Colonial Gaming: In Review

Several months ago, I started writing this series about games played in Colonial America after a family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. I picked up a number of games while I was there, but noticed that very little had actually been written about what our ancestors were playing on the eve of Revolution.

In doing research, I learned that some areas of the country (such as Virginia and the south in general) were utterly mad about their games, while others (much of New England) were less so. I probably could have added one more piece on Whist (and still may), since this was one of the few games to find a foothold in New England. Whist is the mother of Bridge, so if you know Bridge already, then you have a fair sense of Whist.

It was fascinating to see the way games migrated from the old world to the new, building variations along the way. It was also interesting to see the way game materials intersected with the Revolution itself, in the form of the hated tax stamps placed on every deck of playing cards.

I’ve gathered much of my material into a long article that will run as the lead feature for the March 2011 issue of Games Magazine. This was an interesting test of the blogging process for me, as I researched and posted things in real time over a period of months, allowing me to learn and write at the same time. It worked pretty well, and I intended to do it again. In the future, I will be doing separate series about boardgame-to-app conversions and games played with European decks, such as French, Italian, Swiss, Spanish, and Tarot cards. (Tarot decks were invented for playing games, not for dubious fortune-telling practices.) If you have any thoughts about how all this came together, good or bad, please feel free to share.

Here’s the entire series at a glance:
A Card Game for the Lower Classes: Put
A Card Game for the Upper Classes: Loo and How to Play Loo
A Pair of Abstract Strategy Games: Fox & Geese and Nine Men’s Morris
Early Playing Cards from I. Kirk and I. Hardy
The Game of Goose: An Early Board Game
Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, and Other Board Games
“I catch you without green!”
Hazard: Colonial Craps
Introductions are here and here


This Thanksgiving week, I’m concluding the series on Colonial Gaming with an item that would have gotten you stocked if you played it in front of our Pilgrim forebears. Hazard is, essentially, craps, and it was probably the most played “game” in both the New World and the Old.

Dice go back at least 5,000 years, and almost certainly much further. They were highly portable, easy to make, and provided a regular medium for gambling, which has always been a popular recreation. The Pilgrims frowned on dice not merely as part of their general prohibition on gambling and frivolous games, but because they would have associated them with the lots cast by the Roman soldiers for the garments of Jesus. Other regions of America, however, embraced dicing with a passion, and wherever common people gathered, dice appeared sooner or later.

There’s no telling just when the game of Hazard first emerged in Europe and England. Geoffrey Chaucer showed a ready familiarity with it, so we can place it in England at least as early as the 14th century, and almost certainly earlier. In the Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer plays on the words “chance” and “hazard” several times, and makes an explicit reference to the game itself.

And if a prince plays similar hazardry 

In all his government and policy, 

He loses in the estimate of men 

His good repute, and finds it not again.

 And later:

And when he came, he noticed there, by chance, 

All of the greatest people of the land 

Playing at hazard there on every hand. 

And again, as part of a list of sins

O cursed sin, full of abominableness! 

O treacherous homicide! O wickedness! 

O gluttony, lechery, and hazardry! 

O blasphemer of Christ with villainy 

So hazard = not good. Check. (Although I’m pleased to see that “abominableness” is a real word.)

The word hazard comes to us from the Spanish word azar, meaning a “bad roll of the dice.” The word stopped off in France to pick up a final letter D before arriving in England via the French courts. Yes, our word “hazard,” meaning “potential danger,” comes from the name of this game.

Playing Hazard 
As with modern craps, Hazard is driven by bets placed on the likelihood of certain rolls. One player rolls at a time, using two dice.

Before the player rolls, he picks a main, which is a number between 5 and 9.

If he rolls the main, he wins. This is called throw in, or in, or nick.

If he rolls a 2 or a 3, he loses instantly. This is called throw out, or out.

The other combinations are contingent upon the main itself. They break down this way:

If the main is a 5, then 5 is in, and 2, 3, 11, or 12 are out.

If the main is a 6, then 6 or 12 are in, and 2, 3, or 11 are out.

If the main is a 7, then 7 or 11 are in, and 2, 3, or 12 are out.

If the main is a 8, then 8 or 12 are in, and 2, 3, or 11 are out.

If the main is a 9, then 9 is in, and 2, 3, 11, or 12 are out.

If the roll is neither in nor out, the number thrown becomes the chance.

On the next roll, the chance wins and the main now becomes a losing number. The roller keeps going until he hits the main or the chance, and then the dice are passed.

Wagering is done by the player and the observers at various stages and at various odds, with people betting either for or against the next roll of the dice. 

There is a straight line between Hazard and modern casino craps, so remember when you’re sweating over the Pass/Don’t Pass line that our forefathers were doing the same thing hundreds of years ago.

And if you’re utterly sure you have a foolproof system for beating craps … you don’t. No, really, you don’t. (And if your theory includes the names “Pascal” or “Fermat,” then you really don’t.) All of the odds set by a casino for each roll are set below the actual odds for the roll itself. The odds are better if you know what you are doing, but there is no casino game in which you can fully bend the odds in your favor. The house always has the advantage. 

Most “systems” are based on what’s called the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is this idea that someone who stays in a game long enough will eventually find probability turning in their favor. Probability is not cumulative. It resets itself with each roll of the dice. A gambler with a system always thinks he’s “due” for a hit after a long series of misses. If the chances of flipping heads on a coin are 50/50 for the first flip, and you get tails, that doesn’t mean they’re 60/40 for the second flip. But that’s the way many gamblers approach their games.

Here’s an example just from yesterday. My daughter and I were waiting for people to join a game. We drew through an entire deck of cards, with high card winning. That’s 26 draws for each of us. We “should” have each drawn 13 high cards. I drew no high cards. She drew 26. As Ralph Wiggums would say, “That’s unpossible!” 

Consider this: I know games inside and out, and I never bet money in a casino unless I’m just enjoying the process of being there and willing to pay for the pleasure of a hyperoxygenated atmosphere and $10 beers. Skill does matter. Skill can improve your odds, but it never tilts them wholly in your favor. And casinos don’t trade in games of pure skill: they trade in games where luck dominates. There’s a reason casinos don’t have chess or backgammon tables. It’s the same reason that neither chess nor backgammon were all that popular in Colonial times. These are games where skill outweighs chance, and, like modern casinos, early Americans didn’t favor games of skill. They only found real excitement when chance and luck were involved.

COLONIAL GAMING: Other Board Games

Ben Franklin’s Chess Set

Colonial Americans knew most of the ancient board games familiar to us today. Some were more popular than others due to various factors. To appeal to Colonials, games had to be easy to play and fairly sociable. They needed to play quickly so that many rounds could be squeezed into a single evening. This was almost certainly related to gambling, since games that played quickly allowed for faster turn-over and more chance to wager, even if it was just for miniscule pots. Finally, gamers of the 18th century preferred chance over strategy. Their passion for cards and dice was very high, while games that lacked this random element tended to bore them.

Chess, for instance, was considered exceptionally boring. Charles Cotton, author of The Complete Gamester (1674) found it tedious and “more difficult to be understood than any other game whatever.”

Due to its length and reliance on skill rather than chance, it also makes a very poor gambling game, which certainly added to its unpopularity. There were surely a number of chess sets in America in the 18th century, but oddly enough only a few survived, including two owned by Thomas Jefferson and one by Ben Franklin.

Franklin almost certainly was the man who brought Chess to America. He was playing by 1733, and wrote an important essay on the game. His efforts to popularize it didn’t spread far beyond members of the Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, however.

Checkers (Draughts) 
Although it was also known to the colonists, Checkers was as unpopular as Chess. The rules in use would have been similar to English Draughts. These are the same rules we use today in Checkers, rather than the rules for Spanish or French Draughts, or other variations.

Whatever they called it, it wasn’t nearly as popular as it was to become later.

The game does show up in Virginia court records, however. In 1679, Mr. John Edwards and a servant were arrested and put before the grand jury because they played Checkers on a Sunday.

Backgammon had a bit of a following in the Colonies for a simple reason: it used dice, which promised chance, which meant it was a good game for betting. Many Backgammon tables appear in Colonial inventories, and Backgammon games (and monetary losses) are mentioned in many diaries of the period. Thomas Jefferson played, and would win or lose several shillings in a session.

In Colonial Virginians at Play, Jane Carson describes the variants used at the time:

In the French versions, tric-trac or tick-trac, all the men started from the ace-point and penalties were different. Sice-ace was a modification for five players, each using six men. In dubblets the fifteen men used were placed differently on the tables, and in ketch-dolt all the men were piled in the center of the board. 

Although very popular in France, Dominos didn’t make any impression in America until the 19th century. In 1801, it was still considered a “childish sport” by one writer of the time, who also noted that it “could have nothing but the novelty to recommend it to the notice of grown person in this country.”

COLONIAL GAMING: The Game of Goose

One of the most popular boardgames in Colonial Amerca was The Royall & Pleasant Game of Y Goose.” Commonly known as “The Game of Goose,” it uses a custom board depicting a circular track divided into 63 spaces. Two or more people roll dice and move markers along the track in a race to the finish. If they hit space illustrated with a goose, they move the same number of spaces again. Landing on illustrations, such as a maze, prison, or death, sends a player backwards to a certain space.

And, yes, I basically just described Candyland.

This was not a kid’s game, however. It was played and enjoyed adults, and was a very popular gambling game. As I’ve written in earlier entries in this series, most Colonials outside of certain regions in New England were compulsive gamblers, much like their British cousins. It would probably shock modern Americans to know just how common and widespread gambling was in the original colonies. George Washington himself lost large sums at the Loo table.

Just imagine people sitting down after an evening meal to hustle games of Candyland for wagers equal to hundreds of dollars in today’s money, and you can get idea of what The Game of Goose was like in 18th century American.

The Game of Goose first enters the scene during the reign of Francesco de Medici in Florence, 1574-1587. Francesco sent a copy to the court of Spain’s King Philip II, where its rapid pace and sudden changes of fortune made it a huge success. On June 16th, 1597, the game was entered in the Register of the Stationer’s Hall in London as “the newe and most pleasant game of the Goose.”

The first Goose boards were a cardboard base with a drawn or painted spiral course. The squares were illustrated with various ornaments, such as dice, an inn, a bridge, a maze, and multiple geese.

After the game caught on in England during the 17th century, boards became increasingly more elaborate. The game track was seen as a progression through life itself, with some boards depicting the first space as an infant and the last as a man entering the gates of heaven at square 63. Each space in between showed the baby aging through different stages, such as the Thoughtless Boy, the Negligent Boy, the Youth, the Indolent Youth, the Obstinate Youth, and so on.

Some believe the 63 squares are meant to represent the 63 years of the average lifespan at the time. It’s a nice idea, but the average lifespan in 16th century Italy—when the game was invented—was about 47 years.

Goose was also an early example of theming. Years before Spongebob Monopoly and Shrek Concentration, there were versions of Goose based upon the news of the day, such as the French Revolution, the Dreyfus Affair, political campaigns, romantic entanglements of the upper classes, and even World War I.

Parents adapted the game for children’s use as teaching tool. There were versions that illustrated various travels in order to teach geography, virtues and vices, the stages of life, Aesop’s Fables, and the entire plot of Don Quixote. Yes, 300 years before Harry Potter Clue there was Don Quixote Goose. The various traps and bonuses could be tied to any kind of failure/advancement, wrong/right theme.

By 1819, Lord Byron would reference the game in his epic poem, Don Juan: 

For good society is but a game,

‘The royal game of Goose,’ as I may say, 

Where every body has some separate aim,

An end to answer, or a plan to lay

Like other British amusements, the game migrated to American during the Colonial period, and was still very popular as the Colonies headed towards Revolution. By 1895, the University of Pennsylvania listed 146 different editions in its collection, some of them from China and Japan.

Dietz Press produces a handsome reproduction print of a typical Colonial Goose board. It sells for abut $8, but is only available in 2 stores at Williamsburg itself, or through their Teaching Resources catalog for $9.50

Sources: Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play. Frederic V. Grunfeld, Games of the World. H. Peter Aleff,

COLONIAL GAMING: I. Kirk Playing Cards

For the previous entry on Colonial playing cards, see this post on the I. Hardy Great Mogul deck.

In addition to the I. Hardy reproduction playing cards produced for Colonial Williamsburg, there is also a reproduction of the “Aesop’s Fables” deck made by I. Kirk in the 18th century. Or, as the label calls them, “SUPERFINE HARRY THE VIII CARDS.”

As with the I. Hardy deck, this one is wrapped in a reproduction of the royal tax stamp, complete with an embossed seal and threat of Dire Consequences for anyone who sells the deck without the stamp. In this case, the penalty is “X Pounds Duty pr. pack Penalty If Sold Unlabelled.” (Remember: that would have been about 1/3rd of the average middle-class annual salary.)

The card wrapper is even more serious about where and when you use and sell these cards. Under a truly awful portrait of a truly awful man (King Henry VIII) is the warning “For exportation. Fifty pounds penalty is relanded [in an English port], and twenty pounds penalty if sold or used in Great Britain.” 

The cards themselves are excellent examples of the printer’s art for the time. Although each card is crowded with text and imagery to the point of distraction, they are quite well made. The actual playing card element is limited to a postage-stamp-sized image crowded, almost as an afterthought, into the upper lefthand corner. The rest of the card is given over to an illustration of one of Aesop’s Fables, along with a little doggerel verse and a two-line moral. As with almost all cards of the period, the backs are blank.
Click to enlarge


Fox & Geese is another ancient game that followed a winding road to the New World. It’s usually classed as a “Tafl” game, which is a category of games in which the sides are unevenly matched. The games derive their name from a cluster of Icelandic games related to Hnefatafl, but in fact “tafl” just means “board” or “table.” It’s a word found in various Germanic languages, and is often used as a suffix in games as diverse as Halatafl (an early version of Backgammon) and Skáktafl (a kind of Chess).

Over the years, “Tafl” just came to mean any game where one side outnumbers another, with the weaker side having different movement rules or victory conditions. Technically, they’re called “asymmetrical abstract strategy games.” These are classed as “hunt” games, and usually feature some kind of force (fox, wolf, king) trying to elude or eliminate a larger force (geese, hare, soldiers). The first reference appears in the Icelandic Sagas around 1300 AD, but the games are no doubt older than this. The earliest English reference to a game like Fox & Geese comes from the household inventory of King Edward IV (1461-1470), where his account books list an order for “two foxis and 26 hounds in silver overgilt.” It was not unusual for the “geese” to be called “hounds.” (There’s also a game called Fox & Hounds, but that’s a different beast.)

Although there’s no written or archeological record for either the origin of Tafl games or their migration to England, we can always speculate. The Viking raids on Britain ended, oddly enough, in the very busy year of 1066, when the Norsemen were defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Once the Norse were shoved out the back door, the Normans came in the front door, and stuck around a little while. (Like, forever.) Since the Normans were descended from the Norse, we can speculate that Tafl games might have found their way to Britain through either source. Either way, it’s wholly possible that Halatafl, the game most like Fox & Geese, might have been in Britain as early as the 11th century.

Some of my own ancestors (the de Suttons) arrived with the Normans, and their descendants found their way to American soil in the 17th century. This is how folk culture migrates. The Norse conquer Northern France, intermarry, and create lots of little Normans. The Normans conquer Britain. The English colonize America. The Americans drive off the English. Along the way, they carry their games with them to pass the time, transmitting them across the space of a thousand years to the point where I buy a small portable set in a gift shop in Williamsburg and play the game in a Colonial tavern with my kids while waiting for our meals to arrive. Cultural migration and transmission is not particularly mysterious, but it is fascinating.

In any case, by the 18th century we find Fox & Geese well and truly entrenched among the colonials. It was a popular board game, although one generally favored by children rather than adults.

Colonial children also used their Fox & Geese boards to play Solitaire, a jumping game in which a marble is placed on every space save one. The goal is to eliminate as many marbles as possible by hopping. If you’ve ever eaten in a Cracker Barrel, you’ve probably played a version using golf tees on a triangular piece of wood.

How to Play

The rules of Fox & Geese evolved over the centuries, but the version played in Colonial America was probably the 1 fox, 13 geese version, which is the one most popular today. It’s played on a cruciform board with 33 spaces. Most boards use marbles for pieces and an indented playing surface to keep them from rolling all over the place. The geese are arranged on one side of the board, with no gaps between the pices. The fox is place near the middle. It can also be played using 17 geese.

The player controlling the geese needs to surround the fox so that he can no longer move. This is commonly done by cornering him and surrounding him on all sides. The player controlling the fox has to avoid being cornered long enough to reduce the number of geese to the point where cornering is no longer possible.

To accomplish this, each side has different movement rules.

The fox can move one space in any direction. If he is capable of jumping over a goose, that goose is “killed” and removed from the board. He may also double-jump, capturing two or more geese in a sequence of jumps, just like checkers. There are no forced jumps.

The geese, on the other hand, may only move forward or to the side. They may not move backwards. They also cannot capture. (After all, they’re geese. Their much feared Honking and Nipping Attacks really don’t bother a fox all that much.) Their strategy is to herd the fox into a corner before he can escape or jump.

Most commentators consider the goose to be the favored side, with the fox unable to win if played correctly.

Halatafl board discovered in Viking ruins, Ballinderry, Ireland


Call me … Pam

The invaluable David Parlett has helped to codify these rules for modern play based on a variety of sources. If you have even passing interest in the subject, his book, The Penguin Book of Card Games, is a must-have.

For a bit of history, read this post.

The first thing to understand is that 5-card Loo is not 3-card Loo with 2 additional cards. It has a few of its own rules and peculiarities.

An interesting feature of 5-card Loo is “Pam,” which is the game’s name for the Jack of Clubs. “Pam” beats any other card in the deck. Its name is short for Pamphilus (meaning “friend of all”), a rakish character of the middle ages. A popular comic poem about him was published in a slim book called Pamphilus, seu de Amore, thus giving us the word “pamphlet.” Parlett considers “Pam” to be a predecessor of the latter-day Joker cards.

Both games are trick-taking games with a betting element, and have several particulars in common. Some kind of betting pool is formed at the center of the table, and people are dealt cards. After looking at their hands, players can continue or fold. If they continue, they must win at least one trick. The pool is split among the winners, and the losers (people who take no tricks) must form the pot for the next round.

With that out of the way, let’s look at how to play them both.

Loo  (3 card)

Number of Players
Three-card Loo can be played by as few as 4 or as many as 17 players, but the optimal amount is 5-7 players.


Everyone begins the game with an equal number of chits. Deal rotates each turn to Eldest (the player to the left of the dealer). The dealer stakes the pot with 3 chits, then deals 3 cards to each player and 3 extra cards to the “Miss,” which is an extra hand.

After the deal, one card is turned face up to determine trump.

At this point, players can opt to fold, continue with their hand, or take the “Miss.”

  • If they fold, they incur no loss. 
  • If they continue, they contract to win at least 1 trick. 
  • The first player also has the option of discarding his hand and claiming the “Miss.” If he does so, then he may not drop out. Only one person can claim the Miss. If the first player declines the Miss, then the next player in turn has the option of claiming it.

At this point, if everyone passes, the dealer wins the pool. If everyone passes except the dealer and the person who claimed the Miss, the claimer wins the pool.

Eldest (the person to the left of the dealer) leads the play. If he has the Ace of Trumps, he must lead with it. If not, then he must lead with his highest trump or highest card.

Players follow in turn, and must play a winning card if they have one. In card terminology, this is called to “head” a trick, and it means that if you have a card that can win a trick (either the highest suit or trump), then you must play it.

The trick is taken by the highest card in the suit led, or the highest trump.

The other two tricks are played in the same way.

Each trick won is worth 1/3rd of the pot. The player or players loo’d (meaning they played out the hand but earned no tricks) has to pay 3 chits, which carry over to the next pot. Since each dealer in turn will also stake the pot, the pot can grow quickly.

Unlimited Loo Variant
The version most commonly played in the 18th century probably was “Unlimited Loo.” In this version, each player who is loo’d must play the amount that was in the pot at the beginning of the hand. If there’s only a single bet in the pot, no one can pass. Thus, if 2 players are loo’d in a 5-handed game, the pot doubles.

Loo (5 card)
Number of Players
Five to ten can play. Everyone should have an equal number of chits.

Same as 3-card Loo, with the following exceptions. The Jack of Spades is called “Pam,” and beats every card in the deck.

As with the 5-card version, the dealer stakes the pot, only this time with 5 chits instead of 3. Likewise, he deals 5 cards to each player, then turns up a final card to determine trumps.

Play is conducted like 3-card Loo, with a few changes. 

As with 3-card Loo, players decide to pass or play. If they play, they must win at least one trick.

The biggest difference is that a flush takes all tricks automatically. (Pam may be used as a wild card in order to create a flush.) In the case of multiple flushes, the trump flush wins, followed by the flush with the highest card. The owner of the flush wins the pot without any tricks being played. The entire table is thus loo’d, and must pay the stake.

There is no Miss.

Before the first trick is play, players may discard and draw replacements. Play then proceeds to the left.

Players follow in order, and must play a winning card if they have one. If Pam is led, then they must play trumps if they have them. (Players can’t just play their junk when Pam is led: they still have to play their highest appropriate cards, and must play trumps if they can.)

The trick is taken by the highest card in the suit led, the highest trump, or Pam.

The other 4 tricks are played in the same way.

Each trick won is worth 1/5th of the pot.The player or players loo’d (meaning they played out the hand but earned no tricks) has to play 5 chits to stake the next pot.

COLONIAL GAMING: Loo and the Upper Classes

Loo fish: the Poker chip of Colonial America

Young George Washington’s losses for an evening of Loo in 1749 totaled five shillings—an average expenditure from a sum that he periodically devoted to cards, theater tickets, and other amusements.
      Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play

While Put was the favored gambling game of the lower classes, the Colonial gentry preferred to lose their money at Loo. Although George Washington’s later account books only tally his losses “at Cards,” his early account books actually mention Loo by name. For the years 1772-1774, as Revolution was brewing, he recorded £78.5 lost and £72.2.6 won at the card table, and we can assume these totals were probably from playing Loo. (This was a large amount of money, by the way: several years salary for some at the time.)

Loo is a tricky game to write about because there are two fairly distinct versions, and myriad variants and alternate descriptions. It emerged on the scene in England around the time of the Restoration (late 17th century), and had its origin in France.

From England, it followed the Colonists to the New World, and took hold among the upper classes in colonies where the Anglican English influence was dominant. (Card games didn’t take root in Puritan English colonies, and Dutch, French, Spanish, and German regions had their own games.)

By the middle of the 18th century, the game was so popular that special tables were designed. These tables were round and often included small depressions or grooves for holding the betting chits, which were made of ivory or mother-of-pearl. These chits were often shaped like fish, and thus the depressions came to be known as “fish ponds.” They were the precursor of the poker table, and no decent home would be without one. Some types of early card tables are still called “loo tables,” even if they don’t include the indentations.

When it comes to trying to convey a set of rules, Loo is a moving target. Fiddly details rapidly pile on and confuse the issue. This is made more difficult by the infinitely multiplying variants and additional rules that cling to this game like lampreys.

There are two main versions, a 3-card and a 5-card, and I will describe them both. It’s hard to say which of the two was dominant in Colonial America, but given the size of monetary losses recorded in association with Loo, they probably played 3-card Unlimited Loo, which is a more uncompromising gambling game.

Both games are trick-taking games with a betting element, and have several particulars in common. Some kind of betting pool is formed at the center of the table, and people are dealt cards. After looking at their hands, players can continue or fold. If they continue, they must win at least one trick. The pool is split among the winners, and the losers (people who take no tricks) must form the pot for the next round.

A looser is said to be “loo’d,” which is short for Lanterloo, the actual name of the game. “Lanterloo” is a kind of baby gibberish/lullaby sung to small children, akin to the “lully, lullay” refrain from “The Coventry Carol.” Most likely, it was meant derisively in the context of the game, particularly since a person who was repeatedly loo’d could find himself deep in the hole after only a few hands.

How to play Loo.

Sources: Parlett, David: Oxford Guide to Card Games. Carson, Jane, Colonial Virginians at Play.

Colonial Gaming: Nine Men’s Morris

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.

Colonial Gaming: "I catch you without green!"

During my research on Colonial gaming, I came across a bizarre item that I had to share.

In the late-19th century, folklorists discovered an unusual children’s game that was found in certain areas of North and South Carolina, and nowhere else.

William Wells Newell describes the game in Games and Songs of American Children (1888):

In parts of Georgia and South Carolina, as soon as a group of girls are fairly out of the house for a morning’s play, one suddenly points the finger at a companion with the exclamation, “Green!” The child so accosted must then produce some fragment of verdure–the leaf of a tree, a blade of grass, etc.–from the apparel or else pay forfeit … It is rarely, therefore, that a child will go abroad without a bit of ‘green,’ the practice almost amounting to a superstition. The object of each is to make the rest believe that the required piece of verdure has been forgotten, and yet to keep it at hand.

When researchers dug a little deeper, they realized that they were seeing a version of a game that was unique to France, and popular from the 13th to 14th centuries. (It was even mentioned by Rabelais.)

Newell describes the original French game as one played by adults during Lent, after the singing of the Angelus. It went like this:

If any lady accost you and shows you her bough, you must immediately exhibit yours. If you have not such a one, or if your green is of a shade less rich than your adversary’s, you lose a point; in case of doubt, the matter is referred to an umpire.

The phrase said to the loser gave the game its name: “I catch you without green!” (“Je vous prends sans vert”).

The punishment for losing was to have a pail of water dumped over your head, or else a pay fine. (Money from the fines was supposedly deposited in a fund to provide a “merry repast” for the village.)

How did a medieval French game survive only in scattering of counties in the Carolinas from the Colonial period to at least the late 20th century?

Simple: some Huguenot families left France and settled in that region of America during the 18th century. The custom had survived in their region of France, and crossed the pond to take root in the New World. American culture and language are full of things that survived here after they faded away in their country of origin.