ancient representation, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know its precise origins. What we do know is that the game was well-loved in medieval times, spread across the three continents of the old world, and had a wide player base. Monks and priests seemed to have been particular fans of the game, considering that its board pattern can be found carved into stone and wooden fixtures in both their abbeys and their cathedrals.
During the Renaissance, the game found its way to a whole New World, quite literally, since it made its way to the Americas, where even the indigenous cultures adopted it. However, its popularity began to decline soon after, for unknown reasons. The game has never quite given up its spotlight and it remains a well-loved pastime for those who love to explore new (and ancient) games, beyond the mainstream.
Nine Men’s Morris: Rules
Since the game’s inception, the board appears not to have changed at all. Even more intriguing, its rules (at least from the oldest recording of them) appear to have changed very little. This speaks to just how robust the game is. There is some contention around certain rules or how they are interpreted, particularly the third phase. However, even where the interpretation of these rules is contested, the game’s overall stability is impressive.
There are two players in the game. The board consists of a grid design that features 3 concentric squares. There are lines connecting each of the 24 intersections, and it is in this intersections that a piece can be placed. Each player has 9 pieces, known as “men.” Each players’ pieces are one color so that the pieces are easily identified. The purpose of the game is to form “mills,” which are 3 pieces in one row connected by the line. Pieces may be in horizontal or vertical lines, but cannot be at a 90-degree angle to one another.
Here are the rules in more detail:
The board begins with no pieces on it. There are two colors assigned to the pieces, one for each player. Each player receives nine pieces, which they hold in their hand. The pieces are traditionally black and white.
Phase One: Placing the men on the board.
The first play of the game is made by a player chosen by either agreement or lot, such as the toss of a coin. There are 3 phases of the game, and this marks the beginning of the first phase. The player can place his black piece on any empty spot in the game. Once his piece is placed, the white player may place one of their own. They continually alternate placing pieces until all 18 pieces are on the board. This ends the first phase of the game. During this phase, the players will attempt to prevent their opponent from forming a mill. If they do form a mill, they can remove one of their opponent’s pieces from the board, as long as it is not part of a mill. If all of the opponent’s pieces are in mills, they cannot be removed. If a player is able to form more than one mill in a single move by placing their pieces carefully, they can remove as many of their opponent’s pieces as the number of mills they formed. The act of removing one of the opponent’s pieces is called pounding.
Phase Two: Moving the men on the board.
The second phase of the game begins when all pieces have been placed and the first player moves one of his pieces to another empty slot. Again, play alternates between the black pieces and the white pieces, with one move from each player per round.
Generally speaking, the movement of the pieces is constrained by two factors:
Where the piece currently is
What empty slots are available along the marked lines of the board.
That is, a piece can be moved to the next available empty slot along the marked line where it is already placed. Pieces cannot be stacked two to a slot, regardless of color.
Only mills made in that turn result in capture. In order to make a capture, the player must form a mill that round. Simply allowing mills to idle on the board will not allow the player to capture additional pieces from their opponent.
Phase Three: Flying the men across the board (optional)
One exception to the movement of the pieces can occur when the player has only three pieces remaining on the board. If this is the case, they are not confined to adjacent empty slots along the same marked line but may move a piece to any empty slot on the board. This is called “flying.”
The game concludes when one player has only two pieces remaining, which makes it impossible for that player to continue to attempt to form mills. Another possible conclusion can occur when a player’s pieces are all “trapped.” That is if they have no empty slots along the marked lines of their pieces that they can move to. When this happens, their opponent is declared the winner.
Nine Men’s Morris is an engaging strategy game because both of its phases are equally important. In the first phase, the players should be placing their pieces with their ongoing second phase strategy in mind. Ideally, they should prevent their opponent from making mills, while still making it easy for they themselves to form mills in the second phase.
Nine Men’s Morris is a game of pure strategy, with no luck component, as it does not rely on the use of dice or other types of chance. In the first phase of the game, it is more strategic to place the pieces in locations that will help during the second phase, rather than immediately attempting to form mills. Dispersing the pieces across the board is a better strategy than concentrating them in a single location. The ideal position is one where the player can shuttle a single piece between two mills so that they can remove an opponent’s piece each turn.
This game’s longevity should be considered a great endorsement of how entertaining it is!