Morris games are among the oldest known to man. Although claims for the most ancient examples are still subject to debate, there is little question that some form of the game existed at least as far back as ancient Roman. Some have dated it even further based on carvings found in Egypt dating to to 1400BC, but the carvings themselves are difficult to date with precision.
A Bronze Age board was discovered in Ireland, possibly brought by the Greek or Phoenician traders. Ovid may have mentioned some form of the game in his Art of Love (2 AD), a board was found with a Viking king buried around 900AD, and Shakespeare mentions the game in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So: very old.
Morris is also known as Mills and Merrills, and there are a variety of similar games that share the name. All of them have a few things in common. They are played with pips, marbles, or checkers on a board. That board is comprised of crossing lines, with the markers moving from one intersection to the next. When a player aligns three of his pieces in a row, he may remove another player’s piece. The goal is to reduce the opponent to two pieces. The most common morris boards feature nested squares, with their corners and centers joined by lines.
Nine Men’s Morris is considered the standard version the game, and would have been the one played by Colonial Americans. Children may have drawn rough make-shift board on the ground and played with rocks, or draw them in chalk on a board, but dedicated wooden Morris boards, with checkers or marbles for pieces, were probably common.
|Blue moves a marble to create a Mill, which allows him to remove 1 red piece
Players alternate placing their 9 markers on the board. There are 24 junctions on a Morris board and only 18 markers, leaving some junction empty. After markers are played, players take turns moving one a time to any free, adjoining space. The goal is to get 3 in a row, thus forming a “mill.” If a player forms a mill, he can remove a player’s piece. When a player is reduced to 3 pieces, she can “fly” to any place on the board, but when only 2 are left, the game is over.
There is a modest element of strategy in Morris that requires careful observation. Initial placement is key, as you try to set up future moves while also blocking your opponent. Placing a marker so that it can move repeatedly in and out of a move is the most common strategy, and is fairly infuriating for the person at the wrong end of the move. The “flying” rules creates an intriguing strategic shift, and some weakened may just bide their time until reduce to 3 markers, and then fly into position and potentially win the game.
Morris boards are a common item in Colonial Williamsburg, and the one illustrating this article is fine example. It only costs $11, but is made of solid, durable wood. Marbles are store inside the board using plastic plugs, making the entire game quite portable.