What Planet is This?

09 Jul 2005

Nine Men's Morris

Nine Men's Morris, often called Merrills, Merels, Mills, or any of thousands of other names, is a board game for two players with a very long history. The pattern of the board has been found at a temple in Kurna, Egypt, dated to 1440 BC. Other ancient boards appear in Troy, Athens, and Ireland, and a board from the 10th century was found on the Viking ship Gokstad. Pickering Church has a board carved on top of a stone pillar, probably used by masons before they raised it, and there was a board carved into the top of a barrel on the 16th century Mary Rose.

The earliest mention of the game under any name in English appears to be from John Gower's Confessio Amantis in c.1393, where according to the OED he says "So that under the clerkes lawe, Men sen the Merel al mysdrawe". This poem was, Gower states, commissioned by Richard II who wanted Gower to write a poem "for England's sake".

Shakespeare was the first person to use the name Nine Men's Morris for the game, in A Midsummer Night's Dream II.i, with Titania saying that "The nine mens Morris is fild vp with mud". This passage has been taken as evidence that the play was written after the bad weather of 1594, probably in the winter of 1594-1595. It also shows that the game was played outside, trowelled into the ground, or into a flagstone, or possible even in large multiplayer outdoor games.

The word "Morris" probably has the same origin as the term in Morris Dancing, i.e. from moorish, but the other terms are from the French name for a counter, merrel. Several pictures of ancient boards are presented on a mill page at the University of Waterloo.

The board itself consists of three concentric squares, with the middle of each side of the inner square being joined to the other square by another line. Boards appear to vary in their dimensions, so I tried to produce a platonic one with even spacing between all the edges. There's an overlay of the board on a grid, and the finished board. The rules are a bit difficult to summarise, but I'll try my best here:

  • Each player places a piece on one of the board's twenty-four points, the intersections and corners, in turn until each player has placed nine pieces.
  • Thereafter, each player takes turns sliding one of their pieces from one point to an empty adjacent point.
  • Whenever a player fills three connected points in a straight line, known as a mill, they must remove one of their opponent's pieces, an act called pounding. They must not pound any piece from an opponent's mill, unless all of the opponent's pieces are in mills.
  • When a player has only three pieces left, they may move their pieces to any other point on the board, not just adjacent ones. This is called flying or jumping.
  • A player wins when their opponent has two or less pieces on the board. Games may also be tied in some situations, and stalemated when one person is entirely hemmed in, which is sometimes taken as a loss for that player.

Two points of contention in the rules that must be decided before entering a game are whether the creation of two mills simultaneously in the first stage of the game results in the pounding of one or two of the opponent's pieces, and whether pieces may be pounded when they are all in mills (the rules I've given above imply that they may). Players can neither pass nor bring pounded pieces back into play.

In 1993, Ralph Morris solved Nine Men's Morris showing that a perfect game by each player would result in a draw. There are also many other variations of the game, involving differences in whether pounding may take place in the initial state of the game, nearby pieces may be jumped, and even in the designing of the board itself: there are at least six variants of the board played with anywhere between three and a dozen pieces.

The game is not as popular now as it has been in the centuries before, mainly due to the rise in Chess, Go, Draughts, and the more complex commercial dice based games, but it's just as fun to play now as it always has been.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Nine Men's Morris", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/merels


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